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Crash-test dummies have done their part to improve car safety; now, home-insurance companies are helping crash-test homes do the same for residential construction.

Home-insurance companies sponsor test chambers that simulate severe-weather conditions and their effect on model homes.

In this case, the "crash test" comes in the form of the harshest weather conditions Mother Nature is capable of inflicting: gale-force winds, torrential rain, fire, hail and debris.

The goal is to provide insight into devising new disaster-proof construction practices.

"This is an opportunity to create demand for better construction," says Tim Reinhold, chief engineer for the Institute for Business and Home Safety, which recently opened a catastrophe lab in Chester County, S.C.

Weathering the elements: The crash test

The IBHS lab is designed to subject model homes to strong winds and other conditions typical of a Category 2 or Category 3 hurricane. We are putting Mother Nature in a big box," says Julie Rochman, the institute's president.

Test-chamber elements mimic real weather conditions:

  • Up to 140 mph winds (with plans to eventually upgrade to 175 mph), produced by 100 independent fans.
  • Up to 8 inches of rain per hour, produced by sprinklers.
  • Water frozen in different-sized molds to mimic hail.
  • Blazing embers (burning mulch hurled by fans), live gas lines and burning trees and shrubs.

IBHS's half-acre test facility debuted in October 2010 with a side-by-side test of two homes. The two 1,300-square-foot homes were built to building codes typical of the Midwest; however, one home incorporated structural reinforcements and more durable building materials.

While the reinforced home came away from the 100-mph winds with just cosmetic damage, the standard-code home collapsed in minutes.

Clear lesson for insurance companies, owners

The lesson is clear: Investing in reinforced construction pays off in safety and durability. The reinforced home withstood the simulated hurricane due to added structural supports and higher-end materials, Reinhold says. A second test found additional construction upgrades helpful in preventing collapse. Together, the tests supported the value of several key improvements to home construction, including:

  • Metal straps to secure the home to the foundation and the roof to the walls.
  • Stronger nails.
  • Thicker lumber.
  • More durable siding.
  • More durable external doors that open out rather than in.

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These construction upgrades do not cost much to implement, especially relative to the potential loss should the house collapse. In the two aforementioned crash tests, upgrades added $5,000 and $3,000, respectively, to the total construction cost of the home.

Some upgrades are available as retrofits to current homes. For example, homeowners can order replacement doors that are reinforced, or can change the orientation of the front door.

This article was reported by Clare Kaufman for Insurance.com.