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C.A.S.T. The Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology


University of Manitoba Faculty of Architecture

Prepared by Mark West, 2009


This illustrated description shows several methods of forming prefabricated thin-shell concrete structures using molds made from hanging at sheets of fabric. These fabric sheets are allowed to deect
into naturally occurring funicular geometries, producing molds for lightweight funicular compression
vaults and stiff double curvature wall panels. These methods were developed at the Centre for Architectural Structures and Technology (C.A.S.T.) at the University of Manitobas Faculty of Architecture.
Some of the work illustrated here closely follows methods of funicular shell formation pioneered by
Heinz Isler, who used small-scale funicular models to determine full-scale construction geometry and
structural behavior of reinforced concrete thin-shells. Our work is aimed at making full-scale hanging
fabric molds using powerful industrial fabrics - essentially scaling-up Islers model-making method into
full-sized shell molds. The maximum size of these structures has yet to be determined. Our early small
full-size constructions are illustrated here as indications of the potential for self-forming funicular fabric
Our work at CAST uses a simple set of construction tools, fasteners, and technologies. We do not tailor our fabric molds into pre-set curvatures - we use only at sheets of fabric taken right off the role. The
shell geometries illustrated here are given to us by the natural deformations of these simple at-sheets,
and are, in this sense, found, natural, structures. The goal of this work is to invent simple, and beautiful structures that consume less material in construction, while opening new degrees of freedom to
architects, engineers and builders in both high- and low-capital building cultures.


Lafarge Precast Factory, Winnipeg, Canada -- April 2004

Our rst test scaling-up a small funicular model was done in 2004 using an inexpensive woven polypropylene Geotextile (Propex 315ST). The span of this barrel vault was 2.5 meters (8 ft.). The procedure
here was to make a funicular fabric-formed rigid mold that could be used to cast multiple funicular compression shells.

1. A at rectangular sheet of geotextile fabric is

hung from a steel frame

2. A uniform thickness of Glass Fiber Reinforced

Concrete (GFRC) is applied to the hanging fabric
- in this case as a spray application.

3. The resulting funicular shell is inverted to make

a mold for precast production.

4. In this test, the fabric was removed to expose

the concrete surface, which was then sealed and
oiled to provide a release surface for the mold. A
single thin-shell GFRC vault was produced from
this fabric-formed mold. No structural tests were


C.A.S.T. Lab, Winnipeg, Canada -- May 2009
Example #1: Double-curvature funicular shell cast directly from a single hanging at sheet of fabric

In this construction a single at rectangle of fabric is hung from a simple perimeter frame and used as
a mold to form a double curvature vault.
A simple frame is provided to support the edges fabric (Left Below). The fabric is stretched lengthwise
to remove any wrinkles, and stapled to the sides of this frame (Right Below).

Example #1 Continued:
Instead of conventional steel reinforcing this vault was made with carbon grid reinforcing. Carbon
reinforcing allows for a very thin section -- only 3 cm (1 in.) thick. Carbon, unlike steel, does not
require an extra concrete covering to protect it from corrosion.

Example #2: Double-curvature lenticular shell cast directly from two at sheets of fabric

This construction used the same curved edge supports as the previous example, but in this case a
central keel was used to control the bottom curvature of the mold. This keel, made of two layers of
3/4 plywood, holds two at sheets of fabric sandwiched between them (Bottom Left, Bottom Centre).
1/8 plywood feathers boards were placed at the ends of the mold rig (seen Below) to ensure that the
loaded fabric follows a smooth and fair transition to the at support areas at either end of the vault.

When the concrete (a portland

cement mortar) is troweled onto
this mold, the fabric deects
downwards slightly under the
This shell was reinforced with
carbon bre, allowing a thickness
of only 3 cm.


Woven, high density, polyethylene or polypropylene fabrics can be manufactured with

a smooth waterproof coating on one side, and
a fuzzy non-woven fabric welded to the other
side. When concrete is applied to the fuzzy
non-woven side, the fabric will permanently
adhere to it, providing a smooth, permanent,
plastic-coated release surface for a mold.
Concrete will not adhere to the smooth polyethylene or polypropylene coating of these
fabrics. No oils or other release agents are
needed, though the use of such release
agents will prolong the life of these molds.

