The Institute for Business and Home Safety has a facility that will blow you away, literally!
By Debra Ballen
The Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety (IBHS) is best known for its scientific research to identify and promote effective construction and retrofitting techniques to strengthen homes, businesses and communities against natural disasters and other causes of loss. In addition, IBHS research provides tools for claims organizations to understand the ways in which various risks damage structures and how policyholders can rebuild in ways that reduce property damage claims in the future.
In October 2010, IBHS opened a new state-of-the-art research center in South Carolina. The research center provides unprecedented opportunities for objective laboratory testing of full-scale, one- and two-story residential and commercial structures, as well as components used in larger commercial facilities, in conditions that mimic realistic, varied and sometimes extremely high-speed wind events along with wind-driven rain, wildfire, and hailstorm simulations.
"By finding out how buildings come apart, we'll have a much better idea of how to put them back together again—but safer and stronger than before," says Julie Rochman, IBHS president and CEO.
The Heart of the Machine
The centerpiece of the Research Center is the specially designed wind tunnel with a large fan array consisting of 105 electricity-powered fans (right), each nearly six feet in diameter. When running at full capacity, the fans can create a flow volume equal to 20 times that going over Niagara Falls. They can produce winds up to nearly 140 mph, or the equivalent of a Category 3 hurricane.
In explaining how IBHS brings real storms into the test chamber, IBHS's director of research, Anne Cope, Ph.D., P.E., says, "We take actual data gathered from field research and input those data points into a computer-automated control system for the fans and specially designed moveable vanes located in front of the fan array. By controlling aerodynamic flows, we can create realistic, cyclical wind patterns with variable speeds and gust structures."
To properly record, review and analyze the tests, IBHS uses a wide range of wind instruments, hundreds of pressure sensors and dozens of load and displacement sensors. In addition, high-speed digital cameras and stadium-style, broadcast-quality lighting are used to capture building performance. These images are useful not only for researchers, but also to get important mitigation messages out to the public.
Initial Testing Proves Hypotheses
The sheer power of wind was the central feature of a series of inaugural tests that opened the research center to IBHS members and the media in October 2010. These tests matched a house built to conventional building code standards used in many parts of the Midwest against a house built to IBHS's "FORTIFIED for Safer Living" standard for that area of the country. FORTIFIED is a voluntary, superior construction standard that is more rigorous than conventional building codes. Rochman recalls watching those first tests with awe: "In four separate tests, the conventional house went up against the FORTIFIED house, and every time, FORTIFIED convincingly won."
In three of those tests, the conventional house was completely destroyed. Following the only test in which the conventional house stayed intact, claims adjusters from two IBHS member companies evaluated the two structures and found the loss costs associated with the conventional house were at least five times the losses associated with the FORTIFIED house. Had the houses been fully finished on the inside and furnished, the loss ratio between conventional and superior construction would have been much greater.
High Winds Are More Than a Coastal Issue
Wind is the force that drives many destructive weather events nationwide. At the IBHS Research Center, engineers and insurance professionals have an opportunity to study the major perils in ways that have direct bearing on claims.
"In addition to wind alone, damage from wind-driven hail, water and fire will be core components of our research programs," said Timothy Reinhold, Ph.D., P.E, IBHS senior vice president of research and chief engineer. "Each of these poses unique engineering challenges in terms of creating realistic weather elements and patterns that replicate Mother Nature. To meet these challenges, we are introducing wildfire embers, rain drops, hailstones and debris into the wind stream through a series of special ducts and mechanical systems."
The first such project to be completed was a wildfire testing program, which IBHS conducted in partnership with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, U.S. Forest Service, and Savannah River National Laboratory. This partnership allowed IBHS to develop ember generation and radiant heat panel capabilities at the research center more quickly than otherwise would have been possible.
