Launch Slideshow

Shock & Awe

Shock & Awe

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    Mike Morgan

    The telescoping design of Architectural Testing Inc.'s shock tube—which houses a driver (at far right) capable of generating up to 3,000 psi of air pressure—means the company can shape a "blast profile" as precisely as a particular fenestration test might require.

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    Mike Morgan

    For an extra-large apparatus such as the aptly named Mega Rack 500—which is for the seismic testing of glazing systems—or the shock tube, the company works with steel-fabrication specialists.

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    Mike Morgan

    An air cannon is used to fire variously sized timber pieces at windows for impact testing. Like almost all of ATI's equipment, it was designed and manufactured in-house.

Driving along I-83 north of downtown York, Pa., you might glimpse the headquarters of Architectural Testing Inc. (ATI) at exit 24: a few unassuming, low-slung offices, a warehouse-type structure, and some curtain-wall mock-up facilities. Pass by there at the right time, however, and you’ll hear an ominous boom coming from ATI’s campus.

That sound—which occurs about twice a week and, up close, is akin to “a heavy load of concrete dropped into an empty trash container,” says ATI vice president Rich Biscoe—is produced by an impressive apparatus, about 13 feet tall and 80-plus feet long, known as a shock tube. Designed to mimic bomb explosions, the tube has a driver at one end that generates up to 3,000 psi of pressure. Fenestration specimens up to 7 feet square, whose fate is measured in milliseconds, sit at the opposite end in the “witness chamber,” where they receive a punishing blast of air. The chamber also holds a high-resolution camera, which records the action at up to 5,000 frames per second; four transducers that each collect 5 million air-pressure samples per second; and aluminum-faced foamboard, which gets embedded with shards of glass.

The shock tube sits in ATI’s new Security Research Center (SRC), a 10,000-square-foot facility that also offers ballistics-resistance testing and assault-protection evaluation—i.e., the testing of windows’ and doors’ ability to withstand a determined attack by a group, such as prisoners or a mob. In essence, the SRC is one-stop shopping for protective-glazing manufacturers to conduct research-and-development (R&D) and proof-of-performance tests.

At a time when private-sector commercial work is way down, Uncle Sam is still building things. But the U.S. government’s fenestration requirements are far stricter than those for the corner store, and the architects it hires must be confident that the products they’re specing meet General Services Administration, Department of Defense, or Department of State standards. The SRC helps ensure just that.

ATI trumpeted the SRC’s arrival in December 2009, after the ballistics and assault facilities were finished, but it’s the shock tube, which has been in operation quietly (as it were) since summer 2008, that Biscoe, who oversees ATI’s R&D and the construction of new equipment, discusses with obvious glee.

There were two tubes available for manufacturers’ use when ATI started developing its own several years ago, Biscoe says, “but they had limitations. … We made sure our tube addressed those issues and added more features.” Among them: a modular, telescoping design that allows the company to fine-tune the “blast profile” (how air pressure changes over time); a blast profile that includes the negative phase (the period when air pressure drops below the ambient norm), something previously available only through open-arena testing, which employs live explosives; and the witness chamber, designed for the quick changeout of specimens, allowing up to 15 tests a day.

The SRC is the latest addition to ATI’s ever-growing list of testing and certification services for manufacturers. What began in 1975 as a small company has grown over the past 35 years into a product- and materials-evaluation business with 11 labs, 10 offices, and 252 staff across the U.S. The standards ATI meets and the trade groups to which it belongs read like a building industry stock ticker: AAMA, ANSI, ASTM, IAS, IGCC, NFRC, NSPE, SGCC, UL, plus seven others.

In other words, if it involves building-product science, ATI can handle it—or will puzzle out a way to. An anecdote told by founder Henry Taylor, about the time ATI used the 440-cubic-inch engine from his wife’s Chrysler New Yorker to power a fan for a dynamic curtain-wall test, epitomizes the company’s DIY approach. All of ATI’s facilities and equipment—including analytical software—are designed and, with few exceptions, built in-house, and from the start, says Biscoe, ATI has put the vast majority of profits back into the company for capital expenses: new outposts, new hires, new R&D. The result? ATI has doubled its business every five years, Biscoe says. (A privately held company, ATI does not disclose financial data.)

The company’s clients—who come not just for testing but for ATI’s many professional services, including forensics and building-enclosure commissioning—number “in excess of 5,000,” says executive vice president Scott Warner. Glazing manufacturer NanaWall has worked with ATI for 18 years. “It behooves us to have an independent lab confirm our testing,” says NanaWall president Ebrahim Nana. “We have nothing to hide by [using] the strictest lab in the country.” Greg McKenna, chief product engineer at Kawneer, manufacturer of aluminum building systems, says that although ATI may not cover all aspects of product testing, it has “probably the broadest range, of any test lab, for fenestration products.”

Indeed, ATI has competitors in various niches, but only a few companies, such as Intertek, whose reach is global, match its scope. Working with a company that’s willing to investigate new fields of expertise doesn’t hurt, either. A witness chamber for the shock tube capable of holding specimens up to 12 feet square is already planned, Biscoe says. And ATI’s vision for the SRC includes electromagnetic security issues, says Joe Reed, director of engineering and product testing. “With so much communication being done wirelessly,” he notes, there’s a need to defend against “eavesdropping and remote sensing.” You can bet that when products are developed to do just that, ATI will be ready to put them through their paces.