Know Your Structure

A rundown of temporary demountable structures for outdoor functions from MUTA, the UK’s only trade association dedicated to marquees, tents and structures

Marquee and field

Traditional MarqueeTraditional Marquee
Traditional marquees go under a number of names – pole tents, soft tops (not to be confused with big tops or circus tents), or guyed marquees. This style of marquee has vertical timber ‘king poles’ running down the centre line of the structure, vertical ‘wall poles’ around the perimeter, and guy ropes that run from the top of the wall poles to the ground, creating tension in the roof fabric.

They all have one thing in common in that the main structural element is the cover itself. Most traditional marquees use cotton based fabrics as the covering, but PVC coated polyester is popular too. While traditional marquees can be as wide as 120 feet, most hirers will switch to frame marquees for widths above 40 or 50 feet (12 or 15 metres).

Traditional marquees are a popular choice for private functions and events such as agricultural shows and village fêtes. The combination of the traditional look and feel of pole tents and the breathability of natural fibres means that this type of tent is still as popular as ever and still represents a significant slice of the market in the UK.

Over recent years, we have seen the introduction of American traditional and sailcloth tents, which add an interesting visual dimension to this sector.

Frame MarqueeFrame Marquee
Frame marquees, where a semi rigid frame provides the structural stability, mostly use synthetic fabrics as a covering so as to avoid the problems created by shrinkage and expansion of natural fibres. Frames can be of wood, steel or aluminium tubing or, as is the case with most modern frames, box section aluminium. This latter type is often referred to as a ‘clear span’ structure and can be up to 50 metres wide with no intermediate pole supports (hence the name).

The uninterrupted internal space of frame structures makes them very popular for a wide variety of events from private functions, through corporate hospitality to large exhibitions.

Because they have a solid frame this type of marquee can accept a higher level of accessories, such as doors, windows, rigid side panels and sophisticated flooring systems. Consequently, the move, of late, has been to an ever-increasing standard of finish and comfort, so much so that many guests do not realise that they are actually in a marquee. This level of sophistication, together with their structural stability, has encouraged the recent trend to extend the traditional marquee season beyond the summer into the autumn and, indeed, the industry now erects marquees 12 months of the year.

Not all frame structures are inherently safe and there are many ‘home made’ varieties out there in the market place that are neither safe nor attractive. While standards for structural stability do exist, it is difficult for the authorities to police all events, particularly those on private property. MUTA members are obliged to follow the correct standards.

Giant StructureGiant Structure (over 30m wide)
Generally defined as large span aluminium frame or tensioned pole tents that are in excess of 25 metres wide. These can be 30/40/50 metre span frame tents usually needing the aid of telescopic plant or cranes to erect and dismantle. These are specialised structures and only very few hirers are competent to deliver them safely.

Multi deckMulti-Deck Structures
Multi-deck structures can be either double, triple or quad level structures. The top floor is of a standard clear span aluminium frame design with the lower floors being constructed from an integral steel upright and horizontal beam system. As with giant structures, these are specialised structures and only very few hirers are competent to deliver them safely.

Nordic tipiNordic Tipi
Giant, linkable Nordic tipis were introduced to the UK rental market in 2005. Their natural timber and canvas construction, aesthetics, and quirky possibilities have quickly established them as an interesting alternative type of structure. They are used widely for weddings, parties and festivals, and, increasingly, for smaller scale corporate events.

All manner of interesting shapes can be created by linking the tents in different configurations to meet the requirements of individual events.

To the untrained eye, they may appear to be simply a “bunch of sticks and canvas”, but there is much more to them than that. The need to have full structural calculations, flame retardant fabrics and competent build crews is the same with these tents, as with any other. MUTA members are obliged to have all three to operate.

Stretch TentStretch Tent
Funky shapes in a wide variety of colours characterise stretch tents, which use a special technical fabric that is stretchy but also provides structural stability. The fabric is anchored at its corners and along its sides, and then poles of different lengths are pushed up to create the iconic shapes. On some styles of stretch tent it is possible to fit sides to create a fully enclosed structure to protect against the elements.

Some people describe a saddlespan tent as looking like a Pringle crisp. Made from tensioned PVC and supported by architectural aluminium trussing, these unusual looking tents can be used as a large marquee, stage cover, audience shelter or exhibition venue.

They are available in different sizes and can be linked in a variety of ways to create large and interesting structures.

Safety issues are paramount, and this type of structure like all other tents requires competent installation. MUTA has created guidance specific to saddlespan tents which MUTA members are obliged to follow.

Inflatable TentInflatable Tent
Inflatable tents use air to support the structure. They might use air beams, tubular construction or cellular walls; some have a supporting metal framework and some use a single skin and rely on positive pressure inside the structure.

Primarily used in the corporate market, they are highly customisable and capable of being branded. Creativity and innovation are ingredients for success in this market and inflatable tents provide that in spades.

As always, safety concerns are paramount and MUTA’s guidance on the use of inflatable temporary structures is followed by MUTA members.

