Balloon Frame houses and Firemen's safety

House with balloon frame

I recently heard the term “balloon frame” from someone on Twitter discussing the fire hazards and potential dangers to firemen.  It was a local person, and so it caught my attention.  I have never heard a home inspector advise a home owner that they were buying a home with a “balloon frame”.  Nor have I ever heard a home inspector note the potential hazards.

Here are a couple of links regarding balloon homes and firemen that the Twitterer was kind enough to send me.

I would appreciate comments from anyone having knowledge on this topic.

Thank you.

About ARDELL

ARDELL is the Managing Broker of Sound Realty in Seattle/Kirkland. ARDELL was named one of the Most Influential Real Estate Bloggers in the U.S. by Inman News and has over 22 years experience in Real Estate up and down both Coasts, representing both buyers and sellers of homes in Seattle and on The Eastside. Follow Ardell on Google+

Comments

  1. you typically wont find balloon framing in buildings anymore, unless theyre around 100+ years old. similar to your attached sketch, the exterior walls continue from sill to roof eave with the floor framed in between, allowing an air space for flame travel/spread from floor to floor. my architectural history 101 is starting to get fuzzy, but i believe balloon framing went pretty much extinct with one of the last major city fires (chicago maybe) where most of the city was completely burned to the ground.

    modern construction used now is called platform framing, where each floor is constructed in “lifts” separated by floor plates. this provides a rated separation between every floor, and structurally creates a diaphragm for strength to prevent wracking.

    • Ardell- I’m glad to see “fillmore”* is still around.
      He’s absolutely right about Platform Framing
      being about the only way to frame around here.

      *I do wish he’d tell us more about who he is.

      • Jerry,

        According to the local source it is VERY common in Seattle where many homes were built between 1880 and 1925. Areas like Mt. Baker and Green Lake and others where a home built in 1905 or 1910 is not uncommon. I picked up the “issue” from a local fireman alert.

        • While working as a commerical property underwriter in Ca in the 80;s I learned basic constructiion techniques. Balloon Framing followed post and beam framing. When lumber was plentiful and labor less than skilled this method flourished until platform framing became common. Balloon framing wa still done until the 1940′s. If firestops were installed between floor than the danger is less. Blown in insulation of dense pack would also help.

          If I remeber correctly balloon framing does better in an earthquake but worse in a fire.

  2. According to the warning to firemen, they are supposed to check anything built in late 1800s up to 1940, which is a LOT of Seattle homes…more than Eastside.

    Is it hard to tell if it has those floor plates? I’ve never heard a home inspector mention them.

  3. Sold a house built prior to 1900 in Mt. Baker awhile back. Is there some way to correct the matter after the house is built? Does one assume it wasn’t corrected somewhere along the way?

    Mine is 1921 with a massive 1997 addition. Front is still the bungalow for the most part. Do I assume balloon for the front (maybe) but not the addition. Or would current code require correction at time of massive additon?

    Lots of questions. Hoping someone has a couple of answers.

  4. it really only applies to multi-story construction. platform framing started getting popular in the 60s, and was basically standardized by the late 70s. anything after that and its almost guaranteed to be platform framed.

    there isnt really any way you can “fix” it, as the structure inherently is what it is. but you can go back in and retrofit old buildings by installing blocking or fire blocks between floors to close off the area where flame would travel through. platform framing has this safety benefit built in to the design.

  5. “it really only applies to multi-story construction”

    Lots of old tudors in Seattle. The smaller ones often use the “attic” for an extra bedroom and have basements.

    Sounds worrisome to me…no?

    Could fire pass up from basement to kids in “attic bedroom” past parents on first floor bedroom?

    Most of Mount Baker was built between 1910 and 1917 as I recall and lots of two story homes there.

  6. the balloon refers only to levels in a real multi-story building. between a level and the attic (finished or not), there is a plank between the walls and the roof framing (except in very unusual framing). it also does not apply between the 1st level and the basement. the 1st level sits on the foundation, which is not going to be a wood frame unless the builder wanted it to rot out.

  7. I’ve never heard of this method of construction.

    I would think that having added insulation would slow down the fire, at least as to exterior walls.

    There are a lot of construction methods that aren’t that good in fire situations. The most notable is multi-family where the attic space is not divided up. I think the change there is much more recent, like sometime after 1970. I’m basing that on the big fire Bremerton had a few years ago, where I’m pretty sure the building was built sometime after 1970 (I used to live nearby).