Previous field research by IBHS and others has shown that it is not direct contact from the wildfire flame front that causes many buildings to burn during wildfires. Rather, it is embers that create spot fires by igniting vegetation, debris and flammable materials near or on the exterior of a house. In some cases, embers are blown or drawn into buildings through gable vents, soffit vents and other openings that can ignite a house and cause it to burn from the inside out.
The federal agencies wanted to conduct a series of demonstrations that could be used to educate homeowners about the specific wildfire risks they and their homes face—and how to take steps to reduce those risks. For the research center program, IBHS constructed a test specimen "house" that featured panelized walls where different types of siding could be installed, a complex roof structure with multiple features, and other building components including various types of attic vents. Tests were conducted with vegetation, mulch and vegetative debris on and around the structure.
"We then created a mechanical system to generate and inject large amounts of embers into a wind stream—similar to what would be observed in a real-world ember attack during a wind-driven wildfire event," Rochman explains. "The outcome of these initial tests exploring home ignition points will be an interactive online program, as well as educational video and other materials created by our partners to clearly demonstrate ways property owners can take control of and minimize their wildfire-related risks."
During the first half of 2011, IBHS will begin a series of wind tests focusing on residential and commercial roofs. "The insurance industry is the largest customer of the roofing industry, replacing millions of roofs each year," notes Rochman. "What's more, a compromised roof leads to all kinds of other damage, as the roof is a major portal to the interior."
Next Up: Indoor Hailstorms
Even as they were bringing wind and wildfire capabilities online, IBHS scientists were working to create realistic hailstones and a hail delivery mechanism that can mimic real-world storms.
While the lifespan of many roofs is purported to be 20 years, roofs in severe hail-prone areas often must be replaced every seven to 10 years, according to insurance industry data. Despite persistent damage, building codes do not require consideration of impact resistance in the selection of most building materials, even in hail-prone regions.
Tanya Brown, Ph.D., is a research engineer at IBHS whose focus is on hailstone formation and hail impact testing. Brown says, "Previous laboratory tests have been done with steel or pure ice balls, but these materials fail to replicate actual hailstone density, uniquely shaped hailstones and the deformation that often occurs upon impact."
Fraud is a frequent, major problem following a hailstorm. In fact, the successful investigation of a massive contractor scheme arising from Midwest hailstorms won a State Farm investigator the top 2009 honor from the International Association of Special Investigation Units. The fraud involved a "storm chaser" who went from one disaster to another to file inflated and fake claims by simulating hail damage to roofs, roofing vents, siding and air conditioning units.
"If we want to show the damage caused by real hail, we have to use materials that behave like real hailstones," says Brown. "In addition, using field observations, we need to recreate realistic impact patterns."
The Claims University of the Future
Most of the attention focused on the IBHS research center to date has centered on its unsurpassed, one-of-a-kind scientific capabilities. But claims professionals also see a laboratory of a different type. They are excited to study the debris that survives testing to better understand how to evaluate damage and repair it in a cost-effective manner. In the future, IBHS hopes to be able to conduct claims seminars to improve understanding of the claims implications of wind, water, hail and fire testing.
Another insight for claims experts will come when wind-driven rain is integrated into the research agenda. A 750,000-gallon water tank on the campus, also part of the fire suppression system, supplies 450 test-chamber nozzles capable of creating up to eight inches of variable "rain" per hour. This will allow IBHS to closely observe how water penetrates the building envelope and ruins interior components and contents. After the test, the damaged structure can be left intact in order to study how water damage leads to mold.
Many IBHS members already use IBHS publications as reference material for their claims organizations. The new research center provides a much broader campus, both literally and figuratively.
"Our building science programs are dedicated to highlighting effective loss mitigation, as well as pointing out what may exacerbate losses," says Rochman. "We believe that these efforts will reduce the size of the claims docket following a natural disaster. At the same time, we can identify tools for claims adjusters to help their policyholders rebuild so that they are living and working in stronger, safer homes and businesses."
Debra Ballen is general counsel and senior vice president of public policy for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS). www.disastersafety.org
Photography for this article © Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety