Linking the uniformity in the architecture of new apartment buildings to stick framing

The architectural commonalities among new apartment buildings may be connected to how the edifices are built:

The number of floors and the presence of a podium varies; the key unifying element, it turns out, is under the skin. They’re almost always made of softwood two-by-fours, or “stick,” in construction parlance, that have been nailed together in frames like those in suburban tract houses.

The method traces to 1830s Chicago, a boomtown with vast forests nearby. Nailing together thin, precut wooden boards into a “balloon frame” allowed for the rapid construction of “a simple cage which the builder can surface within and without with any desired material,” the architect Walker Field wrote in 1943. “It exemplifies those twin conditions that underlie all that is American in our building arts: the chronic shortage of skilled labor, and the almost universal use of wood.” The balloon frame and its variants still dominate single-family homebuilding in the U.S. and Canada. It’s also standard in Australia and New Zealand, and pretty big in Japan, but not in the rest of the world.

In the U.S., stick framing appears to have become the default construction method for apartment complexes as well. The big reason is that it costs much less—I heard estimates from 20 percent to 40 percent less—than building with concrete, steel, or masonry. Those industries have sponsored several studies disputing the gap, but most builders clearly think it exists…

The advance of the mid-rise stick building has come with less fanfare, and left local officials and even some in the building industry surprised and unsettled. “It’s a plague, and it happened when no one was watching,” says Steven Zirinsky, building code committee co-chairman for the New York City chapter of the American Institute of Architects. What caught his attention was a blaze that broke out in January 2015 at the Avalon apartments in Edgewater, N.J., across the Hudson River from his home. “When I could read a book in my apartment by the flame of that fire,” he says, “I knew there was a problem.” Ignited by a maintenance worker’s torch, the fire spread through concealed spaces in the floors and attic of the four-story complex, abetted by a partial sprinkler system that didn’t cover those areas. No one died, but the building was destroyed.

Cutting building costs makes sense. Still: if the costs of construction are reduced, this means there could be more money for interesting architectural or design elements. Enhancing the building in this way could lead to higher rents. (Of course, this assumes Americans are willing to pay a little more for apartment buildings that look good. I could imagine why this may not be the case. See the appeal of ranch homes – though not modernist homes.) Are there some developers out there who see value, aesthetically or monetarily, in helping their “stumpie” complex stand out?

I still marvel at times at this ingenuity in building homes and houses with balloon frames and its descendents: take standardized sizes of mass-produced wood and millions of dwellings are born. The pieces of this supply chain that had to come into place for this to be possible is interesting to consider as is the permanence of such dwellings that are based on frames of two-by-fours.

Offset House on display in Chicago peels layers of balloon frame homes

One of the featured designs in the Chicago Architecture Biennial involves a large home taken down to the timbers:

The droll Offset House by Otherothers in Sydney addresses lot-hogging McMansions by tucking smaller homes into the flabby frames of McMansions that have been stripped to the studs to serve as balconies and porches.

And a further description from the American Institute of Architects:

One of the most striking examples here is the Offset House from the Australian firm otherothers, which tears away the derivative façades of typical suburban housing to reveal simple stick-framed structural grace. The balloon frame was developed in Chicago, and otherothers uses it to create semi-public open-air verandas.

This is the best image I could find with some further description:

Using the Sydney suburb of Kellyville as its prototype, Otherothers suggests the adaptive reuse of timber-framed suburban homes by stripping off the outer cladding (often brick), exposing the outer frame, and creating a verandah in the space between the outer and interior frames. They claim there is beauty to be found in the exposed frames. They also propose that since the verandah would now define the home’s outer border, fences would no longer be necessary and spaces between houses could become shared common areas for gardening and communing.

The design seems to shrink the interior square footage (a waste to many McMansions critics) as well as alter the private nature of single-family homes (another critique of McMansions and suburban homes). The design also seems similar to some of the buildings in the post-World War II era that flaunted their essential infrastructure rather than cover it up. The retrofitted home still takes up the same footprint and the exterior balloon frame still requires maintenance. Yet, some of the critiqued aspects of the McMansion are softened and social life might improve. I’d be interested to see this in action across a whole neighborhood…

The balloon-frame building invented in Chicago in 1833

The building technique that helped give rise to mass-produced suburbia was invented in Chicago in 1833:

But traditional building methods required hand-hewn beams, hand-wrought mortise and tenon joints, lapped half dovetails, and something more crucial — labor-intensive construction at a time when labor was spread too thin.

Then in Chicago, Augustine Taylor got credit for creating balloon-frame construction, a hammer-and-nails forerunner to the light-frame construction that still dominates U.S. housing…

Experienced builders supposedly derided Taylor’s St. Mary’s Church in Fort Dearborn as “balloon-framed” because it looked like a stiff breeze would blow it away. But many accounts suggest the name came from a similar French Missouri type of construction called maison en boulin

Chicago architect John M. Van Osdel attributed the invention to Chicago carpenter George W. Snow in 1832. The Chicago History Museum and other scholars point out that Virginia carpenters in the 17th century — facing similar pressures to build fast — employed similar techniques. But it wasn’t mass-produced like Chicago was prepared to do. Between 1866 and 1875, the Lyman Bridges Company of Chicago sold pre-fab balloon-frame structures to western settlers, one of several purveyors of so-called “sectionalized housing.”

This technique was perfectly suited for mass produced suburban housing in the post-World War II era as it could involve standardized parts, be constructed quickly, and be done cheaply. Builders like the Levitts could quickly construct the frame of a home (after a foundation was laid) and then have a series of other workers come through to complete the home. The majority of American homes rely on wood studs nailed together – not complicated but relatively sturdy.

It is interesting to see that this is the #5 innovation from Chicago’s history. Considering the work that went into some of the others (like #8 Reversing the Chicago River), the balloon-frame structure had an outsized impact on American life.