  8. I should add this point to the comment I made above:

    The exception for the basement is if the basement is partially below ground level, such that the basement wall is part foundation (concrete, block, brick, stone, whatever) at the bottom, and wood framing at the top. Then, with an old house, there is the strong possibility that there is no fireblock between the basement and the 1st story.

  9. “The exception for the basement is if the basement is partially below ground”

    All are. If it’s not at least partially below ground…it’s not a basement. Not at all below ground = “the 1st floor”.

  10. Kary said: “I’ve never heard of this method of construction.”

    That’s why I wrote this post…seems all “Buyer’s Agents” should know about this. The note to firemen was from a Seattle Disaster group…not somewhere else in the Country.

  11. hes referring to bi-level type basement. if there is a cantilevered first floor condition there, which is common, it is likely platform.

  12. Most bi levels are above ground on the garage side, but partially underground on the living space side going from side to side vs. front to back. Most are below ground by about half the ceiling height on the living space side.

  13. Assuming by “bi-level” you are referring to what Seattle Area calls “split-entry”.

  14. Ardell wrote: “That’s why I wrote this post…seems all “Buyer’s Agents

  15. “I can see why the fire department would be concerned about such things, but…”

    What if the firemen come when there is a fire and ask “does your home have balloon framing?” Maybe you need to know the answer to help save their lives. That’s what I was thinking.

  16. I don’t know. I just read two inspection reports on two older houses, and neither one mentioned the framing. One of the two reports was the worst inspection report I’d ever seen, seemingly catching every tiny little flaw in the house.

    I wonder whether you can even tell without some sort of destructive opening of the walls?

    On the bright side, such construction would seemingly make it much easier to install “high-tech cabling.” :D

  17. Kary,

    Only had a fire once. It was in an apartment building when I was in my early 20s before I was married.

    The firemen all stood outside and watched the place burn because they couldn’t find the gas shutoff for the building. Firemen safety issue. Finally someone figured out that the gas shutoff was blacktopped over in the last slurry coating.

    Sometimes you need to know what the firemen need to know…is my point. And since you and I assist buyers in knowing what they are buying…I would think you would agree with me on this issue.

  18. I’m getting more info re how the firemen determine if it is balloon framing, and what they do if they are not sure.

  19. “I would think you would agree with me on this issue.”

    Assuming it’s possible to tell–which goes back to my destructive testing issue. It would also depend on what you find out from the inquiry of what the fire people do.

    Maybe they can tell by the way the fire is spreading? Or maybe they just assume the worst in older housing?

  20. BTW, on a related topic (given Ardell’s real life example), how many people who have gas heat know where their gas shutoff is, and keep a wrench used for no other purpose (so it’s where it’s supposed to be when you need it) in someplace accessible? We live in earthquake country, and needing to know that isn’t that unlikely.

  21. “Or maybe they just assume the worst in older housing?”

    That’s what I’m talking about. I’ve seen what happens when they assume the worst…and it ain’t pretty. So better to know if it is NOT balloon framing. If it is…no difference. But if it isn’t…and it’s built within the years they may assume balloon framing, better to have some proof that it is not.

    Re you comment #20, I highly recommend that everyone take the CERT (Certified Emergency Response Training) class in their area. It gives you all of the info you need (like the gas shutoff issue) and much more. Invaluable.

  22. Kary,

    I know you have not felt as strongly about asbestos in popcorn ceilings as i do. Have you considered what happens when there is a fire in a house with popcorn ceilings? ” Leaving it alone” is not a satisfactory long term approach. The firemen at least deserve to know the % of asbests and the test is only $35 or so.

  23. Kary,

    My other “real life example” was the building I worked in for many years in Philly. 37 story building. Built in 74 or so. It had a fire just after I no longer worked there and the ceilings were asbestos containing drop ceilings.

    Again, firemen let it burn due to the safety hazard and it remained a vacant eyesore for a long time. Not sure if they salvaged any of it or what they did with it. It was across from City Hall and that big clothes pin in my other post.

    Hazardous materials, once banned, need a plan for full removal. It’s been a long time since asbestos was used. The plan can’t be “leave it alone”.

  24. I didn’t think any firemen would go into any fire situation without a mask/air tank, so I don’t see asbestos would be much of an issue. It would complicate cleanup afterward.

  25. “When a fire breaks out or a structure collapses, the asbestos–containing insulation may become damaged, releasing asbestos dust. If the insulation was in need of repair before the fire, it is even more likely that asbestos will become airborne. These factors imperil the lives of any fireman who arrives at the scene and is exposed.”

