Air-Stabilized Structures

A true membrane is able to withstand tension but is completely unable to resist bending. Although it is highly efficient structurally, like a shell, a membrane must be much thinner than a shell and therefore can be made of a very lightweight material, such as fabric, with considerable reduction in dead load compared with other types of construction. Such a thin material, however, would buckle if subjected to compression. Consequently, a true membrane, when loaded, deflects and assumes a shape that enables it to develop tensile stresses that resist the loads.
Membranes may be used for the roof of a building or as a complete exterior enclosure. One way to utilize a membrane for these purposes is to hang it with initial tension between appropriate supports. For example, a tent may be formed by supporting fabric atop one or more tall posts and anchoring the outer edges of the stretched fabric to the ground. As another example, a dish-shaped roof may be constructed by stretching a membrane and anchoring it to the inner surface of a ring girder. In both examples, loads induce only tensile stresses in the membrane.
The stresses may be computed from the laws of equilibrium, because a membrane is statically determinate.
Another way to utilize a membrane as an enclosure or roof is to pretension the membrane to enable it to carry compressive loads. For the purpose, forces may be applied, and retained as long as needed, around the edges or over the surface of the membrane to induce tensile stresses that are larger than the larger compressive stresses that loads will impose. As a result, compression due to loads will only reduce the prestress and the membrane will always be subjected only to tensile stresses.

Pneumatic Construction

A common method of pretensioning a membrane enclosure is to pressurize the interior with air. Sufficient pressure is applied to counteract dead loads, so that the membrane actually floats in space. Slight additional pressurization is also used to offset wind and other anticipated loads. Made of lightweight materials, a membrane thus can span large distances economically. This type of construction, however, has the disadvantage that energy is continuously required for operation of air compressors to maintain interior air at a higher pressure than that outdoors.
Pressure differentials used in practice are not large. They often range between 0.02 and 0.04 psi (3 and 5 psf). Air must be continually supplied, because of leakage. While there may be some leakage of air through the membrane, more important sources of air loss are the entrances and exits to the structure. Air locks and revolving doors, however, can reduce these losses.
An air-stabilized enclosure, in effect is a membrane bag held in place by small pressure differentials applied by environmental energy. Such a structure is analogous to a soap film. The shape of a bubble is determined by surface-tension forces.
The membrane is stressed equally in all directions at every point. Consequently, the film forms shapes with minimum surface area, frequently spherical. Because of the stress distribution, any shape that can be obtained with soap films is feasible for an air-stabilized enclosure. Figure 5.105c shows a configuration formed by a conglomeration of bubbles as an illustration of a shape that can be adopted for an air-stabilized structure.
In practice, shapes of air-stabilized structures often resemble those used for thinshell enclosures. For example, spherical domes (Fig. 5.105a) are frequently con structed with a membrane. Also, membranes are sometimes shaped as semi-circular cylinders with quarter-sphere ends (Fig. 5.105b).

Air-stabilized enclosures may be classified as air-inflated, air-supported, or hybrid structures, depending on the type of support.

Air-inflated enclosures are completely supported by pressurized air entrapped within membranes. There are two main types, inflated-rib structures and inflated dual-wall structures.
In inflated-rib construction, the membrane enclosure is supported by a framework of air-pressurized tubes, which serve much like arch ribs in thin-shell construction (Art. 5.15.1). The principle of their action is demonstrated by a water hose. A flexible hose, when empty, collapses under its own weight on short spans or under loads normal to its length; but it stiffens when filled with water. The water pressure tensions the hose walls and enables them to withstand compressive stresses.
In inflated dual-walled construction, pressurized air is trapped between two concentric membranes (Fig. 5.106). The shape of the inner membrane is maintained by suspending it from the outer one. Because of the large volume of air compressed between the membranes, this type of construction can span longer distances than can inflated-rib structures.
Because of the variation of air pressure with changes in temperature, provision must be made for adjustment of the pressure of the compressed air in air-inflated structures. Air must be vented to relieve excessive pressures, to prevent overtensioning of the membranes. Also, air must be added to compensate for pressure drops, to prevent collapse.
Air-supported enclosures consist of a single membrane supported by the difference between internal air pressure and external atmospheric pressure (Fig. 5.107).
The pressure differential deflects the membrane outward, inducing tensile stresses in it, thus enabling it to withstand compressive forces. To resist the uplift, the construction must be securely anchored to the ground. Also, the membrane must be completely sealed around its perimeter to prevent air leakage.
Hybrid structures consist of one of the preceding types of pneumatic construction augmented by light metal framing, such as cables. The framing may be merely a safety measure to support the membrane if pressure should be lost or a means of shaping the membrane when it is stretched. Under normal conditions, air pressure against the membrane reduces the load on the framing from heavy wind and snow loads.

Membrane Stresses

Air-supported structures are generally spherical or cylindrical because of the supporting uniform pressure.
When a spherical membrane with radius R, in, its subjected to a uniform radial internal pressure, p, psi, the internal unit tensile force, lb / in, in any direction, is given by


In a cylindrical membrane, the internal unit tensile force, lb / in, in the circumferential direction is given by


where R  radius, in, of the cylinder. The longitudinal membrane stress depends on the conditions at the cylinder ends. For example, with immovable end enclosures, the longitudinal stress would be small. If, however the end enclosure is flexible, a tension about half that given by Eq. (5.234) would be imposed on the membrane in the longitudinal direction.
Unit stress in the membrane can be computed by dividing the unit force by the thickness, in, of the membrane.