Balloon Framing…How Exactly Would One Frame a Balloon Anyway?

by Erik North on August 26, 2011

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While the phrase ‘balloon framing’ may conjure up thoughts of a hot air balloon ride in the sky, in truth it has more to do with building structure.

Every building and home has a frame that supports the walls and roof.

Balloon framing is a method of building framing where the walls are framed from long continuous wall studs. These studs run from the sill plate to the roof eaves. Floors, windows, doors and other fixtures are built around the continuous framing. In a balloon framed house, you could drop a penny into the wall on the third floor and it would fall continously until it reached the basement (or if its really old, root cellar).

The Advantages of An Antique Style

Balloon framing, also known as “Chicago construction” was used commonly in the United States up until the 1850’s. Here in Maine and other older states, Victorian construction abounds so I see many examples of balloon-framed houses. All you have to do is look at our heavily forested state and massive amounts of readily available tall trees to understand why balloon framing became popular. There was so much long lumber (what the heck, pun intended)!

In addition, balloon framing was simple to construct and did not require specialized carpenter skills. The style became extraordinarily popular once the American West was opened up and the intercontinental railroad was built, calling for towns that could be built almost overnight.

Balloon Framing Faults

No style of house framing is perfect, and balloon framing is not without its pitfalls. For one, especially in the 19th century, it is a fire hazard. Fire can travel very quickly up inside an open wall plan. Heck, fire was such a prominent problem, you could see the appeal of indestructible, fire-proof asbestos. Also, balloon framing calls for scaffolding to be used when in construction, since the tops of the walls are two or three stories high.

Balloon framed walls are also extraordinarily air porous in blower door tests. A huge volume of air moved through the wall (and the energy moved with it) helped dry out balloon framed buildings but also made them notoriously hard to heat.

Of course, balloon framed houses require long pieces of lumber for the framing. Nowadays, that kind of wood is more difficult to come by and can be more costly than shorter pieces. The most obvious fault, from an energy auditor’s standpoint, is that it’s really difficult to insulate balloon framed houses. The enormously long open cavities, irregular spacing of wall framing members create unique challenges. Ideally, you would like to densepack the cavities with cellulose. But that presents its own problems.

First, is the wall cavity deep enough to merit the expense (if the wall cavity is only 2″ deep, perhaps insulating the basement and attic would provide a better payback and return on your money). Combine an interior finish (that’d be heavy plaster) with an exterior cladding of asbestos shingling, ancient clapboards, shingles or heaven forbid aluminum siding and accessing those wall cavities becomes a formidable challenge, assuming you want to keep the house looking remotely authentic (because, hey, you can always just rip all the siding off and drill holes in the walls).

Unique Challenges

If you think your home is balloon framed or you know that it is, then your home poses unique challenges to insulate and become more energy efficient. I can work with you to develop a personalized plan to get the maximum efficiency from your house. Together, we can maximize efficiency no matter how old or quirky your house may be!

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