There are plenty of reputable companies and organizations—ranging from Intertek and Building Science Corp. to the NAHB Research Center—that test the performance of building products. But few have the capacity—outside of computer models or factory simulations—to analyze how products will hold up under catastrophes or severe weather conditions.
Now, the Tampa, Fla.–based Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) is attempting to bring “real world” analysis to the testing process. Last month, the Institute, which is funded by the insurance industry, opened its $40 million applied research and training center on 90 acres in Chester County, S.C. The Institute chose South Carolina, says Julie Rochman, IBHS’s president and CEO, because it has had its share of seismic and wind “events,” hail storms, and wild fires. “Everywhere, you have at least one of these kinds of natural disasters,” she says.
The facility includes a specially designed 145-foot-wide-by-145-foot-long wind chamber with a 60-foot-high clearance, so the entire exterior of a house could be built inside it to test against realistic recreations of Category 1, 2, and 3 hurricanes, hailstorms, severe tropical winds, and so forth. The goal, explains Rochman, is to develop standards for building a house “with components and systems in a more cohesive way.” The Institute is also looking to introduce “objectivity and distance” to evolving codes that, she points out, can get politicized.
Rochman says codes are “proxies for quality,” when so much of a house is hidden behind walls. “They tell underwriters that the house is well built,” she says. However, there are many areas of the country that don’t have building codes or don’t enforce them. Rochman notes that before Hurricane Katrina hit the Southeastern U.S. five years ago, neither Louisiana, Alabama, nor Mississippi had statewide building codes, and it took Louisiana two years after that disaster to pass them. (The other two have yet to pass statewide codes.)
The Institute expects the housing industry to play a role in devising testing guidelines. In December, the board of the HBA of South Carolina will visit the research center, at which point it should learn how builders might be a part of this process. Mark Nix, the HBA of South Carolina’s executive director, wants to make sure that builders get their two cents in about tests that take into account regional and local weather differences. The HBA recently went through a battle over the imposition of new wind standards that Nix contends were devised using weather conditions in California as their model. (Subsequent analysis by Clemson University, which Nix says confirmed the HBA’s claims, led the state to revert to more appropriate standards.)
Roofing will be the research center’s first area of concentration, as 90 percent of roof damage caused by severe weather ends up as a property insurance claim, “and insurers are the biggest customers of the roofing industry,” says Rochman. Because the roofs are on a structure, they can be tested in conjunction with windows and siding.
She also expects the Institute to test how building products and components perform as a house gets older. “We have an aging housing stock in this country, and we’re not going to move these buildings so we have to figure out the best ways to retrofit them and make them safe,” says Rochman.