Prototype mold fabrics have been produced

for CAST by Fabrene Inc., a manufacturer
of industrial plastic fabrics. The (limited) test
data for one such fabric (Fabrene Development Product W756) is shown below. This
particular product adapts an existing fabric
commonly used for inexpensive fabric covered agricultural and storage shelters. It is
manufactured in 3 m. (10 ft.) wide roles. It can
be heat-welded into larger sheets, or reinforced in multiple layers. Stronger fabrics are
also available for this application if required.

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Lafarge Precast Factory, Winnipeg, Canada -- April 2007
This prototype rigid funicular fabric-formed mold is intended as formwork for thin-shell GFRC stay-inplace pan formwork for cast-in-place (CIP) oor slabs. The funicular compression shell shape given
by these formwork pans allows a CIP concrete slab to span in pure compression between the integral
support beams, thus reducing concrete and deadweight.
Cast-in-place concrete
Reinforcing steel in
integral valley beams
Prefabricated, berreinforced thin-shell
formwork pans.

Floor structure viewed from below showing the

pattern of individual precast compression vault
formwork pans for a cast-in-place slab.

A uniform thickness of ber-reinforced concrete

is placed over the fabric. In this case a sprayed
shotcrete was used, though hand-application of
the concrete is also possible. The edges were
reinforced with steel rebar.

A simple open frame is constructed to support

and suspended a at sheet of fuzz-backed
formwork fabric (see previous page)

The fuzzy fabric backing adheres to the concrete,

producing a plastic-coated mold for precast production of stay-in-place formwork pans or thinshell funicular compression vaults.


A method for forming a prototype thin-shell vault cast from a rigid fabric-formed mold is shown below.
This method, like much of our work at CAST, was developed using small plaster models. The model
shown in the photographs below, was made by stretching a at, fuzzy-backed, plastic sheet over a rigid
framework rig (Bottom Left). The fuzzy side of the fabric is then sprayed with plaster (modeling the thin
uniform layer of glass ber reinforced concrete (GFRC) used in full-scale construction). The resulting
form is then lifted off the formwork rig and turned over (Top Left), providing a rigid, smooth, one-piece,
fabric-lined female mold for casting thin shell vaults. The Vault model(s) produced from this mold are
shown Top Right and Bottom Right.
A wide range of vault shapes can be formed by altering the geometry of the support rig and by the
strategies employed in restraining the at fabric sheet and pulling it into place. The shape of this particular vault is designed to provide a compression vault form with its own integral tension restraint. The
straight, at, keel or ridge formed along the center-line of this vault contains the tension reinforcing
required to restrain the horizontal thrust of the funicular compression vaults formed on either side. dge
beams are formed at the support ends to transfer the horizontal thrust of the vaults to this central line
of tension restraint. This structural shape combines the geometry of a bending-moment-shaped beam
with tied funicular compression vaults.


Full-Scale Prototype, C.A.S.T. Laboratory, Winnipeg, 2009
The 5-meter prototype vault mold constructed at CAST was produced in the rig shown in the photographs Below. This rig provides a straight central spine, formed by a 1.5 in.(4 cm) steel pipe and
catenary-curved longitudinal edges formed in 3/4 in. plywood and 2x4 lumber following the shape of a
simple hanging cord (Bottom Left and Bottom Center).
A single at sheet of fuzzy-backed formwork fabric (Fabrene W756) is placed over this rig, and selectively pre-tensioned as shown (Bottom Right). A thin, uniform layer of GFRC will be placed on this
fuzzy-backed fabric to make a rigid mold for producing thin-shell vaults. Note that the pre-tensioning
device is twisted ropes, with load cells attached to gauge the magnitude of the pretension forces.
[A discussion of how selective pre-tensioning alters the shape of a at fabric sheet follows the description of this mold.]

This photo shows the double curvature produced

by pre-tensioning along the centre-line of the fabric sheet. The cut in the fabric controls where the
induced curvature along the center-line begins.

