Giant wind tunnel destroys buildings to study safety in South Carolina

The cement block wall of a strip mall restaurant came tumbling down as the business was blasted with 135 mph winds.

The epic event unfolded under controlled conditions inside the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety's giant wind tunnel in rural Chester County, S.C. IBHS, a non-profit safety research organization funded by the insurance industry, conducts the building industry's equivalent of car crash tests inside the giant chamber, which can simulate hurricanes, hail storms, wildfires and other natural disasters.

Today's test inflicted hurricane force winds on two strip mall-style structures after air cannons fired debris through the windows.

The buildings were made of identical materials with mirror image floor plans.

One, however, was reinforced with the latest enhancements recommended by insurers.

"It's really important when you're talking about defending against windstorms that the building is stronger by being completely integrated," said Julie Rochman, IBHS' executive director. "The roof is tied to the walls. The different pieces of the roof are tied to each other and the walls are reinforced so that if wind or air does get in, and the building is pressurized, it doesn't come apart."

The enhanced construction techniques cost 5 percent more, on average, than standard building practices, according to Carl Hedde of Munich Reinsurance America, Inc.

Hedde, who also serves as chairman of IBHS' board, said, "With a lot of the tests that we're doing here, the major take home is the difference -- the small difference in cost to be able to build a much stronger building that protects the occupants, protects the business and ultimately protects the property."