Four Methods of Home Construction Framing and their History

construction framing

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Depending on where you live, the framing of a house must be done so it can survive high winds and other phenomena like earthquakes. The most common material for residential construction framing is wood, but steel is available as well. There are four techniques for framing a house:

  • Timber framing
  • Balloon framing
  • Platform framing
  • Light-gauge Steel framing

Timber Framing History

Timber frame construction is the oldest form of building construction, but no one knows exactly where it came from or when it began. The oldest known building made with timber framing is the Ise Temple in Japan that was built in 690 A.D. Buildings with post-and-beam construction have lasted for centuries because of it is strong and stable.

The timber posts and beams were held together by mortise and tenon joinery that was cut by hand. Nails were not used extensively until after the industrial revolution because they had to be handmade, so they were expensive. The timbers found in houses was usually cut in 6’x6’, 8’x8’, or 10’x10’ sizes, so they were substantially stronger than the 2’x4’ boards found in modern homes.

Timber framing was used throughout Europe for hundreds of years to build castles, manors, inns, and homes. Craftsman would take logs cut from the nearby forests and hewn them into posts and beams with an ax. Then, to join them together, they would carve tenons, mortise, and dovetail joints and secure them with wooden pegs.

Settlers to the New World brought their craft with them, and it was the main means of construction until the mid-19th century. Most houses built before 1830 in the United States are timber-framed. To find out if your home has timber framing, go into the basement or attic where the beams are still visible. If they are thick, hand-hewn beams without other forms of framing, then you probably have a timber-framed house.

Timber Framing Revival

The craft of post-and-beam construction is making a comeback in the U.S. as people yearn for simplicity and using natural resources more efficiently. The trend toward using the old construction method began during the 1970s in the Pacific Northwest and it has begun to grow as more people are becoming aware of it.

Craftsmen use both straight and crooked timbers to fashion beams and posts to build homes. The crooked timbers are easier to curve and produce a stronger beam. The modern homes made with the post-and-beam technique often have vaulted ceilings that leave the beams exposed. The posts may also be exposed in an open floor plan.

Balloon Framing History

During the mid-19th century, timber framing gave way to light frame construction as the industrial revolution made nails less expensive due to their mass production. Also, machines could manufacture small timbers at less cost and more quickly. Soon, light frame construction was more economical, and houses could be built faster using the new method.

With the expansion of the railroad, it was easy to ship lumber to other parts of the country to build houses. It had also become easier to produce dimensional lumber like 2x4s or 2x6s. To frame a house with smaller dimensional pieces, they were joined together with nails. Soon, timber craftsmen were no longer necessary since houses could be easily built by almost anyone.

Balloon Framing Method

Balloon framing involved using long framing studs that ran from the sill plate, which is the bottom of a wall, up to the top plate. The horizontal floor beams were then nailed to the framing studs, while vertical ones were attached to the horizontal beams to create another story in a house or building.

Although it is debatable where the first homes with balloon frame construction were made, Chicago is believed to have the first structure made with this technique. The name, balloon framing, was derogatory in the beginning because it was thought to be a weak form of construction. People thought the houses would be carried away by the wind like a balloon during a light breeze.

However, balloon framing was so successful that it became the main form of construction from the 1890s through to the 1930s. The one drawback to this construction method was the increased risk of fire due to the wall cavities that were left bare and ran the entire height of the house. Due to the construction, a fire could spread rapidly without notice if the house didn’t have insulation.

This type of light frame construction allowed builders to design houses in a wide variety of architectural styles. As the country moved west, this style of construction met the demand for inexpensive, easy to build homes. However, after the turn of the century, it became more difficult to get the extra-long boards the homes needed, so balloon framing gave way to stud construction and platform framing.

Platform Framing

Although platform frame construction is similar to balloon framing, there are a few differences. It uses 2x4s with spaces of 16″ from the center between the studs, but the studs are shorter because each story of the building is built separately. The stories, or platforms, are then built on the platform below.

This type of construction framing was less expensive than balloon framing because the shorter studs cost less per foot to produce. Also, it was safer because the break between floors created a fire break that wasn’t present in homes built with balloon framing.

Building the next story, or platform, was also safer because it didn’t require the use of scaffolding. Workers could frame the walls for the second story while walking on the floor for the second story. Along with being safer, this construction method made it easier and faster to build a house or commercial building.

Load supporting walls are strengthened by placing by support beams and the foundation of the building. Other walls get their support from rafter joists that are perpendicular or parallel to the walls. Platform framing quickly took the place of balloon framing as the most common form of construction, and it is still the preferred method for home construction.  

The main disadvantage of this framing method is vertical shrinkage. Since the floors are made from thick layers of wood with the grain running horizontality, it can lead to vertical shrinkage as the wood dries. The shrinkage can cause stress on finished surfaces, such as causing windows not to operate correctly, so they can get stuck when they are being opened or closed.

Light-Gauge Steel Framing

Although steel framing is usually found in the construction of commercial buildings, it is also used in residential construction as well. The assembly process for a house using light-gauge steel instead of wood is similar to that of wood platform framing. Light-gauge steel framing became an option in the early 1990s when the cost of wood doubled overnight.

Due to tariffs on wood from Canada and a reduction to assess to old growth forests due to the spotted owl crisis, lumber became very costly to use in home construction. So, needing another viable choice, some builders began using light-gauge steel. However, since lumber prices have dropped, steel isn’t as economically efficient anymore.

Some homebuyers are choosing steel frame construction due to its many advantages. Light-gauge steel is cost-effective, especially since it is easy to make and the studs are always even and straight. They do not warp or split like wood studs. Also, much of the supply comes from recycled materials, so it is also more environmentally friendly.

Mold is almost a non-issue with a steel framed house. Wood and drywall are still used throughout a house with a steel frame, so mold can still be an issue if there is a water leak. However, you won’t have to worry about water rotting the structure of the house or about other issues like dry rot. Pests, like termites, are not an issue in a home built with light-gauge steel.

Disadvantages of Light-Steel Construction

There are more design options with steel since it can be shaped in multiple ways. The necessary pieces can be pre-fabricated in a factory, then shipped to the job site for assembly. However, there are two major drawbacks to using light-gauge steel to build homes.

Steel conducts about 10 times more heat than wood, so there must be some way to keep the structure cool. An improperly insulated home can develop lines on the roofing and siding where condensation and dirt collect. Although it can also happen in an improperly insulated wood-frame home, the lines take longer to appear.

The second disadvantage of using light-gauge steel is that it can be dangerous during a fire. Unlike wood which continues to burns, at very high heat, light-gauge steel can melt. The unpredictability of collapse causes firefighters to only fight the fire from outside when they know the structure is built of light steel.

With the revival of timber framing, new homebuyers can choose the type of construction framing that suits their design desires and needs. They don’t need to be limited by platform framing when choosing the materials and design for their new home since they can choose from timber, platform, or light-gauge steel construction.

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