Tennis Technology

Not Just for Winter Anymore

It might seem odd to think about indoor tennis during the summer months, but slowly, indoor tennis is extending its season throughout the year. More indoor facilities are staying open during warmer seasons to improve their bottom line and to accommodate players seeking refuge from the dog days of summer. Until recently, tennis facility owners considering building an indoor facility to meet this new market demand had only two basic building choices: air structures or rigid framed metal buildings. Air structures are usually considered temporary buildings meant mainly for use during the winter months. They require a relatively inexpensive initial investment, but are somewhat costly to operate due to their need for continuously operating inflation unit. Rigid framed metal buildings, meanwhile, require a significantly greater initial investment and are not removable, thereby permanently enclosing a tennis court space. Recently, however, a new type of building has slowly been making inroads into the field of tennis - the tensioned fabric structure. Though this type of building is still quite new to the tennis industry (there are perhaps fewer than 50 in use for tennis throughout the world today), it offers many advantages which are worth considering given the ever increasing competitiveness of today's indoor tennis market place.

Tensioned Fabric Structures: What Are They?

A tensioned fabric structure, often called a fabric-frame building, is a deceptively simple building. It is an enclosure, which utilizes a combination of free spanning metal truss or frame structure between which fabric panels are stretched (tensioned) to form a rigid building envelope. These structures are commonly fabricated from aluminum to minimize their weight and bulk. Tensioned fabric building frames can be attached to the ground on individual piers, similar to fence post footings. The fabric envelope of these buildings is usually a high-strength, PVC coated fabric scrim which is chemically treated to resist degradation from exposure to pollution and the elements, similar to fabrics used for air structures.

Even though they are unusual in the tennis world, the Tensioned fabric structure technology is by no means new or untested. On the contrary, architects and engineers have been creating tensile designs utilizing architectural fabrics for nearly 50 years. Tensioned fabric building technology has been around since the late 1970's. Like air structures, tensioned fabric buildings were primarily devised for military and industrial use since they could span large areas inexpensively, were easily transported and could be rapidly installed. Tensioned fabric structures, for example, proved to be especially useful for sheltering military equipment from the harsh desert environment during the Desert Storm operations in the Middle East. To date, there have been several thousand installations world wide for a variety of applications such as airplane hangars, warehouses, exhibition halls, restaurants and even prison housing. More recently, tensioned fabric buildings have been used to enclose, swimming pools, soccer fields, skating rinks, as well as basketball and volleyball courts.

Advantages for Tennis

Because tensioned fabric buildings are new to the tennis industry, they are perhaps best understood when compared to air structures or rigid framed metal buildings. For example, tensioned fabric buildings offer several advantages over air structures. First, the rigid truss framing of a tensioned fabric building eliminates the concern about collapsing under heavy snow and wind loading. The framing also eliminates concerns about pressure loss due air leaks, tears or open doors. The frames offer excellent structural support as well for suspending elements such as lighting, heating/cooling ducts, ceiling fans, divider nets, and backdrop curtains. The fabric of a tensioned fabric building typically has a longer life due to tensioning of the fabric (15-20 years versus 10-12 years for an air structure envelope). The fabric in a tensioned fabric building is also cheaper to replace than air structure fabric because of the modular construction of the buildings. Tensioned fabric buildings also do not require costly grade beams or vault structures for mechanical systems. Additionally, a tensioned fabric building is more cost effective to operate since there is no need for continuously operating blowers to maintain building pressure.

When compared with rigid framed metal buildings, tensioned fabric buildings compare favorably as well. For instance, a tensioned fabric building is less costly and time consuming to construct than a similarly sized clear-span rigid framed metal building. A tensioned fabric building can easily be installed with minimal equipment, usually only a single man-lift and a standard fork-lift. A tensioned fabric building is also fully de-mountable and relocatable. Tensioned fabric buildings can be designed to have open end and/or side walls, and, unlike rigid framed metal buildings, they can be constructed with fully translucent ceilings and walls. Finally, the modular construction of most tensioned fabric buildings makes them easy to add on to or to shrink in size.

While no building is perfect for all applications, tensioned fabric buildings offer several unique advantages. They represent an excellent solution as a shade structure for regions where outdoor temperatures prevent play on open courts during midday hours. They also meet the needs of an increasing number of players who are concerned about prolonged exposure to the sun and ultraviolet rays. A tension fabric structure - with its ability to have open end and side wall panels - is well suited for temperate locations plagued by frequent rains. Moreover, the potential for wall openings in combination with the use of translucent fabrics makes tensioned fabric buildings feel more open and inviting, which is especially important to owners who are marketing to players during the spring and summer seasons. Their portability, light-weight construction and minimal foundation requirements also make them an excellent choice as a temporary all-weather building where initial cost is a consideration or where short term use is anticipated.

Cost Considerations

Depending on your geographic location, specific site conditions, and number of courts to be enclosed, a tensioned fabric structure typically costs between $16 and $18 per square foot. This cost includes building fabrication, delivery, installation, lights, heating system and foundation improvements. This translates into roughly $115,200 to $129,600 per court. For tensioned fabric buildings in the snow belt, specifying an inner building liner is a good measure to increase thermal efficiency. This usually adds between $7,200 and $14,400 to the overall per court cost of the building.


Before you make any final decisions about which type of indoor tennis building is best for your facility, you would be wise not to overlook tensioned fabric structure buildings. The technology offers unique advantages, which make them perhaps the most adaptable building for year-round play in a variety of climates. Even though tensioned fabric structures have not been used a great deal for tennis to date, you need not feel like an industry guinea pig. The technology has a long, proven track record of success in even the harshest environments. Remember, indoor tennis doesn't have to be just a winter activity. With the tensioned fabric structures, indoor tennis during warmer seasons can be both inviting and cost effective.

by Andrew R. Lavallee, ASLA and Sheldon Westervelt, P.E.