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.

balloon frame house

Balloon-framing was the alternative method of post and beam framing. P and B 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:

Balloon framing

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.