Balloon Framed Houses
Click to enlarge
The house's use of balloon framing can be seen when the siding was replaced.
In 1833, a breakthrough in building technology revolutionized
the construction of private homes, making them affordable to
middle- and low-income families and ultimately allowing the proliferation
of suburbs nationwide over the next 150 years. This innovation
was the balloon-frame house.
Home construction previously was arduous and expensive. Houses
were built using stout pieces of lumber fitted together with
heavy joints. For example, the traditional New England frame
house was built using hardwood beams connected with mortise-and-tenon
joints fastened by hand-cut dowels or hand-wrought nails. An
entire frame wall was fitted on the ground and then lifted into
place by a crew of about twenty laborers. These homes were durable
but expensive and unwieldy to construct, requiring much labor
and the expertise of skilled craftsmen.
Then the balloon frame was developed, making its first appearance
in Chicago. Partially a result of the incipient industrialization
occurring in the young nation, the balloon frame was based on
much lighter precut two-by-four-inch studs positioned sixteen
inches apart and held together by factory-produced
light, the frame was very strong and able to withstand heavy
winds, since the stress was spread over a large number of studs.
The factory production of nails and mill cutting of standardized
lumber reduced costs and increased availability of materials
to individual builders. These houses were constructed quickly
and easily, requiring only two workers using basic carpentry
techniques. The method allowed many urban workers in America
to build their own homes, in contrast to Europe where traditional
construction techniques kept the rates of home ownership low
for most of the nineteenth century.
|Click to enlarge
Example of pegs used to hold beams together
Over the next few decades, home building was transformed from
a specialized craft into an industry, as entrepreneurs produced
house plan pattern books and even prefabricated building materials
in mass quantities based on the balloon-frame method. Throughout
the country, single-family homes became affordable to Americans
who were previously unable to purchase what had been a luxury.
Balloon-frame construction has persisted, with most homes today,
whether stucco, wood, stone, or brick, based on this method.
Timeline of 19th Century Developments
in Timber Framing
Construction History AAAP 410/510 – Winter Term, Dr. Kingston Heath
Washington Snow, an “architect
and practical builder,” constructs the first balloon
frame structure -- a warehouse (1832), and St. Mary's Church,
• Solon Robinson, a farmer and writer
from Indiana, was the first person to advocate in print the
use of the balloon frame and favored using nails throughout
the frame. His 1846 article, “A Cheap Farm-House,” proposed
the balloon frame for the new settler, with tenons used only
in the sills, and 3x6 lumber.
• Originally called “Chicago
the 1870s, the balloon frame was a derisive term for this
unusually light form of construction. The structural principle
that differentiates the balloon frame from other forms of
timber frame construction centers on the way the frame addresses
the loads. In a balloon frame, there is an equal distribution
of vertical compressive loads over a series of 2x4 or 2x6
inch studs. The studs are spaced approximately sixteen inches
on center but often vary between twelve to twenty-four inches.
Unlike the self-supporting bay system of the braced frame,
the one or two-story continuous stud system of the balloon
frame did not utilize the girdling support of connecting
horizontal beams (girts) tied into stout corner posts; hence,
the frame required lateral support from the wrapping (diaphragm)
action of the sheathing to make the frame rigid. Later in
the development of the balloon frame the sub-sheathing was
nailed diagonally to further counter the racking of the frame.
Wheeler, Homes for the People in Suburb and Country, 1855.
E. Bell, Carpentry Made Easy, 1858.
• George Woodward,
engineer, publishes in a farm journal, The Country Gentleman
(Apr. 5, 1860), an isometric perspective view of the balloon
frame, and is the first person to refer in print to both
kinds of balloon frames. Material on the balloon frame was
later published as a chapter in his book Woodward’s
Country Homes (1865). Prefers the all-nail version over the
Chicago type with its large sills framed into each other
and finished with mortises for the studs and joists. Lyman
Bridges, Building Materials and Ready Made Houses of 1870,
advocated prefabricated houses generated off of pre-mortised
sills (to house joists and studs) measuring 6 x 6 to 10 x
10. The Chicago system of balloon framing would last to c.
saw 1814/c.1840; Band saw c. 1860; Daniel's traverse rotary
planer c. 1840 (The (2) cutters above were used in a rotary
action; the Daniel’s planar was used for heaviest work
such as house sills or railroad ties, as opposed to other
carriage machines like William Woodworth’s December
27, 1825 patent for a plaining machine for flooring boards,
boxes or matched board sheathing which produced more accurate
and smooth surfaces.); machine cut nails 1798/c.1818; c.
1830 machine to form heads on cut nails invented (note: nail
prices went from $0.25 lb. for hand wrought
nails to $0.03 lb. for machine cut.), wire nails c. 1850; machine
cut lath c. 1840.
or platform framing gradually superceded combination framing
following the 1920s.