Lab tests building upgrades against hurricane-force winds

Posted July 26, 2012 7:00 p.m. EDT
Updated July 27, 2012 10:49 a.m. EDT

— A state-of-the-art nonprofit laboratory in South Carolina allows researchers to test the wrath of wind unleashed in a hurricane on ordinary homes and businesses to help develop technology that can make buildings stronger.

Tucked away on a back road in the town of Richburg, an austere gray compound, called the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, has an Area 51 feel to it. 

"This amazing facility is unlike any other laboratory in the world," said IIBHS CEO Julie Rochman.

Inside, two buildings resembling ordinary strip-mall restaurants sit in the center of a large test chamber. They have silverware and plates on the tables; even a sign listing "Today's Specials."

But they are not real restaurants. They're "specimens" – buildings used for hurricane simulations. The buildings, one yellow and one green, are practically identical – made of concrete, metal and rebar, but scientists say, the way they were constructed can mean the difference between a hurricane-safe structure and a pile of rubble.

"The yellow building is built more like you'd find in common construction – people building it the way they always built it, with just reinforcing in the corners and nothing along the walls," said Tim Reinhold, vice president of engineering for IIBHS. 

The green one, on the other hand, was built with $1,200 worth of upgrades to make it stronger.

More than 100 high-powered fans stacked several stories high in the compound test those upgrades.

When the fan blast reached 73 mph, the yellow building lost the metal flashing on its roof. It peeled away under the wind's fury.

To make the storm scenario more realistic, two-by-fours were shot through the windows like bullets.

At 130 mph, one wall of the yellow building came crashing down.

But the green building sustained only minor damages in the simulation.

The major difference? 

"(The green building) had steel vertically throughout the building, not just at the corners," said engineer Anne Cope. "That steel comes up and is tied in to the steel that goes around the perimeter of the room."

In the yellow, conventional building, however, the vertical steel is only at the corner.

The institute's staff says the upgrades cost less than 5 percent of the total construction cost.

"You'd pay less to upgrade to a stronger, safer structure than you would for the sales tax on the building materials themselves," Rochman said.

Builders and insurers both attend demonstrations at the facility.

"The only thing we can do to reduce losses and prevent people from being injured and killed is to make the building stronger and safer," Rochman said.