Past, Present and Future Tents

Louis Thompson discusses the evolution of tensile structures and what the future might hold.

Neanderthal dwelling made from mammoth parts
Neanderthal dwelling made from mammoth parts

Past Tents

The picture below may look like the ultimate shaggy chic, boho hideout for gypset living but it is in fact a replica of what is considered to be one of the earliest nomadic housing structures, judged to have been built around 25,000 years ago. Woolly mammoth bones were used as a construction material for dwellings by Neanderthals and modern humans throughout the ice age. Large bones were used as foundations for the huts, tusks for the entrances and the roofs were skins held in place by bones or tusks.

At that time, mammoths were a rapidly renewable, local resource and the whole thing seemed sustainable… today a safari lodge made from elephant tusks and giraffe skins might raise a few eyebrows.
Tents have improved quite slowly throughout the ages, the essential construction methodology remaining similar for thousands of years – multiple rigid structural elements (locally sourced timber poles, bamboo or bones) covered by animal skins or various rudimentary woven fabrics. The fur from animal hides provided a high level of insulation during the winter months in cooler climates and protected against passive solar gain during the summer.

A Sami family in 1900
A Sami family in 1900

Be it camel hair Bedouin tents in the desert or seal skin tupiqs in the far north, typically tent interiors had a distinct ‘feral’ smell. In truth they wouldn’t really meet the level of comfort expected by a new generation of ‘woke’ ecotourists (I occasionally enjoy imagining an encounter between an Inuit woman skinning a baby seal for her tupiq and a scandalised ethical traveller thirsty to learn about indigenous culture).

It is interesting to note that despite the lack of en-suite bathrooms and air conditioning there is significant evidence that ‘civilised’ colonial visitors to these indigenous camps often refused to return ‘home’ to colonial society. Native Americans themselves seldom integrated into ‘white’ society for any significant length of time, but there are multiple accounts from reliable historical sources that ‘colonial’ American prisoners of the Native American tribes in the Far West often refused to return to ‘civilised’ society, and literally had to be dragged back to town…

“When an Indian child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and make one Indian ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return.” Benjamin Franklin,1753.

Present tents

Having noticed the distinct lack of innovation in tented accommodation over the last 10 thousand years, we concluded that there may be an opportunity to leverage new developments in fabric engineering (initiated by the work of Frei Otto and Buckminster Fuller) to create nature inspired, modular structures that are better suited to the expectations of a more ‘coddled’ society.

Our focus was to redefine the notion of ‘tented accommodation’, reduce the physical footprint of our developments and provide a similar level of ‘luxury’ as many of the resorts we had worked on at Six Senses.

Our aim, in essence, was to develop modular tensile structures, using the most advanced fabrics available, that could be accurately engineered to withstand extreme weather conditions, provide efficient thermal comfort and last a similar length of time to a conventional building.

Since 2011 we have designed, engineered, fabricated and installed a family of tented products – The Looper, The Urchin and The Seedpod – at lodges and resorts for various luxury hotel groups.

Interior of a tent

As a team we hope we have found a balance between the nerdy and the beautiful. For the interiors of our tents we worked with Bo Reudler and Resplendent Ceylon to create an atmosphere that combines a steampunk aesthetic with references to the golden era of exploration.

A strong focus on noble materials, tactile pleasure and analogue technology was critical to produce the desired effect at Wild Coast Tented Lodge.

Future tents

Every vernacular architectural tradition across the entire world would have found a use for a water repellent, UV resistant, self-cleaning, durable fabric either for waterproofing or shading, be it the Pygmies of the Kalahari or the tribes of the Amazon.

The history of weaving correlates in many ways with the history of civilisation itself. Humankind has shown extraordinary powers of improvisation to transform available materials into thread. Those innovations continue today, and we are extremely fortunate to work in a rapidly changing field in which new smart fabrics take advantage of improved weaving technology and innovative material applications.

Each year we see improvements in durability and performance – some of the high performance, PTFE fabrics available for tents today were developed by NASA for the spacesuits worn by astronauts in the 1970s.

Nomadic fabrics

The biggest challenge we face is identifying fabrics that combine high performance with a sustainable life cycle analysis.

Unfortunately, today one of the most commonly available materials worldwide is plastic waste. As there are no mammoths around, we decided to see if we could find a way of harvesting a pollutant and transforming it into a sustainable asset.

In our next tent model we are delighted to announce that we will be making extensive use of reclaimed shoreline plastics for the fabrics, insulation, soft furnishings, bedding, fixed furniture and even the floor. It will in fact be the first tent, that we know of, made predominately from ocean waste plastic.

Biomimicry is also an important theme at Nomadic – it is a design process that learns from and mimics the strategies found in nature to solve human design challenges.

Pavilion made from ETFE

We believe that there are significant opportunities to develop lightweight structures based on existing natural forms and materials to provide shelter more efficiently. To give a little bit of an insight into where we are headed in our quest for lightness I have included apavilion structure by one of our engineer friends which takes its inspiration from an inherently strong animal body part, the beetle wing, to create a shell roof structure clad with ETFE.

The structure used robots to weave carbon fibre reinforced plastics (which share key characteristics with natural composites cellulose, chitin or collagen) into lightweight structural members. This may be only the tip of the iceberg.

Today new intersections between academic disciplines are bearing stranger fruit still. Seeing the recent developments in digital morphogenesis by Neri Oxman at MIT, we expect to see hybrid combinations of materials in the future as biomimicry, organic chemistry, architecture, membrane engineering, 3D printing and natural fabrication combine to provide us with a host of incredible new tools, materials, methods and techniques.

The Neri Oxman
The Neri Oxman: Material Ecology exhibition

These new materials will be developed with performance and behaviour that differs hugely from our current expectations. Let’s hope that one day we too will be able to harness the enthusiasm of silk worms to create our tent fabrics, or robotically fabricate structural members from the molecular components found in tree branches, insect exoskeletons or our own bones…

The tourism industry is currently in a state of flux and adaptation, and it is increasingly clear that the hospitality sector is in need of a radical shift to face a changing commercial landscape that is learning to function in a low-touch economy. Rather than be an obstacle, this could be a moment for the industry to reconsider the traditional travel modus operandi and adopt bold new strategies to develop and operate camps in an entirely new way. Maybe the future of glamping could become an inquiry into our relationship with the planet and a unique opportunity to explore ways to reduce the weight of Mankind on the earth.

I hope we are ready for it.

 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Louis Thompson is CEO of Nomadic Resorts, an interdisciplinary design and project development company servicing the hospitality industry with offices in the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Mauritius and South Africa. Using a holistic approach, Nomadic creates sustainable resorts, tented camps, lodges and residential projects that reflect a true sense of place and fit organically into their natural surroundings. Its ethos is that designs should serve as a bridge to connect nature, culture and people. The team specialises in sustainable architecture, contemporary bamboo construction, treetop living concepts, as well as tent design, engineering, manufacture and installation. Over the last 15 years Louis has worked on some of the leading luxury tented camps across the world including Wild Coast Tented Lodge in the south of Sri Lanka, Soneva Kiri on Ko Kut island in Thailand and Hoanib Skeleton Coast Camp in Namibia. The projects have won multiple awards in both the design and hospitality sectors including the 2019 Ahead award for the best resort in Asia and the 2018 UNESCO Prix Versailles for the best restaurant design in the world. louis@nomadicresorts.com www.nomadicresorts.com

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