  26. Fire people are exposed to all sorts of things (even perhaps within their stations if you believe issue about power lines). They often have relatively short lives, dying of all sorts of strange cancers at relatively young ages. I don’t recall asbestosis being a major cause of death for them.

    My step-father died of lung cancer resulting from asbestosis. My father has asbestosis, but hasn’t developed cancer. The people who worked in the ship yard (PSNS) back in those days describe it being floating around thick and being virtually everywhere.

    There is no known safe level of exposure to asbestos, but of all the things firemen have to worry about, I really don’t they have a heck of a lot to worry about from the minimal exposure to asbestos, compared to the other things they’re exposed to.

  27. WHITE!
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    *
    Just sitting here waiting …for Kary to say black.

  28. Ardell, the idea of getting rid of all asbestos died probably 20 years ago. It’s nasty stuff, but SOP is not to remove it when discovered.

  29. Still…not wanting to test it so you don’t have to disclose it…is another story. No?

  30. Kary,

    I was appalled to learn that something this important to firemen was not something the average homeowner would be told by an inspector when buying a house. Absolutely appalled! That goes for balloon framing AND asbestos, both.

  31. I’m pretty sure the testing for asbestos in ceilings would only be done prior to removal, because the testing would be destructive.

  32. Kary,

    So people should buy houses containing asbestos without knowing it, because taking a piece the size of a quarter from the back of a closet would be too destructive. But if a kid knocks a piece off by bouncing a ball that hits the ceiling, and his little brother eats it…that’s OK.

  33. You assume popcorn ceilings have asbestos. Just taking a sample from the closet would give you a false sense of security if it tests negative. Multiple samples, multiple places is required for testing. I’ve seen situations where some areas come up clean.

    I don’t think eating asbestos is necessarily bad for kids. Lead based paint–yes.

  34. “I don’t think eating asbestos is necessarily bad for kids.”

    Kary, that may end up being “the quote” of 2009!

  35. Gotta love a man who fears addendums more than asbestos :)

  36. Ardell,

    One of my summer jobs in college was asbestos abatement, even then (1988) when removal was demanded by many, it was considered best practice to leave it in place if it is in good condition. This is not to say that it should not be disclosed to buyers, at the same time they should be educated as to the advantages/disadvantages of abatement.

    Tryg

  37. I wrote: “I don’t think eating asbestos is necessarily bad for kids.

  38. Kary,

    My primary concern with regard to asbestos, which I wrote about a very long time ago, is that in this age of due diligence and full disclsoure MANY people buy homes with asbestos, without knowing it.

    I know from speaking with people, that most believe that the process of buying a home provides all information that they need to know. My concern is that we, as an industry, are not doing everything possible to meet that expectation.

  39. I don’t have a problem with that. I think we only disagree on the prospects of testing. I don’t think you can test and then let it be, so I say assume it has asbestos. Test it when it’s going to be removed. You think you can test and let it be.

  40. Kary,

    So you are saying there should be an addendum to every real estate contract saying “the buyer should ASSUME that a house has lead and asbestos if built before X”, to provide adequate disclosure?

    How is the buyer to assume it? Where is the paperwork (since inspectors can’t see or report asbestos) what is the mechanism to convey to a buyer of a home that they should ASSUME asbestos, especially if they see a popcorn ceiling or a dropped ceiling?

    At present it appears to be word of mouth…and more often not raised at all.
    Should the mls have a mandate that any agent listing a home with a popcorn ceiling (for instance) require that disclosure be on the Form 17? How about questions saying “Do you have any popcorn ceilings? If yes, have you had that ceiling tested for asbestos content?”

    At least the buyer would be made aware, by seeing those questions regardless of the answer, that it is a concern.

  41. Most inspections will mention the asbestos issue. I’ll mention it too when viewing a property.

    On a somewhat related topic, we often see posters saying that people don’t need agents. But I seldom (if ever) have someone say: “Yes, I knew that!” when I mention asbestos in popcorn ceilings. Similarly, when I mention a type of siding, they often won’t know the difference. Apparently they don’t mention those things on Internet listing sites. ;-)

  42. Not true, Kary. In fact ask inspectors. The word is that inspectors are taught not to report something they can’t “see” without testing. More often you will see a disclaimer that they will NOT report asbestos, as it can’t be seen and they do not test for it even where they are seeing something likely to contain asbestos.

