Bringing Back Balloon-Frame Construction
This retro framing technique is a good fit for today’s superinsulated walls.
Synopsis: Balloon-frame construction, in which wall studs run uninterrupted from the top of the foundation to the bottom of the roof rafters, is virtually extinct today. But veteran builder Paul Biebel believes that with a few modifications, this method is a great way to build a high-performance house in a cost-effective way. In this article, he details his approach for double-stud balloon-framed walls, outlining the insulation and mechanical benefits as well as offering building tips and suggestions for overall workflow.
I grew up in a large, vintage New England house with a high-ceiling attic that was every kid’s dream clubhouse. There was a 2-ft.-high kneewall around the perimeter of the attic, and studs protruded through the flooring. I didn’t know then that this type of framing, balloon-frame construction, meant that the wall studs ran uninterrupted from the top of the foundation to the bottom of the roof rafters. But I learned that if I got close to the 4-in.-wide chasm around the perimeter of the attic, I could feel a breeze blowing up from below (my first experience with the stack effect) and that if I dropped a marble in that chasm, I could hear it rattling all the way down through the wall and later find it waiting on the basement floor. Balloon framing was a dying practice back then and is essentially extinct today. That’s because in the 1920s, builders began framing houses using a method called platform framing, by which the first floor is built and then used as a platform to erect the walls, which support the next floor, and so on. The reasons for the switch were many: easier framing without scaffolding, better resistance against fire jumping floors, and a general decline in the availability of tall, straight, quality framing lumber. Nowadays, the challenge we…