Insurance companies setting houses on fire in the name of research

Recent natural disasters forced the insurance industry to recalculate its risks–and quickly. As NPR reported, “The past two years have been particularly costly for insurance companies that are on the hook for billions of dollars in damage done by hurricanes, wildfires, floods and other disasters. As these disasters become more frequent and expensive, in part because of climate change, insurers are investing more into a special research facility that studies how to protect homes and businesses from destructive wind, water and embers.”

The facility which is located an hour south of Charlotte, NC is run by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, a nonprofit research organization funded by U.S. insurance companies. The concrete building is the size of an airplane hangar and can generate hurricane-force winds, realistic hail, and wind-driven rain and embers and is the only lab of its size in the United States. The current annual budget of the facility is around $15 million and tests things like: 

  • the resilience of commonly used types of roofing, siding, garage doors, porches and even landscaping during disasters.
  • which materials and building practices make a house resistant to wildfires 

Testing the dynamics of how homes catch on fire as a result of wildfires is crucial because the majority of homes that burn during wildfires aren’t ignited by a wall of flame. Instead, embers can blow hundreds of yards or even miles, starting blazes far from the main wildfire. This means that building materials and the surrounding environment play a huge role in determining whether a house will survive a blaze. Likewise, for hurricanes, the data derived from this lab has shown that “unfortified garage doors and unsealed plywood on the roof could fail catastrophically during storms, leading the roof to rip off the house or water to flood in as shingles flew away.”

Why This Matters: This research is critical not just to the insurance industry but to homeowners and business owners who want to have better information to prepare for natural disasters. The data derived at this facility can help create building codes and ordinances that will save lives and help minimize damage when natural disasters do strike. However, this also reinforces the need for state and the federal government to step in and help Americans be better prepared as currently, building codes are established and enforced locally and they can vary drastically from county to county. Better data, for instance, can show that it costs about the same amount to build a new fire-resistant house as it does to build a typical house with cedar siding and that all building codes should reflect that.

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