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IBHS blows everybody away...eventually

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By Travis Jenkins

Research, development and experiments can often be unpredictable…just like the weather.

On Thursday, the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) Research Center conducted a test at its Richburg facility. There have been previous wind tests before, along with simulated wildfires and hailstorms. The plan this time was to subject a home built according to standard inland building codes to coastal-style winds. Using its gigantic bank of 105 fans, the house was blasted with winds in excess of 105 miles-per-hour. The manner in which the test is carried out is not random, though, according to Julie Rochman, the center's president and CEO. That involves a lot more than just turning the fans on “high.”

“We have the wind record of an actual storm digitized and the wind speed will vary accordingly,” Rochman said.

Building codes in coastal areas use a continuous load path, meaning the floor is tied to the walls, the walls are tied to each other and tied to the roof.

“It’s about tying the bones of the house together,” Rochman said. “Normally, a roof is held on by a few nails.”

IBHS has carried out similar tests in the past, but there were two notable variances implemented on Thursday. For one, the full-sized house built for the demonstration was fully furnished, complete with tables, chairs, nursery items, dishes, food and lamps. Rochman said the point was to demonstrate the full reality of a damaging weather event. Secondly, the house was built and furnished by York County Habitat For Humanity.

“Everything inside was purchased from the Habitat ReStore. We wanted to show that you could furnish a home affordably that way,” said Kevin Gobble, with Habitat for Humanity.

Once the media and guests had made their way into the safety of the observation room, the test began in IBHS’s airport hangar-sized laboratory, which is open at one end. In the first test, which lasted a little less than five minutes, simulated rain was used, the wind blew steadily and there were extremely heavy gusts. Some shingles flapped and the garage door shook, but the house held together. No rain was used in the second round, but a window in the house was opened, to simulate a window being broken, a common occurrence in heavy storms. There was more shaking of the garage door, a few shingles flew off and some paper items inside the house began to fly around. For the third phase of the test, a door was opened. That door ended up off its hinges, there were more cosmetic damages to the exterior of the home and more items could be seen blowing and shifting inside. Cameras placed inside showed a baby crib pushed off a wall and moved several feet. Ideally, that test would have taken the roof entirely off the structure (which is how storm tests at IBHS always end). However, it was explained that having the door and window open allowed too much air to circulate through the house without meeting resistance, which leads to great damage. Once the door was repaired, the fans revved up again, with slightly higher winds being used (up to 120 miles per hour). That led to significant damage, including a bay window being blown off, some siding peeling off and shingles flying off at a high speed…but the house still stood. The event narrator pronounced the house her “least favorite house ever.” There was value in what had been witnessed, though. Some homes, built to the same specs by the same builder simply hold up better than others. The inside cameras did reveal large cracks along the top of the wall where drywall separation was beginning to take place. Of course, the test did not fully simulate a real storm, since there were stops and starts to allow inspection of damage. An actual hurricane would subject a home to high winds for an extended period of time with no breaks. That would result in much more damage more quickly.

There was another test, then another one. After over an hour of stops and starts, there was significant damage, but the roof never actually came off. That demonstrated several things. For one, had the roof, walls and floor been connected, the house would have sustained much less damage. Rochman said the hope is that inland homes will eventually be built according to coastal standards, which for a minimal cost increase could save untold thousands of dollars in the long run. Secondarily, the test demonstrated that you can never quite predict the weather and that Habitat for Humanity builds excellent houses.

IBHS, which opened in 2010, serves as a multi-peril applied research and training facility that evaluates various residential and commercial construction materials and systems. Its mission is to reduce the social and economic effects of natural disasters and other property losses by conducting research and advocating improved construction, maintenance and preparation practices. Funding for the facility comes from property insurance companies.