Laboratory designed to put nature’s fury in a box

Amid the fields and scattered pines of Chester County, a new six-story concrete building juts out of the landscape.  One of its walls is dotted with what looks like a grid of airplane engines, dozens of them.

This new facility is unique in South Carolina and the world, according to its builders.  The goal: to make homes and businesses safer in the face of potential disaster.

The facility is a huge testing laboratory being constructed by the Institute for Business & Home Safety.  It is funded by almost 50 companies in the insurance field, mostly involved in property and casualty lines.  The arrangement is similar to the Insurance Institute on Highway Safety, which conducts safety crash testing on autos and releases the results to the public.

The Chester County research center will do the same thing to houses and small commercial buildings.

The central lab is designed to subject buildings to some of the most brutal treatment that the climate can dish out.  The 105 turbine fans will blast highspeed winds through the chamber.  Add pumped-in rain and it’s an indoor hurricane.  Researchers also will be able to shoot realistic hail at roofs or even add burning embers to the winds to test a home’s potential resistance to a nearby wildfire.

“We are putting Mother Nature in a big box,” said Julie Rochman, CEO of the institute.

Property insurance businesses have been thinking about such a facility for years as a way to reduce the damage that homes and small business suffer – and what the industry must cover, Rochman said.

“We shouldn’t be losing as many homes and businesses as we do today,” she said.

The $40 million complex is scheduled to begin testing in the fall.

The research done in Chester County will change the way homes are built, Rochman said.  She was speaking at a tour of the center in March, as it was being completed.  Home insurers already are involved in the way building codes are written, and this data will be added to that discussion.

The study results and video will be used to help popularize building techniques and materials that hold off better to severe weather, Rochman said.  The results also will be used to see whether government and private incentives are going to things that actually work, she said.

The heavy blows that hurricanes have landed in recent years are a driving force in the lab’s creation, Rochman said.  She notes that storms have frequently landed in populated areas and that hurricaneforce winds have pushed as far inland as Ohio.

People still need and want to live at the coast, though, and that means a need for insurance, Rochman said.

The main laboratory is a vast concrete square, almost 50 yards across and six stories high.  One wall, when complete, will feature 105 turbine fans, each with a six-foot opening.  At full blast, the fans will be able to generate winds of 140 mph, the force of a strong Category 3 hurricane.  Even with the fans off, the lab’s configuration makes a gentle breeze more forceful; the room is wider on one side than the other, adding force to the winds.

The floor features a 55-foot turntable so the facility can test a structure at any possible angle.  House movers were constructed so that test buildings could be moved inside gently.

The facility will try to use ice balls that approximate the composition of real hail, Rochman said.  Right now, tests for hail sometimes are done with steel balls shot out of guns, a less realistic test.

The support structure for the facility also is massive.  For wildfire testing, there will be a 175,000-gallon water tank.  The site has its own electrical substation, to help meet the massive power demand of those fans.  The system will draw up to 30 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 9,000 homes.

The electricity demand is part of the reason the facility was put in Chester County.  The institue wanted the lab to be near a source of reliable, renewable energy, so it had to be near a nuclear power plant.  The facility will have a set schedule with Duke Energy, to prevent problems when it uses so much power then quickly shuts down.  It will run only during business hours – power demand is less than in evenings.  Duke Energy has been a great partner in the project, Rochman said.  “We’re a great customer.”

The lab also needed to be more than 100 miles inland, ironically, to help protect it from hurricane damage.  And it needed to be near a major air travel hub, in this case Charlotte.

The economic development teams in North and South Carolina worked together to find the right site, Rochman said.

Once the lab is up and running in the fourth quarter, it will employ about 20 people, in addition to the local labor that will be called upon for the construction of homes and small business structures to be tested.

That’s not a huge new employer, but Chester County is glad to land the facility, according to County Council Chairman Carlisle Roddey.

“We don’t get a lot of research” industry Roddey said.

There’s also the possibility that other organizations interested in partnering with the institute will want to locate nearby, Rochman said.

People in construction and other fields have been contacting the institute to see whether the lab can conduct research they need, Rochman said.

They’ve even had a request to test the connection between two floors of a highrise, she said.  And the institute is looking into it.  The laboratory is designed to answer questions that couldn’t previously be tested scientifically in the real world, Rochman said.

“We’re just going to keep on asking questions,” she said.

By Mike Fitts, Staff Writer with SC BIZ