Party Pointers

MUTA proves some useful pointers on holding functions in a temporary structure

Pic: Getty Images


Space tableHow much space?
Too many people crammed into a small place is both uncomfortable and unsafe. Conversely, too large a space can make your event seem under populated. The table pictured is a simple guide to determining the optimum size of structure required for the number of guests. Add space for the stage, dance floor, bar, catering, reception, cloaks, toilets etc.

Try to keep the length of the marquee or tent to no more than three times the width to ensure maximum stability and to avoid a ‘tunnel’ effect.

Specify the number of guests and agree with the hirer the numbers and styles of:

  • Tables – round tables come in a variety of sizes and are often thought more sociable than long tables; in reality it is often only possible to talk to people sitting either side of you – across a round table is too far. Long tables come in a variety of sizes too and enable you to use benches rather than chairs if you wish. Some tables are attractive in their own right and can be used without table linen, whilst others are purely functional and must be covered with a cloth.
  • Chairs and benches – chairs are available in an array of styles and finishes, with different coloured seat pads. It is also possible to choose decorative chair covers which render the look of the chair itself irrelevant. More informal or rustic events may use benches at long tables, or a combination of benches at some tables and chairs at others.
  • Bar – if a bar is required, the simplest and cheapest solution is to use a couple of trestle tables. All manner of proper bars are available, though, in different sizes and styles to fit in with your event.

Floors, stage and dance floor
Matting laid directly on to the ground, usually with a membrane underneath to prevent dampness and worm castings, is widely used as a marquee flooring, and looks attractive when laid well. More sophisticated solutions involve a solid floor with or without carpet or matting laid on top. Ask your hirer about their policy for cleaning matting – do they clean it between every event, or just every now and then?

Will you have a band or other entertainment that requires a stage? When deciding on the type of stage, do check with entertainers if they require a certain size of stage, or whether they need a stage at all – they may be able to perform at ground level.

Regarding dance floors, think about the number of guests expected at the function and how many are likely to be dancing at one time. Use your hirer’s experience to decide on the size of dance floor needed. Dance floors take up space of course, so over-specifying the size not only increases the cost of the dance floor itself but may require a larger structure as well.

There are a bewildering array of lighting options available, from simple white light to complicated moving head lights that can create extraordinary effects. External lighting may be needed to light the way to the car park for the guests, or to highlight dramatic external features (specimen trees, statues or building frontages for example).

Your hirer should be able to advise on lighting rigs suitable for their structures, and offer different levels from simple white light to something more sophisticated.

A safe and sufficient power source is essential for any event. There are three main options:

  • Running a cable or two from a domestic 13A mains socket – fine for events that don’t require much power, and where the mains sockets are not too far from the site (long cables result in voltage drop which can mean that equipment will not function). A Residual Current Device must be included in the circuit at the mains socket.
  • Wiring into a fuse board – this is suitable for events requiring more power where the fuse board is not too far from the site. Wiring into a fuse board is potentially lethal and must only be carried out by a properly qualified electrician.
  • A generator – generators come in a range of sizes to handle the smallest events right up to a large festival. ‘Super silent’ generators are available which make little more noise than a diesel car engine. Generators must only be installed by a properly qualified electrician.

With modern heaters there is no need to be cold inside a marquee or tent. The trick is to have enough heaters. Heaters other than electrical heaters should be ‘indirect’ – they will have an exhaust system and sit outside the tent, blowing warm air in through flame retardant ducting running under the edge of the canvas or through a specially made cut out in the wall.

Check how long the heaters can run for on a full tank of fuel. If you expect to exceed that time, ensure there is spare fuel on site and someone who knows how to refuel. Bear in mind that if there is snow, or a risk of snow, the marquee or tent must be heated at all times (day and night) to prevent a build-up of snow on the roof.

Agree with your hirer the erecting date(s) and date on which the structure will be complete ready for you to use. Ensure that someone responsible is available at the time the hirer arrives on site to confirm exact positioning of the structure. Also ensure that someone responsible is available at the time of completion for the formal handover of the structure from the hirer.

Stagger the arrival of the various contractors to site. For example, there is no point having the caterers arrive to lay up the tables if the marquee or tent is still being built.

Agree with your hirer the dismantling date(s). Ensure that someone responsible is available at the time the hirer arrives for dismantling, so that a formal ‘hand back’ of the structure can happen. Your hirer will usually carry out an inventory check with you at this time to ensure nothing is missing.

Check that your hirer will be following MUTA’s Best Practice Guide and don’t be afraid to ask to see their safety policy, risk assessment, method statement, flame retardancy certificate and structural calculations for the structure proposed. If erecting requires use of forklifts or other plant, ask to see the licences of the drivers. Be sure that your hirer is aware of the position of underground and overhead services (eg. drains, gas pipes, electrical cables, irrigation systems, etc).

Ensure that furniture is laid out allowing access to fire escape routes and fire exits. Ask your hirer for advice on the regulations. Consider fire precautions, we recommend as a minimum a water and CO2 fire extinguisher by each fire exit.

MUTA is the UK’s only trade association dedicated to marquees, tents and structures. Since 1919, it has been working to improve standards in the industry, and its Best Practice Guide is followed by members, which are also inspected against it. / 01379 788673

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