January 18, 2008

Fabric Roof and Canopy Enhance Wayfinding and Comfort at Florida Hospital

by Russell Boniface
Associate Editor

How do you . . . expand a health-care facility by incorporating tent-like canopies that increase wayfinding, natural light, and comfort?

Summary: The Florida Hospital Waterman, north of Orlando in Tavares, Fla., is the first hospital in the country to incorporate tent-like fabric canopy structures into its design. The $129 million project features two steel-cable-supported fabric canopies, one of which doubles as a lobby roof. The tension fabric canopy and roof provide wayfinding for predominately elderly patients as the tensile architecture defines entrances and spaces inside and outside the hospital. The canopy roof covers a glass lobby atrium that unites a new hospital tower with an existing three-story medical office, providing the atrium lobby with natural light and a sense of comfort. Irving, Tex.-based RTKL Associates, Inc. worked with Buffalo-based Birdair, a contractor of tensile architecture, on the Florida Hospital Waterman project.

The fabric canopy design by RTKL and Birdair for the Florida Hospital Waterman used 32,000 square feet of tensile, fiberglass fabric to create a translucent, tent-like canopy that serves as a roof over a two-story glass lobby atrium. The canopy roof also merged an existing medical office with a new tower, and even extends from the hospital’s front entry over a driveway. An additional 11,000-square-foot translucent, tent-like fabric canopy covers the emergency department’s pedestrian and ambulance entrances.

These translucent fabrics act as a bright landmark filled with light in the day and an interior-lit luminaire at night. The diffused daylight captured by the lobby roof canopy provides a soothing, comfortable environment.

Similar to a tent
Michael Hoffmeyer, AIA, project manager at RTKL Associates, says that Florida Hospital Waterman wanted a design that would merge its existing medical office building with its new hospital. “The fabric roof allowed a flexible way to integrate those two buildings together,” he says. “They didn’t want the project to look institutional. The tension fabric structures are like a big tent, with a light-emitting roof system that definitely creates a look and feel that is not institutional. Light is a major part of everything that happens in Florida, and the tensile fabric roof and tensile fabric canopy gave light to our design.

“The fabric canopy at the emergency department is a drive-under canopy only, so it’s purely exterior,” Hoffman explains. “The fabric roof of the glass lobby is one continuous tension fabric structure that merges the existing building and the new tower, then continues to swoop down to become the drive-under canopy for cars. It’s one simple continuous line.”

The tension fabric roof and canopy are supported by poles and cables and composed of Teflon-coated, insulated fiberglass. Says Hoffmeyer: “There are poles tied to large massive concrete elements in the ground that provide the main gravity support for the structures, and their cables are all in tension and hold up the roof.”

To add to the wayfinding for patients and visitors, most of whom are elderly, there is a yellow wall under the lobby canopy that merges the old center with the glass lobby. Further, the emergency department is marked with red signage.

“A factor in creating the tension lobby roof was that the lobby is the waiting area for all of the treatment functions in the hospital,” Hoffmeyer explains of the soothing, air-conditioned environment. “Everybody now gets to wait under this light canopy instead of having to go back into an internal waiting room someplace. All of the diagnostic treatment is waiting in the translucent lobby, and there is a lot of natural light.”

Managing stress
Hoffmeyer notes the challenges of the project. “Every Birdair roof is custom designed. There are no off-the-shelf modules, so every aspect must be considered. All of the connection points, stresses, and supports were unique to this hospital. It was a back-and-forth process between our structural engineer and Birdair’s structural department to come up with the correct tension so that the tensile structures acted properly. Similar to a tent, it does have movement, but we had to make sure the movement was in allowable tolerances.”

The project, completed in 2003, appears to be holding up well. How does the durability of tensile roofs and canopies compare to standard roofs? “The tension fabric roofs have at least a 20-year warranty, so it’s equal to any other roof,” Hoffmeyer concludes.


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