Up, Up, and Away

May 23, 2007

architecture

My house is a balloon-frame house. Balloon-frame houses became all the rage after the World’s Fair in Chicago, when visitors saw Augustine Taylor’s new building design in 1833.

Photo courtesy of Old House Web.

Balloon-framing was the alternative method of post-and-beam framing. PandB framing requires massive timbers with strong, skilled workers. The labor for this is extensive and demanding. The invention of balloon-framing sought to curb this expense and make home-building less tasking. Wikipedia sums this up nicely:

Although lumber was plentiful in 19th century America, skilled labor was not. The advent of cheap machine-made nails, along with water-powered sawmills, in the early 19th century made balloon framing highly attractive, because it did not require highly-skilled carpenters, as did the dovetail joints, mortises and tenons required by post-and-beam construction. For the first time, any farmer could build his own buildings without a time-consuming learning curve.

Balloon-frame houses are not being made anymore (not in quantities, anyway). American home-building shifted to the platform-frame (stick-frame), and is now coming full-circle back to post-and-beam framing. (I won’t delve into another new and exciting form of house-building– the modular home).

I am not too keen on balloon-frame. Let me tell you why.

  • Greater risk of fire. Since studs are like long toothpicks which go all the way up from foundation sill to roof rafters, there is a tremendous risk for fire. If a fire starts in a wall, the flames will race up the long studs. The air flow from sill to rafter feeds the fire, until the house is essentially consumed from top to bottom. Fire stops (blocks of wood nailed between the studs at intervals) were added later to reduce this risk. Many old houses do not have fire stops. Mine does, though (at least, what few walls I have seen inside).
  • Drafts, dust, vermin. My house is very, very drafty and dusty. I dust the house a lot, and still we cough and cough (the family has developed what I call “Morning House Syndrome”). The staggering amount of dust in this house is amazing. If I do not dust for a day or two, a thick powdery coat of gray dust settles on everything. The plus side of this is that there is plenty of air circulation here. The bad side is the air is dirty and we hack and cough all day. Smells are a problem, too. Odors from the moist basement and smells from bats in the attic circulate in the framing and come right into the house. The house stinks. Also, smells are not the only things that race up and down the studs! Mice love balloon-frame houses. So do bats. Because our exterior siding and eaves still have so many holes and pocks, we have a problem with bats. They are well able to scurry down the studs from their attic nests. I have to say that I hate bats. I am not afraid of mice (besides their uncleanness), but I cannot tolerate bats in my house. When I redid my front Entry Hall, I had left the top of the door framing open, to continue it later. Oops. So, any wall-removal that we do must be replaced very quickly, or the room must be completely sealed off and then scoured for lurking bats.
  • Sagging and twisting. This isn’t as much a problem for me. What old house is not sagging or twisting? But, because the long studs support the entire load of the house, we must take great care that studs do not twist or bend. It has not helped that previous owners have carelessly hacked and chipped at the studs in order to install an electric receptacle box here or furnace vent there (some fools even cut out large chunks of the foundation sill to install ducts). When we finally do open up the walls, I do wonder how much of the structural support of the studs has been compromised. In every area that I have opened up so far, I have found transgressions of this sort. Therefore, we must have a stash of “emergency” studs to sister to any compromised framing. Anything can happen once we remove three tons of lathe and plaster and flooring!

So…. balloon-framing, for all its hype at the time, has turned out to be problematic. It seems to be plagued with more problems than stick-framing, and is less-sturdy than post-and-beam. I hear that balloon-framing is the structure of choice for metal-stud homes, and that sounds like it works better than with wood.

I think it’s important to know what kind of structure your house is before you start tearing away at it. For one, I want my efforts to be long-lasting and sturdy. Two, I would have appreciated it if previous homeowners had been more careful, caring, and fore-sighted about the work they had done. After all, I am living with their successes and their errors. So, I am trying to keep future homeowners in mind as we do this.

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  1. New York Renovator - June 16, 2008

    […] Our house is a “balloon frame” home, which was all the fad after the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1833. Balloon frame houses are very unconventional, and they come with their own special problems. You can read more about it here. […]

  2. 2012 Projects | New York Renovator - October 16, 2012

    […] foundation posts on cinder blocks, and YEAH. NO. It’s starting to make me nervous. Since the house is a balloon frame house, a sagging porch can pull the wall studs out of kilter so bad that the floor joists pop out of […]

  3. How to Remove Plaster and Lathe | New York Renovator - October 16, 2012

    […] Be prepared for other strange things, too. I found studs filled with soft bricks on all exterior walls. No contractor or carpenter I spoke with knew what it was. They attributed it to “old timers” and their odd building practices… but I later found out that this brick is called “noggin.” It may have been used as a insulator (unlikely, in my opinion), but most probably as a fire stop, since my home is a balloon frame home. […]

  4. A Day Off Today | New York Renovator - October 16, 2012

    […] with balloon frame walls. In case you are wondering what balloon frame is, I wrote a post about it: Up, Up and Away. It’s called balloon frame for two reasons: one, the studs along the exterior of the home […]