In man-made lab, Mother Nature's fury unleashed - FOX 13 News

In man-made lab, Mother Nature's fury unleashed

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RICHBURG, S.C. -

The sun was shining and the sky was baby blue, yet hurricane force winds tore down the wall of a concrete building here.

The violent burst of tropical fury was brief and isolated to just two structures. It was also completely man made.

Researchers with Tampa's Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety operate a uniquely large wind tunnel here, a laboratory capable of housing (and destroying) full-sized buildings.

The prime menace: 105 giant fans producing hurricane winds in excess of 100 miles per hour.

"Those fans are changing building science forever," said IBHS President Julie Rochman. "They're beautiful."

The goal of the unique $40 million lab, which locals originally thought was a base for UFOs, is to illustrate in unmistakable terms that stronger-built homes can survive a storm. To make their point clear, scientists test full-sized homes and businesses side-by-side, often with dramatic results.

It is the intersection of science and showbiz.

"This is a game-changer," Rochman said.

RUBBLE & THE OVEN

IBHS holds onto the tattered remnants of its test subjects and stores them behind its towering, six-story stack of fans.

"This is the building graveyard," Rochman said.

The bruised homes are a testament to the lab's adage: success in failure.

Nearby, Rochman points out what she calls ‘the world's largest Easy Bake Oven.'" Rochman says she aims for a "fair fight," so scientists age victim buildings the same way the sun does.

Huge heating elements, reminiscent of those in an oven, do the work.

"They allow us to bake a building," she said. "To seal down the roof system."

TALKING WALLS

Behind the wind tunnel, meteorologist Tanya Brown is part of a team that can spend months planning just a few seconds of angry wind. But it's not all for show.

"This is where we build all of our sensors," she said.

Brown, a Ph.D., said as many as 200 gauges and instruments are attached to each doomed test structure. Together with dozens of cameras, scientists can measure the enormous pressure placed on their test subjects in hopes of finding what snapped, when, and why.

Brown says the walls can talk. And the controlled environment of this sprawling lab is a vast upgrade over chasing Mother Nature and her unpredictable outbursts.

"She does whatever she wants. But we can say, ‘I want to look at –this- thing,'" said Brown.

INCREDIBLE POWER

The data is invaluable, but the invisible wall of wind steals the spotlight. More than one hundred huge, arguably picturesque fans hurl the air at a scientist's whim. Each silver blade is nearly six feet diameter, originally designed to vent coal mines. Computers control how fast the fans spin, with programming so sophisticated that engineers can order up everything from an ordinary thunderstorm to hurricanes by name.

Rochman, the IBHS president, said the power require to run them at full speed is equivalent to 9,000 homes.

"It's a small town," she quipped. Rochman said IBHS had to erect a special electric substation just to power the unique fan array.

Attached to the towering test chamber sits a warehouse full of specialized fan controllers. IBHS said it must cool that room to 70 degrees for full speed tests – a feat that relies on a massive 300-ton air conditioner, equivalent to the A/C units in 200 typical homes.

TEST TIME

When the fans are running, engineers crowd inside a fortified control room that sits just a few feet from the raging wind. Buildings collapse before their eyes. And yet, there is calm amid the storm.

"You know, it's surprisingly quiet," said Anne Cope, a former NASA engineer who now oversees the weather lab.

Cope, also who served in the U.S. Army, said she runs the facility with military precision. But even she can be surprised, as was the case with the initial test of two homes.

"That was a little bit of a shock," she said. The weaker house buckled, slid off its foundation, and then disintegrated. It is a stunning, unforgettable display of human engineering replicating unflinching natural fury. The house collapsed just four seconds after the wind blew in the front door.

"The actual destruction was more than we anticipated," she said. It was "very quick."

Cope, a Ph.D., said those surprises are exactly why the lab is here—to push the limits of construction knowledge and to build houses that can better withstand a beating.

"What we're doing here matters," she said.

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