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January 17, 2018

Is the Tensile Industry at Odds with Traditional Construction?

With the construction industry still waiting to see what the true ramifications and knock on effects of Carillions’ liquidation, the UK’s second largest construction company is likely to be, it is only right to discuss the conflicts which Tensile Architecture has to overcome within the construction industry; both commercially and physically. 


At odds with Standard Commercial Construction

As we all know, the construction industry is run on monthly valuations, whereby a sub-contractor is paid based upon works completed or seen. As such, works need to be presented verified and accepted before the contractor can invoice for works they did last month. This typically means the contractor will have to wait about 30-days before receiving payment. This is normal and acceptable if you are building a wall, laying foundations, or installing pipework etc. However, it is not acceptable if a main contractor looks to impose this same approach on tensile architecture, where 90% of your costs are incurred before even setting foot on site. Typically, a 6-month contract can see 5-months taken up with design, engineer and fabrication with these costs being covered by the tensile contractor, based upon a JCT design and build contract. This is because the specialist design and engineering of tensile architecture can be incredibly complex and time consuming, plus all fabrication is carried out off site, with the installation being the final element of the project. Being bespoke it is not an “Off the Shelf” product and has to be fully adapted towards the loadings of the building, and or, changes to as built construction. As we all know in tensile architecture, especially in regards to ETFE, there really is NO tolerance towards installation. So when concrete or main contractor steelworks are out, it is and unfortunate side effect that many main contractors try to put the onus of adapting the tensile element towards the as built structure on the Tensile installation company. This can often mean re-fabrication of certain elements, and or, costly installation delays.  To many the complexity of tensile architecture is not considered or understood.

The problem is, for many main contractors the idea of paying for something which has not yet been delivered goes against every fibre of their being. It is almost sacrilegious! They run around shouting “Computer Says No…………….Sorry…….Computer Says No”. However, this is a fact of life we in the tensile industry have to deal with on a daily basis.

Whilst it is understood why main contractors wish to impose the same terms toward providers of tensile architecture, which is to protect themselves; it is still never the less a problem for the tensile industry whom are often forced to accept such unyielding terms. These terms can often over expose a tensile company to significant cashflow issues, where costs cannot be recovered for up to 6-months after them being incurring in the first place. Additionally, by having such cashflow imbalances imposed against a tensile company, dramatically restricts their ability to take on additional work at the same time; with the knock-on effect being an inability to grow and increase profits.   

Educating the construction industry on how the tensile industry has to operate can help. However, with normal staff changes throughout the project such as project management and quantity surveyors, the tensile industry is constantly being forced to carry costs longer than is acceptable or anticipated, whilst new staff get their head around the non standard cash flow and payment process.


Tensile Knowledge Base Missing from the Construction Industry

Further to the above, another obstacle which Tensile companies need to overcome is that tensile architecture is not widely understood within the construction industry…in fact the Tensile Knowledge Base Missing from the Construction Industry is quite disturbing. Unfortunately, Tensile architecture is not a taught syllabus within any of the architectural schoolings, with the closest referencing being that of bridge construction. This therefore means that from design concept downwards it is often being wrongly looked at as a cost saving solution, rather than what tensile architecture delivers and overcomes. It can also sometimes be looked at as a value engineering option, over and above the clients actual preferred material or design chose. This mindset unfortunately taints peoples preconceptions to such an extent whereby many tensile projects are being significantly undervalued and where tensile companies are expected…..almost forced to lower margins to unacceptable levels during contract negotiations. With a construction industry that runs on such low margins, a tensile industry which is already undervalued and were margins have been degreasing year on year, it is inevitable that less and less tensile companies are able or willing to take on larger projects where the financial risks and exposure are dramatically increased.


Fragmentation of the tensile Industry

With more and more tensile companies collapsing under the weight of increasing operating costs and ever decreasing margins, together with the wrongly perceived perception of tensile architecture being a cheap alternative, many companies within the tensile industry are looking to change tack. This has led to a relatively recent industry segmentation, whereby tensile companies “in order to survive” are splitting and focusing on only one aspect of the tensile industry. Rather like how the industry used to be in the early 1990’s. This can mean they often restructure themselves into a Tensile Design & Engineering company, a Membrane or ETFE Fabrication company, A Tensile Maintenance company, or a Tensile Project Management company. Each company will then look to offer their services to another as a sub-contractor, meaning they are not forced to carry the financial exposure and risks associated with delivering large scale projects. The problem is that main contractors still want one company to be responsible for the entire project. One company whom can provide all of the above and whom can run the project on their behalf. The issue with this is that there are now ever decreasing options of tensile companies whom are willing to accept this level of responsibility due to the issues as highlighted above. The only tensile operators capable of providing full coverage are the ones whom have a large parent company behind them, whom are not reliant on the tensile architecture industry. This approach however, does not provide the main contractors with the most cost efficient or best design option, as the tensile company will still be outscoring several elements of its work and will be looking to optimise maximum profits for return to its parent company. As a result, tensile projects are not being provided as cost efficiently as they could, nor are they being presented as prestigious design solutions which they are. So, what is the solution??


New Approach to Tensile Projects

With an in-depth understanding of the above, we at the Shade Sculpture Group and Air Sculpt Tensile have been championing a New Approach to Tensile Projects which offers main contractors, both the financial betterment and the security they require, it offers sub-contracting tensile companies the profitability they need and provides the end client with improved tensile procurement and quality. If you have a project you would like to discuss with us, please let us know and we can advise you on your options. For more information on how our approach can help, please call us on +44 (0)1249 848648 or email us at