P!Nterview: Julie Rochman

Julie Rochman, President and CEO of the Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS) tells P!N Staff Writer Julia Dawson what’s new in homebuilding technology and philosophy.


Q: What are the most pressing policy issues in homebuilding technology today?
A: Definitely enactment and enforcement of strong statewide building codes is a top priority. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Louisiana enacted a statewide code, but several battles remain to be fought, along the Gulf and Atlantic Coasts. It is important to remember that building codes are generally based on the desire to create a minimum life safety preserving requirement for homes commercial structures. Resistance to natural forces like high winds and storm surge isn’t part of the code everywhere it should be. Florida is leading that way in this area, because the state has learned some painful lessons from Hurricanes Andrew, Charley and other catastrophic storms. Where good codes do not exist, each new storm sadly proves how important they are to community recovery. You can literally see by looking at the amount of damage which buildings were built to code, and which weren’t…There have been issues with enforcement of statewide codes, for example in Texas. While storm-resistant building technology is good, people in some places will not use it unless mandated to do so by code.

The second crucial issue is the need for standardized, objective testing of integrated building systems. In other words, new technological developments in roofing or window parts are being tested piece by piece, but this is little to no evaluation of how these parts work as an integrated system. For example, if a home’s roof blows off in a storm, what good are the latest shutters? We need to look at the building as a whole in severe weather. Thus, we’re building a unique lab in South Carolina that will allow, for the first time, full-scale, 1- and 2-story buildings in realistic Category 1, 2, and 3 hurricane conditions.

Q: What sets this testing center apart from others such the Wall of Wind in Southeast Florida?
A: The IBHS lab is the first of its kind in the world. No other lab can test full-scale buildings, nor engulf whole structures with realistic, gusty wind with variable droplet sized water in storm simulations. The South Carolina testing center is slated to open for use in summer 2010.

Testing at our non-profit lab will be funded by the property insurance industry.

Q: I understand why the federal government or private foundations would want to fund this project, but the insurance companies?
A: The insurance companies want their clients to be safe and they want to minimize the amount they pay out in damages. Basically, the industry and their customers have the same interest: keeping homes and businesses intact.

Finally, IBHS is dedicated to a transparent process for testing and sharing results. This will not be a “pay to play” lab, and our funders will not determine what we publish. We will go where the science leads. Many people in the private sector come to us and to the consumers saying they’ve created the technology that will save the world from natural disasters. But we can’t safely endorse any invention or system until it’s been tested in a true to life, objective setting. Again, we cannot trust lab results where such technology has been tested in isolation in its “off the shelf” condition. We must see how it fares when it’s attached to the entire building system.

Q: What is one emerging technological development that you’re following now?
A: Researchers at Virginia Tech are developing a vent for roofs to withstand high winds. This vent is only applicable to membrane roofs – and this type of roof is almost always found on commercial buildings. The vent is designed to use vacuum forces to pull down the roof membrane against the insulation on top of the roof deck, so that neither gravel ballast on top, nor adhesive to glue the membrane down to the insulation and the insulation to the roof deck, is needed.

For homes, the emerging technology we are watching most closely involves some of the so-called “green” roofs – particularly devices used to extract energy (photovoltaic systems). We will be looking hard at both the durability and strength of these systems to ensure that they are strong enough to resist wind water and other natural forces.

Q: What shifts, if any, are occurring in the homebuilding safety movement?
A: Our approach is more emphasis on the community as a whole, rather than just individual homes. Hurricane Katrina left what we call “Jack-o-lantern” communities in its wake. That is, neighborhoods with a couple of structures standing, while many were wiped out. The lesson is this: if builders and residents have only made individual dwellings disaster-proof while the rest of a community is destroyed, what sort of environment are people returning to after a storm hits? Thus, today, in places like New Orleans and Galveston, TX, developers are creating disaster-proof communities rather than disaster-proof homes. We must continue to propel that shift.