  43. Some things are just too important to leave to chance…like your agent or inspector MAYBE telling you.

    In places where radon is prevalent…every home inspection includes a radon test AND a minimum standard is implemented AND a remedy is proposed. THAT is true “Buyer Agency”.

    Here where asbestos is fairly prevalent, it’s not even a question on the Seller Disclosure Form. Outrageous.

    Speaking of which, where are we in this Country with a Mold Test and establishing a minimum standard for mold present AND proposing remedies for home buyers as they pertain to the presence of mold?

    I’m conversing with Fire Professionals regarding the balloon frame issue. Not definitive response yet. Will keep probing the issue…

  44. Ardell wrote: “Here where asbestos is fairly prevalent, it’s not even a question on the Seller Disclosure Form. Outrageous.”

    Question 7e on the seller disclosure form addresses these issues. Absent having tested the ceiling, the seller would put “don’t know.” Very similar to what occurs with lead based paint where most the time the seller indicates they don’t know, and the buyer indicates they don’t care.

  45. Kary,

    And why do we not demand that they at least TRY to know? We as an industry have a responsiblity to push these things in the “right” direction…and do not. Why not? This is not true in other areas of this Country. This was not true when I started in real estate.

    The minute we became aware of potential hazards affecting homebuyers…we introduced a remedy and changed the system in place. Nauseatingly…that was before Buyer Agency existed. Ask yourself how far we’ve come since we became fully responsible for buyers?

  46. Well clearly to test for lead based paint is destructive, because at this point anything likely to contain lead would be covered up (except perhaps in the worst of houses that haven’t had any maintenance).

    Similarly, as time goes on, more and more popcorn will be encapsulated by paint.

    As time goes on, both will be only relevant mainly during remodels.

  47. “Well clearly to test for lead based paint is destructive.”

    No Kary. It isn’t. Local practitioners simply do not utilize the tools to do a lead based paint inspection.

    I was present at one in 1992. Not at all destructive. No one cares more than passing the papers around. It’s a national JOKE! protrayed on the buyers of homes and their children.

    I have not been able to find one inspector in this area who can do a lead based paint inspection, and yet we pass around forms every day advising people they should have one done. Encourage them, for lack of an inspector, to waive the inspection.

    In 1992 or 1993 an inspector came with a little device that cost him about $500. It could determine if there was lead, and how many layers down the lead was. There were also lead mitigation techniques and services, as there are reasonable cost solutions for asbestos.

    If buyers do not have these methods at their disposal, it is because “buyers agents” have not fought the good fight to make them available. Easier to shuffle a waiver under the nose and say “intitial here”.

  48. Kary,

    What would happen if every Agent for the Buyer dug in their heels and demanded that asbestos be removed, or buyers will not buy the houses with asbestos?

    There would be no asbestos…that’s what would happen.

  49. “As time goes on, both will be only relevant mainly during remodels.”

    And how will the owners know it has asbestos, if we do not demand as an industry that there be clear alerts to the buyers, at time of purchase during a “legal out” phase of the transaction?

  50. You know they have a right to know, and you know it is we who need to make it so. And not just one agent at a time.

  51. Kary,

    This from Brian Humphrey, Spokesman for LAFD. Crisis communications consultant to government and industry, re balloon frame:

    “I think it ESSENTIAL for owner of a balloon construction home to know about the immense & inordinate challenge in event of fire.”

    **
    Of course to know about the challenges in the event of fire, you have to know whether or not it has a balloon frame. Seems this is something home inspectors should tell people when buying one.

    Also from Tweeting with Brian, as I suspected, lacking knowledge of whether or not it has a balloon frame, firefighters will err on the side of caution. Erring on the side of caution is not what you want when your house is on fire.

    I’ll be following up with home inspectors and builders to see how hard or easy it is to correct the floor plate issue on older homes.

  52. Also check how hard it is to determine! I’m not sure you can tell without opening a wall.

  53. Kary,

    The firemen tell by the way the fire is spreading, unfortunately. I’ll check with inspectors. Perhaps knowing would make getting insurance more costly or more difficult.

  54. Yes, I meant during the inspection.

    As to correcting it, I’d guess it would require tearing out all the walls, at least partially. You could do the exterior walls as part of a proper insulation job, but I don’t see anyone doing that just to accomplish this task.

  55. Deputy Chief says:

    Comments from the fire service. Balloon framing is common in homes built prior to 1950 mostly. the easiest way to tell if you may have BF is to go to the basement and take a look on the top of the foundation walls where they are supporting the floor joists. In platform construction, the floor decking on the first floor will go all the way to the outside wall of the structure. In balloon framing it will end at the interior wall and the wall stud from the wall will extend down and be attached to the end of the floor joist. You will be able to put your hand up inside the wall cavity from the basement. This wall cavity will extend all the way to the attic with the intermediate floor joists nailed to the side of the stud. This creates another space for a fire to extend above the ceilings of any intermediate floors. These houses are wonderfully easy to wire because all you do is go to the attic and drop the wire all the way to the basement. A fire in the basement will quickly spread up the walls to the attic and into the ceilings on intermediate floors. The general rule for fire attack is the first line to the basement the second to the attic. any fire in the house that may get into the partition space will have a direct route to the attic generally resulting in the roof burning off the building. A few years ago, we had a fire where a party placed a plastic pail of wood stove ashes (well, not really all ashes) was placed on a porch next to the exterior wall. Caught fire, got into the partition and burned the roof off the house. It was real easy to trace the route of the fire. Burned two stud spaces all the way to the attic. None of the rest of the house involved. It is not that the framing method is a hazard to firemen really, it just dictates how you need to fight the fire. Generally, a homeowner’s insurance company takes a very dim view of this type of construction. You don’t very often keep a fire to just one room or the basement. Fire stopping can be installed in the wall cavities but it is quite invasive and expensive.

  56. Deputy Chief says:

    go to YouTube.com and do a search for Balloon Frame. then find the video from Tampa. That shows the kinds of challenges that this type of construction presents to the fire service. Fire starts popping out everywhere.

  57. Thanks, I hadn’t thought about an unfinished basement making the determination easy. Unfortunately not all basements are unfinished, but presumably you could tell in a house that had a foundation with a crawlspace.

  58. Thank you deputy chief,

    Here is the video in the post that shows the fire spreading and claims the hazard to firefighters:

    http://gloucestercitynews.typepad.com/clearysnotebook/2007/12/pennsylvania-fi.html

    It may not be the same one you are referring to on YouTube, or it may be the same video, but with commentary expressing the danger to firefighters.

  59. It is great that your home inspector caught that framing detail and made a note of it. Better to be prepared and make allowances in the budget now than to suffer the potential loss later. Fire and seismic forces will act on all houses differently and a careful inspection will in the long run save money and hopefully lives.
    Tad Eley
    Sound Foundation Repair

  60. I just bought a balloon framed house and I am a firefighter. Yes fire can spread quickly in these homes. There are things you can do to stop this though. You need to install blocking, which, as you guessed it, blocks the spread of fire through the building. I just gutted the house I bought and plan to install blocking in between every floor being as the walls are open, but if you don’t plan on doing major work to your house, just go into the basement and cut blocks of 2×4 wood to span the distance between your wall studs. Toenail or screw them in to seal off the space between the studs and your floorboards, and then to be on the safe side, seal those blocks by spraying fire retarding foam around the edges of the blocks. pretty simple really.

  61. Thanks GC. I think it says a lot about the fact that some of these homes are worth the extra effort, given a firefighter bought one :) Appreciate your taking the time to comment.

  62. This must be the longest RCG Thread on record.
    Glad to see these construction issues duscussed. JG-

  63. Actually Jerry, we have many with over 100 comments and one at almost 800 :)

    • I presume the success of any RCG Post
      is judged by how many Comments are
      received- nicht wahr? (Isn’t that true?). J-

      • No Jerry. It’s not. I have posts with no comments and over 10,000 readers. The value is the information they gained from the post…not that they “talked” on the blog. Most of the benefits of blogging have nothing to do with comments UNLESS the comments ADD info of value to the post. So a bunch of nonsense comments like “good post, ARDELL!” add nothing for the reader…even if there are hundreds of comments like that.

        A valuable comment to this post would be about the retrofit needed on a balloon frame house to make the floors more fireproof between the levels. I am told there is a way to “metal plate” the openings between floors to “fix” the balloon frame fire issue as a retrofit.

        THAT would be a “value added” comment from someone who knows about such things.

  64. Thanks, this was very useful, especially the comments from Deputy Chief and GC.

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  1. [...] at Rain City Guide, Ardell penned a post about balloon frame housing and the inherent fire-risks therein.  Over on this side of the mountains, very few houses were [...]

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