Unnatural disasters in S.C.

Allison Dean Love, spokeswoman for the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, looks out from one of the wind chambers at the IBHS Research Center in Richburg, S.C. The $40 million center in Chester County is the only one of its kind in the world. Todd Sumlin –
At the center, homes are built to be destroyed under controlled conditions. Effects are studied to determine the best materials. SCOTT ISKOWITZ – IBHS
A controlled fire is put out after it was set in a house at the IBHS disaster research center. MELISSA CHERRY –
Researchers are using molds to create hail in a lab at the center. Experiments with hailstorms might start in the spring. Todd Sumlin –

With hail, wind and storms battering homes and wallets, property insurers seek relief with the help of weather chaos created at an S.C. disaster research center.

By Celeste Smith
Posted: Sunday, Jul. 17, 2011

RICHBURG, S.C. The future of homebuilding may well depend on what’s happening at a high-tech campus in the middle of a field 45 miles south of Charlotte, where researchers build houses and then destroy them.

At this disaster research center, the only one of its kind in the world, engineers summon up fire and wind to put homes to the test. Rain and hail are next.

The experiments are all about making homes safer. And for property insurers, the research can’t come soon enough.

The property insurance industry expects to suffer billions in losses this year from severe weather across the country, including hail and tornadoes in the Carolinas. The research center hopes to prevent those losses.

Making homes safer from hurricanes and other storms is the goal of the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety, a Tampa, Fla.-based nonprofit supported by the property insurance industry.

The institute’s members committed $40 million to open this futuristic research center in Chester County, a former textile stronghold that has struggled with double-digit unemployment for years.

The center opened in October, but the idea dates to Hurricane Andrew in 1992. That Category 5 storm, which devastated parts of Florida and Louisiana, racked up a historic $20 billion in insured losses. Many insurers went bankrupt, and everyone from inspectors to product manufacturers caught blame.

Tim Reinhold, senior vice president for research and chief engineer for the institute, remembers how all of the finger-pointing highlighted a need to understand what made houses vulnerable.

“There was a need to …really understand what was causing these problems,” said Reinhold, a civil engineer and former Clemson University professor who has spent much of his career watching how houses behave during hurricanes. “We started working on ideas on how to create a facility.”

His observations of major storms since 1998 – including Hurricane Katrina in 2005 – laid much of the groundwork for the disaster research center, run by an 11-member staff of mainly Ph.D.s, engineers and scientists.

They hire contractors to build houses on the campus, then roll them into a massive test chamber bigger than four basketball courts. Inside the chamber, a six-story wall of fans replicates the 130-mph winds of a Category 3 hurricane.

The fans stay in play for wildfire tests, too, whipping up brush and landscaping, so researchers can see how and where embers get into homes. Fires are extinguished through sprinklers fed by a water tank larger than an Olympic-size pool.

Ducts being installed now will generate up to 8 inches of rain per hour. Once researchers move on to thunderstorm simulations, the fans will be turned on again, helping to pelt roofs with hail and driving rain.

Research in the limelight

For the center’s first big test last fall, the simulated high winds blew down an experimental 1,300-square-foot home and bent pine trees 700 feet away from the test chamber. But a specially built, “fortified” home stood intact.

That comparison, captured in a popular video on the institute’s website, is of particular interest to property insurers, who are closely following the disaster center’s research.

“I do hope they’ll be able to come up with something that’ll be able to not only help prevent some of this damage or better products to prevent this damage, but … determining whether there is damage or there isn’t,” said Jim Weaver, claims manager at the Charlotte office of Erie Insurance.

Erie is among the more than 100 U.S. property insurers and reinsurers that support IBHS, and among the 58 members that invested in building the research center.

The idea of building homes to a certain weather standard isn’t new – and building codes and insurance requirements don’t come without controversy. Homebuilders have debated how far they should have to go with upgrades. For example, must they install wind-resistant windows, which could drive up costs and may not be necessary in some areas?

That’s why supporters of the research center are eager for scientific proof on what works on homes, and what doesn’t. The research could influence insurance discounts for homeowners, construction codes for new homes and guidelines for owners of existing properties.

Property losses surge

For insurers, the stakes are high this year: Globally, experts say 2011 has broken records for property insurance expenses due to natural disasters – from the tsunami in Japan, to flooding in the Southern U.S., to the tornadoes and hailstorms throughout the Carolinas in April.

Normally it’s the second half of the year that worries insurance companies, because of the hurricane season that runs from June through November. But in recent years, first- and second-quarter property insurance claims have been on the rise, due to a surge of severe-weather events. U.S. insurers have warned that second-quarter profits, being released this month and next, will be down due to this spring’s tornadoes.

In the Charlotte area, the April 9 hailstorms and windstorms damaged homeowners’ roofs and vinyl siding, generating more than 3,000 claims to Erie Insurance’s Charlotte office, Weaver said. The claims, he said, “don’t seem to be going away, so I certainly don’t need a hurricane on top of that.”

Chester in the spotlight

IBHS picked the Chester County site over spots in Texas and Alabama because of its proximity to a power source with Duke Energy’s Catawba Nuclear Station, transportation through Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, and the inland geography that would keep the center protected from hurricanes.

South Carolina provided IBHS $9 million in tax-exempt bond funding to build the research center.

Chester County economic developers now feature it in their promotional materials. County leaders hope the center will attract other businesses to the surrounding 300 acres of county-owned land that make up Chester Research and Development Park.

The center also employs local contractors from Chester for everything from construction to catering barbecue lunches for the center’s guests, said IBHS spokeswoman Allison Dean Love.

Then there’s the national attention. “Today,” The Weather Channel, National Geographic and the History Channel have all broadcast features about the center.

For the next big project, researchers are using molds to make their own hail – from pea-sized to baseball-sized. When experiments start, possibly by spring, work crews will bolt a home to the chamber’s turntable floor, allowing the structure to rotate and be pelted from all directions, with help from that bank of fans.

Reinhold, the IBHS chief engineer, said tests are showing that relatively inexpensive additions can protect homes and homeowners.

These include thicker siding for high winds, metal straps built in the home’s foundation connecting the roof to walls, impact-resistant windows, reinforced roofs with an additional waterproof layer, and front doors that open out instead of in (making them more resistant to high winds).

Smitty Harrison, executive director of the S.C. Wind and Hail Underwriting Association, an institute member, expects the center to eventually do for homebuilding what the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has done for car buying.

“Consumers wouldn’t buy a car without knowing the safety rating. Everyone knows what a test dummy is,” Harrison said.

“We will literally see people from around the world … going to Chester, South Carolina, for the exciting research being done there.”

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