Framing the present

Over the last few months my coworkers and I have been delving into the innards of a lovely 100-something heritage home in North Vancouver. The process of renovation (vs. new construction) is, as anyone who has ever had the opportunity knows, a journey all its own. Surprises and head-scratchers abound, the handiwork of ancestors (and all of the decades of well-intended homeowner patches along the way) offering us so much from which to learn.

The formal dining room, the fireside nook, the ample porch: these, the elements we celebrate as gems pre-dating the open-concept of today. And then there are others: the lack of insulation, the single-pane windows, a foundation with no footing placed on non-bearing materials, the lack of structural redundancy that leads to sagging, sloped floors, out-of-plumb walls. These, the elements that remind us how cheap oil must have been (!) and of the true infancy of our regional method of building.

Think of how long it took for the ancient Greeks to hone their art to the point of the Parthenon, the Norwegians their stave churches, the Egyptians their pyramids. Though wood has been used in Post and Beam construction for thousands of years throughout the world, Balloon Framing (which eventually gave rise to modern Platform Framing) has been used only since the 1830’s in North America.

Framing 101. A frame is the skeleton of a building onto which outside and inside walls are attached, and on top of which the roof structure is placed. Briefly, there are 3 types of construction framing: Post and Beam, Balloon and Platform.

Post and Beam (or Timber) Framing relies on big, beautiful, heavy spans of timber (in other words, often times whole trees) carved and joined in beautiful and complex ways (called dovetails, mortises and tenons, et.al.) by highly skilled craftsmen (or, these days, by highly specialized machines). No nails are needed in this marvel of (heavy frame) construction.

Balloon Framing utilizes thinner, lengthy continuous spans of wood (studs) running vertically all the way from the very bottom to the very top of the structure. From the early 1800s until the 1950s Balloon Framing was the go-to method for building homes in North America quickly and inexpensively, because although lumber abounded, skilled labour (the kind needed for complex Post and Beam joinery) did not. With the advent of Balloon Framing and the nearly simultaneous invention of inexpensive machine-made nails and water-powered sawmills, any settler or farmer could build his own buildings. Hence, the quick construction of the boomtowns on which our great land was built.

So, in Balloon Framing, the vertical studs run all the way from bottom to top, with the floors actually hung into and nailed to them. This means scaffolding (extremely tall depending on the desired building height) is used for workers to stand on in order to build in each subsequent next floor.

The second type of light frame construction (Balloon being the first) is Platform (or often “Stick”) Framing. As with Balloon, thinner spans of dimensional lumber (most often 2x4s) are utilized to frame the wall and floor structures; however, in Platform Framing one complete storey (1st storey walls with 2nd storey floor joists hung into the top of them) is built at a time, hence creating a platform on which to stand for each subsequent storey upward. The rise in popularity of this more convenient framing method has translated to safer, speedier construction (with less structural vulnerability for sagging and fire spread).

Through the convergence of regulated environmental consciousness and stricter safety/seismic requirements, present day construction methodologies are being forced to evolve more quickly than their traditionally laggard tendencies. And as evolution develops, so do prices: climbing at first, but then leveling out as demand grows. We’re now on the cusp of large changes in the energy efficiency of building, and it’s toward this subject matter I will turn in two weeks time.

Article penned by Econ Group’s Dalit Holzman and originally published in North Shore News.