Engineering fabric-covered buildings for true sustainability

The Solar Ship hangar roof includes 200 polycrystalline photovoltaic (PV) modules that collect enough energy for the building to run entirely off-grid.

Founded in 2006, Solar Ship set out to build aircraft capable of travelling anywhere to provide service to areas without roads or infrastructure. When planes, trucks, and ships cannot deliver critical cargo for disaster relief or haul supplies to remote locations, this company’s solarship can be designed and built to the requirements of the mission.

The solarship is a hybrid aircraft that gains lift from a combination of buoyant gas and aerodynamics. Its design allows for extreme short takeoff and landing (XSTOL), and a large surface area on its top allows it to collect solar electric power (thereby expanding its range). It can also be powered by traditional combustion, but the primary goal is to refine a new mode of transportation not dependent on fossil fuels or runways.

This forward-thinking aerospace technology came together with another industry—that of building design and construction—when Solar Ship contracted to have a new aircraft hangar built at the Brantford Municipal Airport in Southwest Ontario. The 3771-m2 (40,597-sf) aircraft manufacturing and storage facility had to be larger than normal to accommodate the significant size of the hybrid airships—a need met with rigid-frame engineering utilizing structural steel I-beams in a tension-fabric building.

This rigid-frame design allowed SolarShip to achieve its specified goal of 3716 m2 (40,000 sf) of unobstructured interior space, rooftop panels, and a bifolding hangar door. The lightweight nature of the fabric also meant an existing concrete pad could be used as the foundation—a feature saving both money and construction time.

The minimum dimension for the main hangar door was 51 x 18 m (169 x 59 ft). Positioned on an end wall of the 53- x 70-m (176- x 231-ft) clear-span building, the biparting opening allows access for crafts fitting the current portfolio of the company’s solarships, which have wingspans up to 30 m (98 ft). The design also anticipates the development of a prototype with a 50-m (164-ft) wingspan. With a roof peak of 25 m (82 ft) and an 18-m (60-ft) eave clearance, the hangar provides ample vertical space for manoeuvering the aircraft through the assembly process.

The robust structure of the building is also consistent with environmental values. For instance, the hangar’s roof features an array of solar panels.

The dimensions of the Solar Ship facility were customized to provide space to maneuver new aircraft through the assembly process. The facility runs entirely off-grid.

Lewis Reford, partner at Solar Ship, says the design “incorporates a self-reliant photovoltaic power package that sits above the fabric roof, allowing our building operations to be entirely off-grid.”

The east- and west-facing sides of the roof each include 100 260-watt polycrystalline photovoltaic (PV) modules for a total 52-kilowatt array. Combiner boxes with full arc fault circuit interruption (AFCI) compliance are located between the array and the solar battery charge controllers. The arrangement also utilizes two energy storage systems.

Solar energy and a small generator supply power to the company’s onsite loads, including 24 high-bay, 300-watt light-emitting diode (LED) fixtures for nighttime work and electric operation to open and close the all-weather main hangar doors. Other loads requiring electricity include the energy storage systems, containerized office HVAC, fire system trace heating, small tool operations, video monitoring, electric vehicle (EV) charging, laptop and Wi-Fi power, and air blowers.

Based on estimated energy yield, which takes into account average insolation at the site and overall system efficiency, the solar assembly in place on the building will produce 62.4 megawatt hours of energy each year.

Facilitated by the strong load capacity of the rigid-steel framing and by the use of proven design principles, a series of I-beams runs parallel to the solar panels, reducing uplift beneath them and enhancing the structure’s stability. The pitch of the roof enables the PV panels to efficiently harvest solar energy, and is rated for 1.18 kPa rain-on-snow load and 0.42 kPa wind load.

Other aspects of the building also contribute to its sustainability profile. Mesh soffits and RV-3000 peak vents enhance passive ventilation, while the translucent polyethylene (PE) fabric cladding admits daylight to lower the facility’s reliance on artificial lighting.

In May 2016, the building was selected as the “Game Changer Project of the Year” by the Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA). The award recognized the hangar for using a reliable and cost-effective system advancing the future of building-integrated distributed generation.


James Kumpula is in charge of business development, global operations, infrastructure implementation, and execution in his role as general manager of Legacy Building Solutions Canada. He works closely with staff in Canada and the United States to ensure projects are completed to clients’ demands. Over the course of more than 25 years, Kumpula has been responsible for more than $5 billion in projects, 3.5 million m2 (37.6 sf) of building installations, and staff of up to 1100. He is an innovative leader with a demonstrated ability to recruit, mentor, and motivate personnel to achieve corporate objectives while creating a cohesive team environment. Kumpula can be reached via e-mail at

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