Carpenters and builders are just like the rest of the population when it comes to innovation. Some are reluctant to change and are happy to rely on materials and techniques that have served them well in the past. Others are more eager to innovate and try new methods that might make construction faster and cheaper while maintaining standards of quality. I recently came across a farm house near Lake City, IA that is a great example of the former. While most houses in Iowa from the mid- to late-19th century were built using the balloon frame technique, the builder of this house used an older technique of the modified or combination braced frame.
There are several terms used to describe framing techniques used in the 17th and 18th centuries in the United States, including post and beam and braced frame. Braced frame or post and beam construction is an adaptation of the older methods used in medieval and early modern England and brought to the colonies in the 17th and 18th centuries. The post and beam construction relied upon heavy hewed or sawed timbers connected by mortise and tenon joints for the framing pieces. Corners were reinforced with knee braces or diagonal braces to stiffen the frame and resist lateral loads. During the 20th century some authors called this method the New England braced frame. In his book The Construction of the Small House, Harold Vandervoort Walsh wrote:
“The braced-frame is the oldest type, and originated in Colonial days in New England. It was developed under the influence of a tradition of heavy, European half-timber construction, and also nourished by the abundance of wood directly at hand . (p. 38)”
Walsh describes several, significant changes during the 19th century. Lumber became more scarce (especially on the western frontier) and nails more common and less expensive, meaning heavy timbers and mortise and tenon joinery became less attractive. Indeed, speed and ease of construction became even more important as demand for farm houses and cities grew and the use of balloon framing predominated. However, Walsh noted that not everyone was sold on balloon framing:
“Those who had lived in houses constructed according to the balloon system of framing found that they were flimsy, that fires quickly consumed them, that rats and other vermin could travel freely through the walls, and that, after all, they were only the most temporary sort of shelter. (p. 40)”
Walsh identifies a conservative alternative to the new balloon frame which he calls the combination frame. The combination frame kept some features of the older braced frame or post and beam method, but added some features of the balloon frame. Carpenters continued using heavy timbers for posts and girts but otherwise used lighter framing members (usually 2 x 4 or 2 x 6 studs) and had diagonal braces at the corners that were let into the studs. Walsh mentions the versatility of the method. The use of a heavier sill served as a sturdy foundation for the studs and floor joists and the girts allowed more flexibility for window placement on the second story.
Now we come to the Iowa farmhouse (finally!!!). I do not know the house’s date of construction. Tax records claim it was built in 1890, but the 6/6 windows and framing suggest an earlier date. I think the 1860s or 1870s is more likely. When I first approached the building I noticed there were several pieces of missing siding that allowed me to view some of the details of its framing. First, I noticed a heavy sill with 4 x 4 vertical timbers framing the window opening. I was unable to tell whether the vertical pieces were joined with mortises and tenon joints. Regular, sawed 2 x 4 studs filled the remainder of the wall. You can see plainly a large cross brace which has been let into one of the vertical timbers that frame the window. We cannot see the corner post, but I suspect it may also be a 4 x 4 timber that extends up to a girt at the top of the wall. From what is visible here, this house’s framing style closely resembles the combination frame identified by Walsh.
I regret not being able to examine the house more closely, but it was located on private property and I did not have permission to enter the farmyard. That being the case, we still can learn quite a bit about its construction from the limited view. But, we are left to speculate who built the house and wonder why he built it this way. Was he a conservative Yankee who built his new home just like houses had been built back east? Was he an immigrant who used or adapted building techniques from his homeland to the new practice balloon framing? It is hard to say. However, I do know this is a fascinating house that deserves a closer look before it is demolished.