New ‘Catastrophe Lab’ Will Provide Disaster Mitigation Info

Published July 20, 2010

A first-of-its-kind “catastrophe lab” that will allow researchers to subject buildings and building materials to lifelike Category 1, 2, or 3 hurricane conditions, as well as simulated firestorms, hailstorms, and other natural or manmade disasters, is about to open in Chester County, South Carolina.

The Tampa, Florida-based Institute for Business & Home Safety is building the $40 million research facility slated to open October 19. The IBHS is an independent, nonprofit scientific and educational organization supported by the property-casualty insurance industry.

The campus will have seven buildings on 90 acres, but most of the hazards will be conjured in a main test chamber which will contain a 55-foot turntable. Residential and commercial structures will be placed on the turntable and revolved up to 360 degrees without human intervention and positioned before a bank of enormous fans to simulate powerful windstorms.

‘Going to Change the World’
“We will be able to conduct the kind of world-class science that our members want us to conduct,” said IBHS President and CEO Julie Rochman on The Heartland Institute’s Finance, Insurance & Real Estate News podcast. “There is nothing else like this in the world that allows for full-scale testing, which is really important because you want to test the entire structure as a system and you can’t do that if you downsize or test in chunks.

“So it really is a massive undertaking and one that we’re very very proud of. And we’re going to change the world for the better as a result of the research we’ll be doing up there,” she added.

Research will be supported by IBHS’s insurer and reinsurer members and local, state, and federal agencies, policy experts, and academics involved in disaster prevention.

The research will be aimed at closing the gap between theoretical and actual building performance in the face of natural and manmade disasters. The IBHS also aims to bring these results to the public to increase consumer awareness of and demand for better structures.

Illinois House Is Model
The first two test subjects—identical structures modeled on an Illinois house—are being built now. One will be fortified according to IBHS’s “code plus” program, meaning the house will be upgraded in ways that increase resistance to hazards. The other will be built according to common Midwestern engineering.

“We’re going to have them side by side on the turntable,” Rochman said. “We’re going to turn the fans on to 120 miles per hour or so and watch what happens in terms of the difference between a well-engineered structure and one that’s built to more conventional standards.”

Arin Greenwood ([email protected]) is editor of The Heartland Institute’s Out of the Storm News Web site.