Testing Homes for Fire Safety

Anne Cope tests homes for resistance to wildfires and hurricanes at a research facility in South Carolina. 

Anne Cope, vice president at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, image

Anne Cope runs fans to create killer winds.

When wildfire or other disaster strikes, what causes one home to stand and another one to fail? Anne Cope, a vice president at the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety’s research facility in Richburg, S.C., is bent on finding out, unleashing fire and wind in a six-story, 21,000-square-foot test chamber.

Q You’re setting houses on fire?
A
It’s all about safety. Instead of crashing cars with dummies in them, we’re testing buildings the same way Mother Nature does, then looking at how to make them better. We study wind, hail, wildfire, and wind-driven rain, because that’s where the biggest gaps are in our knowledge. Our bank of 105 fans—at 350 horsepower apiece—generates winds up to 130 mph. Computers re-create real-time histories of actual winds. We can do Santa Ana winds, we can do a hurricane.

Q Why test whole houses?
A
Some things are hard to learn in small-lab science. You can’t scale down an asphalt shingle without changing how it behaves. So we replicate real-world conditions.

Q Why should people care?
A
Our insights up the ante on home durability. We can arm those who set building codes and materials standards to help them make things stronger without guesswork.

Q What have you learned about wildfire?
A
We recommend a Class A fire-resistant roof. Wildfire ember rains on your structure and tries to find a foothold. We found that a two-to-three-inch flame would burn through a wooden-shake roof, but a home with Class A asphalt shingles kept the fire out. Check our ideas at ibhs.org/wildfire.

Photography courtesy of Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety

This article was first published in September 2013. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.

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