Building Beyond the Ordinary


Imagine a giant swath of fabric sweeping the sky like the white wing of a monstrous dove. Imagine a row of whimsical peaks rising over the sidewalk like misplaced circus tents. Imagine a roofline that shimmers and soars like a sail…

Imagine the remarkable world of Birdair, global leader in custom tensile membrane structures. The innovative roofing systems, canopies, and skylights that the company creates are so eye catching and unexpected that many Birdair buildings have earned a place among the world’s iconic structures.

Birdair’s origins stretch back to just after WWII, when the U.S. government commissioned engineer Walter Bird and his Bell Aeronautics co-workers to create special domes to protect federal radar facilities scattered along the Distant Early Warning (DEW) line. The cold war was heating up and Washington was deeply concerned about a potential Soviet invasion from the north. Monitoring the northern border was seen as imperative, but protecting the specialized tracking equipment was not an easy endeavour. “They couldn’t block the radio waves,” explains Dave Capezzuto, Vice President of Business Development for Birdair. Once Mr. Bird’s team finally struck upon a roofing solution, the government was eager to purchase the new technology. Mr. Bird recognized an excellent business opportunity and launched Birdair to meet this new demand.

Tension structures have been around since the ancient world. The Romans, for example, utilized the concept to create tents and canopies. But Mr. Bird was not content with traditional fabrics and technology, which could only create temporary structures. “What Walter Bird was interested in was developing a permanent tension structure,” Mr. Capezzuto says. “To do that he had to find a material that would be permanent.” Mr. Bird worked closely with industry leaders like DuPont and Owens Corning throughout the late 60s and early 70s in search of a solution. The team eventually came across a remarkable material made of Teflon coated fibreglass that NASA used to create spacesuits. With this remarkable space age fabric in hand, Birdair could finally erect a long lasting tensile membrane structure.

In 1972, Birdair built the world’s first permanent PTFE fabric structure. The LaVerne College Student Activities Center, located in LaVerne, California, was a remarkable showcase of leading edge technology. Now, over forty years of use have proven that Birdair’s tensile membrane structures can stand up to the ravages of time. “That structure is still in use today,” Mr. Capezzuto reports. “The fabric is the original fabric that we used back in 1972.” The LaVerne College Student Activities Center was only the beginning. “Since then we have continued to develop the technology and there have been thousands of projects that have been built using Teflon covered fibreglass.”

There is, of course, a question that begs asking: why would anyone want to build a permanent fabric structure? The answer is that tensile membrane structures actually carry several key advantages over traditional building materials. First, these structures are translucent, so daylight can freely enter the interior space. Second, a tensile membrane is highly reflective, keeping the people beneath shaded and cool. Third is cost savings. “It is very cost efficient for bigger spans,” Mr. Capezzuto explains. “If you want to cover a large area there is a lot less steel required in order to support the fabric because the fabric has its own inherent strength. We can be very efficient compared to more conventional construction.”

Of course, a fabric structure’s greatest advantage is its unique, eye catching look. “It [provides] tremendous signage,” Mr. Capezzuto points out. “It can create a rather iconic look and in some cases it might identify a city. That is what leads people to us. They are looking for a signature type [of building].”

Indeed, Birdair’s projects are as diverse as they are remarkable. “We can do small canopies and skylights all the way up to an airport in Saudi Arabia that is over 105 acres in size,” Mr. Cappezuto reports. The majority of projects are between 1,000 square feet to 20,000 square feet; the 4.5 million square foot airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia has been the company’s largest undertaking to date. The smallest projects are entrance canopies measuring only a few hundred square feet.

Birdair recently completed three stadiums in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics. The host cities had to consider many factors when preparing for the international events: whether to renovate or build new, facility requirements, time and budget constraints, site location, logistics, and historical significance. They found that Birdair could address all of these factors and hired the company (through its subsidiary Taiyo Birdair do Brasil, or TBB) to assist in renovating Estádio Mineirão stadium in Belo Horizonte and Estádio Nacional stadium in Brasília. The company has also been chosen to fabricate and supply the tensile fabric for the roofing system that TBB will install at the brand new 56,000-capacity Arena Fonte Nova stadium in Salvador.

The team is currently installing a 30,500 square foot tensile membrane structure for MacDonald Island Park in Fort McMurray, Alberta. The canopy will cover an outdoor stage, providing shade and protection from the elements and allowing the park to host a variety of large-scale events. The curvy design captures the essence of the northern lights, snow drifts, and flowing rivers to symbolize the pristine beauty that the region’s winters and waterways afford. Birdair also recently designed and installed an unusual canopy above an outdoor seating area in Mexico’s Plaza Las Americas mall. The white membrane juts high into the air in a row of dramatic peaks. “It really provides signage for the area,” Birdair Marketing Executive Michele Roth remarks. The company earned an international achievement award for the leading edge work.

Birdair recently used its newest architectural design product, ethylene tetrafluoroethylene, or ETFE, to create an entrance canopy at the Empire City Casino at Yonkers Raceway in Yonkers, NY. The leading edge building material is remarkably transparent, allowing daylight to flow into the space below while simultaneously providing cover and shade. ETFE also boasts a non-stick surface, making it resistant to airborne pollutants and naturally self-cleaning. The amazing material is lighter weight and more flexible than glass, and is more suitable for free form applications and larger spans. “You are going to see a lot more of this in the coming years,” Mr. Capezzuto says of ETFE. “The architects are really gravitating toward it, mostly because it gives you clear vision. It is almost like a glass but it is actually a flexible film.” The new material allowed FTL Design Engineering Studio out of New York to design and Birdair to execute a sheer canopy inspired by the unique landscape of Yonkers Raceway’s hilltop track. “It is really iconic,” Mr. Capezzuto says of the whimsically curved structure.

With more than 50 years of experience, Birdair is a full service design-build contractor working closely with architects and their clients to deliver award-winning solutions. In fact, the team takes responsibility for all aspects of project execution with in house capabilities ranging from design and engineering to fabrication and installation. The company even has a full warranty and service department to ensure that customers are taken care of long term. This wide range of capabilities sets Birdair apart, Mr. Capezzuto insists. “Most of our competitors have a couple of those [capabilities], but they don’t have all of them. We have a complete, turnkey company.” Birdair has also remained a step ahead by keeping its attention solely on the tensile fabric structure market. “We have stayed very focused on our core business.”

In 2014, Birdair will be working hard to promote ETFE as a preferred solution. “That is going to be a major focus for us,” Mr. Capezzuto shares. He says that the industry is picking up speed after losing steam during the recession, and that building owners around the world are showing increasing interest in the unique benefits that ETFE provides. The company already has impressive projects planned that will utilize the new material. One of the most notable is the U.S. embassy in London, slated for completion in 2017. Birdair will wrap the outer envelope of the cube-shaped building in layers of ETFE to produce a one of a kind look.

Birdair has been committed to creating unique structures for over forty years; and, Mr. Capezzuto insists, this is only the beginning. The technology – and the ability to produce iconic structures – will only improve from here. Can’t wait to see what structures next Birdair is going to build.

For more information about Birdair, please visit

May 25, 2020, 5:18 PM EDT