Inflatable Buildings Could Earn Millions

In New York, the most glaring signs of the Great Recession are the stalled construction sites littering the city–boarded up, dusty, and desolate eyesores.

The architecture mega-firm Woods Bagot may have a solution, which they’ve just unveiled: Temporary, inflatable buildings that let the developers make money while they wait for their finances to shape up. “We tried to re-imagine how you could reuse those sites,” Jeff Holmes, the partner in charge of Woods Bagot’s New York office, told

Stalled sites pose a problem for developers whose financing has dried up in the recession because even when sites lay unused, they wrack up huge tax burdens–as much as $2 million a year. And sites can easily go fallow for 2 to 5 years.

“The biggest challenge is creating a quality scheme that can go in quickly, and be taken away even quicker,” says Holmes. Moreover, it’s hard for a temporary building to have a big, good-looking presence on the street–rather than being just a glorified drywall tent.

Holmes’s team solved the problem with what they call an Iceberg. Made of modular units that can be added up for larger sites, the design calls for a steel structure wrapped in high-tech plastic fabric called EFTE. But that fabric also has “air beams” stitched into it–structural supports that are basically big balloons, and are usually found in high-end pup tents and airplane evacuation ramps.

As a result, when inflated, the EFTE becomes a dramatic, faceted roof that turns the temporary building into big, dramatic piece of contemporary architecture. “The volume is almost nothing but air,” says Holmes. “Which means there’s a minimal carbon footprint.”

What’s more, Holmes and Woods Bagot believe that simple economics make the Icebergs into a win-win solution for developers. Given construction costs of about $2 million, they estimate that an Iceberg could bring in at least $1 million in rent in the first year, and $2 million after that. (They figured a rental rate of $450 a square foot; Manhattan retail spaces rent for between $250-$2,500.)

Moreover, because of the huge faceted planes on the Iceberg facade, they can become huge projection screens, drawing advertising revenues.

Photo by Fast Company.

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