Affordable Zero Energy Homes: Is Balloon Framing making a comeback?

Posted by Paul Biebel on Feb 23, 2017 10:45:05 AM

Historic Windsor Vermont

I grew up in a big old house on Main Street in the historic section of Windsor, VT. It was four stories high on the backside. I’m not sure what type of architectural style to call it. Some would say that it was just a large vintage New England home with wrap around porches, high ceilings, and a rather huge, slate-covered, mansard roof that was punctured by dormers on three sides, making the attic a special place for this kid to play.

The attic became my clubhouse. I had my own bed up there. It was a huge room, probably 2,000 square feet with no partitions and a ceiling that was close to 14 feet high. The rafters were exposed overhead and the floor had very old boards. This was “my space.” In order to get into the attic, you had to climb some steep winding stairs and at the top was a heavy lid that was counter balanced with several steel weights.

In the peak where the rafters all came together, there was a six-foot-square compression ring with a hatch in the center. I felt like I owned the town whenever I climbed out onto the top of the roof. From my vantage point, I could see both ends of Main Street and everyone coming and going, including the Boston and Maine Railroad, which used a track that was literally in my back yard. It’s probably a good thing that my mother didn’t know I went up there because there were no railings or parapet up there and it was a very long way to the ground. 

Even in my childhood when most of my interests centered on playing with race cars, marbles, and Lionel trains, I was often mesmerized by how the roof was built. I could see all the rafters and valleys with their compound cuts and large hand driven spikes. There were no gaps in the joinery and I was mesmerized by how perfectly they were cut without power tools.

My biggest surprise came one day when I was playing marbles up there with my friends. We had quite a challenging course trying to play on old boards with rather large cracks between them. There was about a two-foot-high knee wall around the perimeter of the attic from where the rafters began their ascent to the peak. Studs protruded up through the flooring and it was there that my marble discovered “balloon framing” for the first time.

I didn’t know it had a special name back then, but I became fascinated by it. So I crawled over to the edge of the attic floor to explore my discovery. When I got close enough, I could feel a breeze blowing up from below. At age 10, I had discovered “stack effect,” and didn’t even know it. Like any kid who sees a hole in a wall, floor, or the ground, I wanted to know where it went. So, I dropped a marble into the four-inch-wide chasm just to see what would happen to it. I was startled to hear it rattling back and forth as it descended into a bottomless pit. It seemed like it took several minutes before it hit bottom and stopped, but it was probably only seconds.

high performance balloon framing

That’s when I ran down three flights of stairs to the basement to see if I could find the marble. Part of the basement had a dirt floor, a large wooden coal bin, and a huge steam boiler wrapped in white asbestos. The furnace scared me, at first, with its roars and groanings that it made during the night but I learned to like that room; especially when the burner lit up. I could crack open the door and watch the flames heat up the cast iron core.  Hidden behind the boiler  there was an empty empty coal bin where I was surprised to see my marble waiting for me in the blackened dust. 

So, I picked up the marble and ran back up to the attic where I dropped several marbles the second time. Then I raced back down to the boiler room to catch them. My mother had been sewing in a bay window next to the fireplace and was seated just over the boiler below. She didn’t hear the first marble take its journey from the attic to the basement, but on the second run she heard all the others drumming the walls on the way down and I was busted. Well, all my fun with marbles and balloon framing came to an abrupt halt later that fall when contractors came and filled the walls with insulation. Oil prices had skyrocketed to 20 cents/gallon and it was recommended that the house be insulated. 

That was over 55 years ago; somewhere around 1962. I graduated high school in 1971 and entered the construction trades. Five years later I began my own building and remodeling business. Since then, the number of old “balloon framed” houses I’ve encountered, like the one I grew up in, could be counted on one hand. Back then the thought of affordable zero energy homes wasn't heard of. Then something changed in 2010. 

[More to come, next week]

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Paul Biebel

by Paul Biebel

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