Chester Co. lab destroys building during high wind test

The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety’s lab did what it does best Tuesday – it destroyed a building.

This time is was a side-by-side, one-story concrete block buildings. One was built using the typical construction standards found in strip malls across America. The other was built to a higher standard.

When the winds on the testing floor hit 73 mph – the winds generated during a severe thunderstorm – the metal roof flashing started pealing off the conventionally-built building. When the winds reached hurricane strength of about 130 mph, the lab simulated flying debris, shooting a 2x4 through the window of each building.

Soon the roof of the conventionally-built building separated from a side wall. Almost instantly the wall blew out from the pressure and lack of support. Chunks of masonry scattered around the lab. Simulated inventory was blow out the back door. The building was a total loss, said insurance experts watching the test.

The building constructed to higher standards – flashing and roof materials that are correctly screwed in place and walls constructed with rebar throughout the wall and connected to the roof – suffered minimal damage.

The message was one the on institute has delivered after other previous public tests – improved construction standards don’t cost much and they save lives.

“The test was a success — there was a failure,” said Julie Rochman, president and chief executive officer of the institute. “It showed there was the right way and the regular way.”

The insurance loss was only the tip of the iceberg, however, said insurance experts who watched the test.

They wanted to discuss the social costs – a building extensively damaged by a weather disaster is a businesses that can’t get back up and running, putting people out of work and not assisting in a community’s recovery. Insurance data shows one out of every four businesses closed by severe weather won’t reopen.

But with an investment of about 5 percent or less, more buildings can survive severe weather, the institute estimates.

“We need to become a more weather ready nation,” said Carl Hedde, senior vice president and head of risk accumulation for Munich Reinsurance America.

Surveying the test, Mark Pizzi, president and chief operating officer of Nationwide Insurance, said, “this doesn’t have to be this way.”

Pizzi said insurance agents see this kind of damage “everyday and we see the human trauma associated with it.” While an insurance check can rebuild a house, or replace damaged inventory, “it can’t replace the memories,” he said.

Pizzi said the auto industry and the insurance industry understood this and made safety a priority in the industry.

But with thousands of architects, builders, suppliers, business owners and homeowners, it has been harder sell in the construction industry.

“We need to sell safety,” he said.

Nationwide recently open a new office building in San Antonio, Texas build to the higher standards. Construction of a safer building, he said, increases costs by just .5 percent, Pizzi said.

Louis Gritzo, vice president of FM Global of Norwood, Mass., said the test results didn’t surprise him. FM Global has done similar, smaller scale testing at its Rhode Island labs and he has seen the damage in the field. But Tuesday’s test in a controlled situation, showed “little things make a difference.”

FM Global sets technical standards that are used in the construction industry. The company sells insurance to Fortune 1000 companies. The challenge is getting smaller businesses – especially the mom-and-pop operations – to adopt safer building construction and maintenance practices, he said.

“Your roof if the first line of defense,” he said. “Once it flexes, the walls are at risk.”

While retrofitting a building often offers numerous challenges, everyone at one time or another has to replace a roof, Gritzo said. He suggested small business go to FM Global’s web site roofnav.com to check out standards and products that meet those standards. FM certifies products that can withstand winds up to 110 mph, he said.