End of the formwork rig prior to loading with points

of pre-tensioning shown: A start-condition force
of 40 kg (+ - ) is delivered to the centre of the
sheet, and a mild 12 kg (+ - ) at the edges. Edge
forces are increased to remove folds as the fabric
is loaded with concrete. Load cells are used to
keep track of the prestress force applied.

Glass ber reinforced concrete (GFRC) is placed on top of the fabric, causing this formwork membrane
to deect under the uniform applied load. Photos Below show the rst layer of GRFC being applied.

The rst thin layer of GFRC is placed over the entire fabric sheet. (Above). We did this by hand, though
industrial methods include spray applications that are faster and more uniform.
Then, a series of stiffening ribs, and a continuous glass ber mesh, are added to strengthen the mold
and give it sufcient rigidity to be lifted, ipped over, or transported.

These views from beneath the formwork rig show the preliminary shape of the fabric sheet before it is
loaded (Left), and after it has taken the full weight of the wet GFRC (Right). The weight of the concrete
will gives the fabric sheet its nal structural geometry. The resulting rigid fabric + GFRC construction will
be lifted and turned over, providing a smooth polyethylene-coated mold.

These photos show the fabric-formed GFRC mold completed, prior to turning it over for use. This mold
weighs less than 500 kg. (1,000 lb.)

Turning the mold over

These photographs show the nished fabric-formed GRFC mold turned over, with the coated polyethylene release surface ready for use. Here you can see how the at fabric sheet has developed
a musculature in response to the loads imposed on it. Although not strictly biomimetic, this natural
development of resistant form is analogous to the development of structural form in living systems that
produce material in response to stress concentrations (as in bones or trees for example). Here, the at
fabric sheet has developed structural depth in response to stress concentrations.

The nished mold is scanned with a laser pointcloud scanner (Left) to determine is precise curvature in three dimensions. This information is then
used for the structural analysis/design of shells
produced from the mold. After structural design is
completed, a structural prototype thin-shell vault
will be cast from this mold.

Test casts have been made from this mold using

both GRFC and regular Portland cement mortar (Below). Wet mortar/concrete was placed by
hand, as would be the case in low-capital construction cultures. Industrial spray application is
also possible.

The rst full-length test cast from this mold (Above) was made using a regular Portland Cement mortar,
with a combination of glass scrim and steel rebar reinforcing. This test cast is 2.5 cm (1 in.) thick.


The fuzzy-backed fabric can also be used to
make a fabric-covered thin-shell cast: A sheet
of this fabric is stretched over the mold, adopting the same at-sheet geometry as the mold,
and concrete is placed on the fuzzy side of
this sheet (Thee images Left). This gives the
resulting shell a permanently attached fabric
coating on its underside, resulting in a perfectly smooth, textile nish (Below and Bottom).

Deep corrugations can be pre-loaded into a at sheet by selectively pre-tensioning the fabric across
its span. This concentrated pre-tensioning causes the at sheet to buckle normal to the principle line of
tension stress. The resulting form will have a primary (funicular) curvature across its span, and a second curvature across the width of the vault that gives a deep, buckling-resistant, transverse section.

The double curvature of a pre-tensioned at-sheet fabric model mold is shown Above Left, and a view
of a plaster model vault cast from this mold is shown Above Right.
The image Below shows the deep ridge(s) produced a pre-tensioned at, rectangular formwork sheet.
Note the pattern of curved openings created by the naturally curved free edges of these vaults.



Multiple deep corrugations can be loaded into

a at sheet of formwork fabric by providing multiple lines of pre-tensioning, as illustrated by the
fabric sheet shown Top Right.

The fabric shown Bottom Left is a at, fuzzybacked, plastic sheet that has been selectively
stretched along three lines of pre-tension. The
edges of this mold-making rig provide at,
straight edges across the span, though the fabric is not supported from these edges.
This fuzzy-backed fabric was then sprayed
with a uniform layer of plaster to make the 2
meter-long model mold shown Bottom Right.
This mold produced the thin-shell vault model
shown Middle Right.
The mold for this shell has a straight, horizontal, rectangular, perimeter around all four sides.
This provides for a closed, horizontal, tension
ring to be cast into the perimeter of this vault to
restrain the lateral trusts of the funicular vault.


