I'm researching the building of this ca 1890 farmhouse in north Alabama.  The owner/builder had a sawmill and blacksmith shop, and ran a general store.  The house is two story, on stone piers and has a central chimney with 2 fireplaces downstairs and 2 upstairs.  I'm thinking the piers and chimney base would have been built first.  It has been suggested that the house was probably a balloon structure, which as I understand it, meant that the entire outside wall from sill to rafters would have been put up in one piece.


Am I on the right track here?  other suggestions?



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I have not seen your building so I have no idea if any of your assumptions are correct.


However, yes, "balloon structure" is basically how you described.

Oops, sorry!  The house is the one in my picture there off on the side.  It is a two story frame, with chimney in the middle of the house.  Built on stone piers.  What I'd like to know is would the chimney and lower story fireplaces have been built at the same time the piers were, and before floor was put in?



FYI - photos can easily be embedded inside any of these messages simply by clicking the "image" button in the little toolbar above the box where you typed in the message.  It's the second button from the left.

that not necessary the correct order, depending on the builder.  I restore a farm house called the 17 Mile House built during that time frame and the house was built with logs. The kitchen chimney actually sat on top of one of the wall logs and not on the ground. 

this picture is owned and copyrighted by R.M. Design & Construction, Inc.

This chimney was definitely on the ground, we used to crawl under the house when we were little.  I've searched the net pretty thoroughly, can't find anything about the sequence of building.  But I think at least the base of the chimney and maybe the first floor fireplaces would have had to be done before the sills and joists went in. I thought I had sent a picture, but not seeing it, so here it is again.

Thanks for any help



It is my understanding that the frame of the house is put up first usually, then roof, and then chimney.  The reason being that the mortar needs to be protected from the elements while it cures and so the rain doesn't wash it away.



Sean wrote:  "mortar needs to be protected from the elements while it cures and so the rain doesn't wash it away"


I can't dispute your suggested building sequence but your explanation about mortar can not be the reason.


Homes with brick exteriors are not constructed indoors; they're exposed to the elements as the mortar sets.  It doesn't take that long for mortar to set up stiff and most masons don't lay brick in a winter freeze or during driving rainstorms anyway.

True enough. Many of the bricks used in chimneys, especially foundations or other areas of "fill" would not be of the same quality as those chosen for exterior use, and would need more protection from the elements, even general freeze thaw cycles.  I've had bricks taken from a portion of my interior masonry (circa 1807) literally disintegrate over the course of one winter when placed outside, in contrast to my pavers and exterior brick wall, both of which are two hundred years old.  Bricks are not bricks, so to speak.  Historical firing processes produce bricks of varying levels of hardness, a result of the varying levels of heat within a kiln.  Only the properly fired bricks with flawless finishes make it to exterior walls, many of the rest are used as fill, like in chimney bases and the like that are not supposed to see the elements. 

Nowadays, bricks are fired on conveyors and the like, eliminating the heat variable, and producing bricks of a uniform finish and hardness.  Whether this is true in 1890, I honestly don't know, but it is certainly true for a healthy portion of the 19th century and earlier.  James Gavin's BOOK has a great section on brick making.  I suppose it would help to get some pictures.  

A good description of the various types of brick can be found in F.E. Kidder's 1898 book, "Building Construction, