STEPHEN TANNO, BSc(Hons), CEng, MIEAust, MICE Buro Happold Facade Engineering

41-43 Praed Street, London, W2 INR


Glass has traditionally been the natural choice for atriums and rooflights to admit natural light and give inhabitants connection to the outside world. Glass has certain limitations inherent within it that make it less than ideal for some situations. Other materials such as a variety of polycarbonates have been available as alternatives to glass but these have had limited success due to mediocre physical properties, poor durability, poor appearance and low compatibility with other materials.

In recent years the technology of producing flexible ETFE (Ethyl Tetra Fluoro Ethylene) films has progressed significantly allowing the production of thin membranes that are stable, durable and can be easily joined. This has given designers a serious alternative to glass for many applications.


Cushions are made by combining two, three or more layers of foil which are joined at their edges and inflated with air to form a sealed panel. The internal pressure in the cushion prestresses the foils enabling the cushions to withstand external loads such as snow and wind. This also gives cushions excellent thermal properties. The pressure inside thecushions can vary from 200-600 pascals which is borne primarily by the outer and inner layers.

Cushions are normally held in a frame and used as part of a cladding panel system. Air inflation is provided by means of low power electrical fans connected to the cushions via a network of flexible pipes. The fans are simple units consisting of a running fan and a standby fan and generally have a power requirement of around 100 Watts. Fans are normally equipped with a gauge and electronic switch that monitors air pressure in the cushions and allows the fan to come on automatically to top up pressure in the foils if it falls below the desired level.

For added safety in very high snow load situations a stainless steel wire grid could be incorporated below the cushions to counteract downward loads. This measure would only be required in exceptional cases.


ETFE is a modified copolymer which is manufactured and processed by the same methods associated with most thermoplastic polymers. This partly crystalline plastic provides the following combination of properties:

• Non stick characteristics making it virtually self-cleaning with little need for maintenance.

• Wide service temperature range (-200 to + 150 DC).


• Very low gas and water vapour permeability

• Very low water absorption.

• Good translucency and light transmission qualities in visible and UV ranges.

• Can be coated to help further in the control of heat and light transmission properties allowing various degrees of adjustment.

• Excellent thermal control properties can be achieved through multi-layer foils.

• Extreme resistance to weathering and excellent resistance to solvents and chemicals.

• Good mechanical properties for engineering purposes in the design of roofs or cladding systems generally.

• Excellent characteristics for fire emergency situations in roofs and atria.

• Exceptionally high resistance to tearing.

• Linear elastic behaviour up to 20 Mpa and a high elongation.


ETFE foil cushions have been used successfully in roofs and atria where they have been found to offer some benefits in comparison to glass. Outlined below is a number of areas where the performance of the two materials is discussed and compared.

Structural Characteristics

ETFE is a very flexible material and is able to cope with large deformations beyond its elastic range prior to breakage. Elongations of 200-300% are possible before breakage. The structural action of foil cushions is reliant on them being prestressed to accommodate the live load.

Glass on the other hand is very brittle and generally works as a plate in bending. This structural action is the same irrespective of the type of glass being used. In a double glazed unit there is some load sharing between the outer and inner panes with the outer one taking most of the load.

In a multi layer cushion the external layer is the most highly stressed and therefore it is normally the thickest (typically 200 microns). The inner most layer is less stressed and can be made from thinner gauge material (say 150 microns). Internal layers within a foil are not required to carry loads and thus are not stressed at all and can be made from very thin gauge material (less than 50 microns).

Cushions as long as 25m by 3.5m can be easily made as a single panel allowing minimum joints in the construction. This contrasts with glass where sizes have to be kept to within maximum dimensions which are governed by such factors as weight, handleability, toughening oven restrictions .. etc. Typical maximum glass sizes are of the order of 4m by 2m, larger sizes are possible but are less common.

Another major difference between glass systems and ETFE systems is how tolerances and movements are accommodated. Typically in glass construction, panels have to accommodate tolerances and movements at the joints, therefore panels have movement joints with sealants or gaskets all round.


ETFE cushions on the other hand are clamped at the edges and movements are absorbed within the panel itself. This characteristic combined with less joints due to larger panel sizes means a significant improvement in air infiltration characteristics of ETFE systems over glass systems.

Thermal Characteristics

A standard 3 layer cushion has a U-value of around 1.95 W/m2 oK. This is considerably better than triple glazing when used horizontally. The cushion's isulative qualities can be further enhanced by the addition of further layers which can be treated with Low E coatings. This approach could reduce the U-value to below 0.6 W/m2oK.

