Legend has it that in 1832 George Snow of Chicago invented ballon frame construction when he erected a warehouse near the mouth of the Chicago River. This radically new form of building construction got this derogatory nickname from the appearance that the building was as light as a balloon due to the much smaller framing members used. Whether Mr. Snow invented this or it was a slow transition in each region by different builders coming to the same realization is unsure.
Up until this time, the predominate way of building wood frame structures around the United States was timber frame construction which used extremely large framing members to construct a massive skeleton frame and then the large voids were filled in with small framing members like purlins or wattle and daud.
You can see the massive timbers in historic Tudor buildings which left their framing elements exposed as part of the style.
What is Balloon Framing?
Balloon frame construction is a less time consuming and less material intensive method of framing a building. It is the predecessor to our modern platform framing or advance framing techniques used today in most wood construction.
By the mid 1800s people began looking for ways to save on lumber costs as the vast virgin forests of America were being depleted and it was becoming harder and more expensive to find the massive 6″ to 12″ timbers needed. Balloon framing allowed for the use of the common 2×4 and its incorporation in ballon framing helped bring it into the fore.
Balloon frame construction consists of 2×4 studs spaced every 16-24″ just like platform framing does, but unlike platform framing where the studs only extend one story, balloon frame studs were commonly 16-24′ long and stretched from the basement to the roof without interruption.
The smaller members could be attached using cut nails rather than the complex mortise and tenon joinery required of timber framers, which meant there were more qualified builders who had the skills to build balloon frame houses than timber frame houses.
Lumber could easily be milled and shipped via the expanding railway and this lead to a huge building boom as the cost and time of construction fell considerably.
Here’s a great video by Brent Hull about balloon framing and some of the history behind it.
The Problem With a Balloon Frame
There was one significant issue with balloon frame construction that didn’t seem evident at first, but quickly became a major issue especially in the days before electricity. House fires had always been an issue when the predominate form of lighting, cooking, and warmth had always been fire of some sort.
Balloon framing exacerbated the problem of house fires because without any firebreaks between floors due to full length studs, a fire that started in the basement could very quickly spread to the first, second, and third stories unabated. The open stud bays in days before insulation acted like unrestricted highways for fire to spread and quickly consume a building leaving residents trapped.
The fire risk has been greatly diminished with the advent of electricity, but without modification a balloon frame house still has the same risk if a fire does get started.
Identification and Retrofitting
If your house was built between roughly 1840 and 1940 and is two or three stories tall then there is a very good chance you have a balloon frame house. Don’t panic. I’ll give you some simple improvements you can make to help stop the spread of fires and protect your family and home.
The big issue is the addition of fire blocking at each floor. If walls are wide open due to the siding or plaster being removed during a renovation then simply adding a horizontal stud between each stud at each floor break largely resolves the fire risk.
This simple solution becomes very costly if the walls are not opened up and may not be financially feasible. If you aren’t in a position to add this fire blocking then according to fire experts, the best advice is to add plenty of smoke detectors and call the fire department immediately if there is a fire no matter how small.
Small fires can appear to be handled by a fire extinguisher, but with balloon framing you may have hidden elements behind walls that can reignite without warning and quickly engulf the whole house. So, not matter the size of a fire call the fire department, let them know you suspect you have balloon frame construction and want them to check things out more cautiously.
The bottom line with balloon frame construction is like a lot of things with an old house, it needs a little more consideration and attention. If you’re renovating then add that fire blocking. In the meantime, be vigilant about fire prevention and smoke detector batteries and you should be just fine.
Founder & Editor-in-Chief
I love old houses, working with my hands, and teaching others the excitment of doing it yourself! Everything is teachable if you only give it the chance.