1. Buckled Flat-Sheet Vault Forms Produce Buckling-Resistant Forms
When a hanging at sheet assumes a double curvature shape, it will tend to produce buckled folds.
These corrugations tend to align with the principle lines of force in the fabric, producing deep folded
sections in these areas. These folded corrugations can be formed in several ways. One way, illustrated
previously, is by inducing deep folds by a concentrated pre-tensioning a fabric sheet (see Pre-tension
Corrugations above). Another way, illustrated below, is through load-produced buckling.
The model fabric-formed mold shown here
(Top Left) was made by supporting a at
sheet of fabric from its four corners. When
loaded with a uniform layer of plaster (to
model concrete), the at sheet buckles along
the principle lines of tension owing towards
the four corner supports

The funicular compression shell cast from

this mold (Bottom Left) acquires the deep
corrugations given by the buckled fabric
mold. This provides buckling-resistant sections aligned with the principle lines of compression force in the shell.
Horizontal thrust forces can be contained by
installing tension reinforcing, integrated into
the shell along its perimeter, connecting the
four support points in a tension ring, or by
providing buttressed supports.

2. Flat-Sheet Vault Molds for Combinations of Concentrated and Uniformly Distributed Loads

A mold for a vault designed to support uniform plus concentrated loads can be made by placing proportional point loads on a at fabric sheet (Above Left) prior to placing a uniform load of concrete on the
fabric. This method is illustrated by the model mold shown (Above Center) and the shell cast from this
mold (Above Right). A shell such as this could be shaped to support, for example, its own dead-weight
plus that of a raised-oor structure placed upon it.

The model mold shown Above Left, was formed by

a rectangular sheet of fabric that was pre-tensioned
by pushing upwards at two points (Above Right). The
shells produced from this mold (Bottom Left) are cantilevered shells -- their lower surface is in compression
and their upper surface is reinforced for tension.

[Note: the branching columns shown here are also

formed from at sheets of fabric using another CAST
formwork invention.]

3. Flying Vault Forms

The ying vault shown below is formed by supporting a at fabric sheet from three points while pulling
outwards on the fourth point (Below, Left). The mold formed by such a rig (Below, Middle) produces
the vault shown Below, Right. This vault is more or less balanced on the two supports to the left and
right in the image Bottom. The support to the rear carries a very small part of the total load. It will be
noted that the at fabric sheet has spontaneously provided a deepened arch between its two principle
supports. This buckling of the tension-laden fabric sheet has naturally formed a deep, buckling-resistant
section along the principle line of compression force.



Lafarge Precast Factory, Winnipeg, Canada -- April 2007

A hanging sheet of fabric can be used as a mold to produce thin-shell wall panels. The panels show
here (Above and Bottom Right)) are made from ber-reinforced spray concrete applied to a hanging
sheet of polyethylene fabric (Bottom Left). These panels are less than 5 cm (2 in.) thick, with perimeter
edges of 10 cm (4 in.) thick.
A hanging at sheet of fabric will naturally form itself into double curvature shapes that provide stiffness
and strength to a thin concrete shell panel, while random ber reinforcing gives the concrete signicant
exural strength and ductility. Various bers and concrete mix designs can be used for this kind of application, though Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete (GFRC) is perhaps the best material choice.

Details of full-scale thin-shell, spray concrete, Curtain Wall constructions

Mock-ups and models of thin-shell Curtain Wall molds and constructions at C.A.S.T.

Plaster models of other possible thin-shell Curtain Wall constructions


When a shells shape is produced from a at sheet mold, it

can readily accept continuous sheet reinforced using a at
reinforcing textile (Top Left and Bottom Left). A exible at
reinforcing grid, for example, will naturally adopt the same
complex shapes as the mold. No cutting or complex shaping
is required. Material options include exible glass or carbon
ber textiles

Deep double curvatures can be set into fabric-formed molds

by various methods. The 1:3 wall panel model shown Top
Right was formed from a at-sheet mold that was given a
deep central spine or ridge by draping the fabric mold material over a tightened tension cable (a Nylon cord). The complex buckled shapes along this ridge are pure natural forms,
serving as both sculpture and structure.