Transparency and Solar Control

ETFE foil is very transparent across the visible and ultraviolet ranges allowing approximately 95% and 85% transmission respectively. It is worth noting that it has a high absorption in the infra red range which helps to reduce overall heat load on buildings.

Whilst the base material is very transparent, ETFE Foil can be treated in a number of different ways, similar to glass, to manipulate its transparency and radiation transmission characteristics. The Foil can be over printed with a variety of surfaces to affect transmission, or printed with graphic patterns to reduce solar gain whilst retaining transparency, or can incorporate a white body tint to render the foil translucent. The degree of translucency can then be manipulated by adding additional layers of foil into the system.

Energy Consumption

The energy consumption used by the inflation units is minimal because the blower units only need to maintain pressure, they do not need to create air flow. A Roof is generally powered by one or more inflation units with each inflation unit maintaining pressure to approximately 1000m2 of roof. An inflation unit comprises two backward airfoil blowers powered by electric motors. On of the motors is rated at 220 Watts and is permanently on standby whilst the other, rated at 100 Watts, is switched on and off by a pressure switch connected to a reference cushion. The main blower is thus only operating for approximately 50% of the time with the power usage being in the order of 50 Watts ie half the cost of a light bulb.

Safety/Explosion Risk

ETFE Foil is a flexible material which can take extremely high short term loading. This makes it an ideal material for use where there is a risk of explosion. It is able to absorb shock loading without risk of fracture, breakage or structural overload/collapse.

Glass on the other hand, being a brittle material represents, a major concern in a bomb blast or similar shock load situation.


Should an ETFE Foil cushion become damaged the panel can be easily replaced from outside with no internal access being required. Small repairs are easily effected to the Foil in-situ. Therefore replacement and repair is much easier to carry out compared with glass.



ETFE Foil has low flammability and is self extinguishing. The cushions self vent in the event of fire as the hot plume causes the foil to shrink back from the source of the fire allowing the fire to vent to atmosphere. The quantity of material in the roof is insignificant in fire terms and one does not experience molten drips of Foil from the roof.

In comparison with a glass roof, ETFE allows for minimal fire emergency measures and eliminates the need for smoke extraction.


A foil roof is acoustically relatively transparent. This means that the foil acts as an acoustic absorber for room acoustics, enhancing the internal perceived environment. External noise reduction characteristics vary depending on the particular situation and are generally thought to be lower than what can be achieved with glazing.


ETFE foil is an extruded material, this means that the surface is extremely smooth. This smoothness coupled with the foils' anti adhesive properties means that the surface does not attract dirt, and any dirt, such as bird droppings is washed off whenever it rains. External cleaning frequencies of more than 4 years are normal.

Internally foil roofs are usually cleaned on a 5-10 year cycle depending on the dirt in the internal atmosphere. This usually means that expensive internal access equipment is not required as the long cleaning cycles make rope access a cost effective solution.


ETFE Foil cushions are extremely light weight compared to glass. This allows very light structures to be erected and gives designers great scope for imaginative design.


ETFE Foil cushions can be installed for roughly half the price of a conventional high performance glass roof.


Accelerated weather tests show excellent weathering and durability characteristics for ETFE systems. In use examples going back 20 years show similar results making the system at least as durable as conventional double glazing.


I) Chelsea & Westminster Hospital, London (illustrated with slides)

An innovative solution to the atrium design of a multi-storey hospital was developed by Buro Happold in conjunction with architects Shepherd Robson. It incorporates a foil cushion roof supported on extruded aluminium channel structure spanning 18m across the atrium void.


2) Eastleigh Tennis & Health Club, Hampshire (illustrated with slides)

A more recent use of ETFE Foil cushions to house 10 indoor tennis courts under an exceptionally lightweight cable net roof. ETFE enabled ideal playing conditions all year round with an economical and elegant roof solution.


This paper has explored ETFE Foil cushions and outlined their key features as a translucent roofing material for building purposes. A detailed discussion of their key features was undertaken and compared to glass. This has shown ETFE Foil cushions to be a serious alternative to glass offering many features that outperform glass roofs.

The paper also outlined two recent projects where ETFE Foil cushions were used imaginatively. This has demonstrated the potential this material has in the design of more adaptive buildings of the future.


1) "Cushion Roof System for a Hospital Atrium, London". M J Cook, W I Liddell & C Gill, Buro Happold. Structural Engineering International, No.1 1994

2) "Acceptability of ET Hostaflon Film for use in Buildings'. University of Bath Test Programme

3) Tefzel Sales Information from Dupont

4) Hestaflon ET Sales Information from Hoescht

5) The Healthy Hospital, CIBSE Magazine, July 1992

6) Project Studies. Vector Special Projects



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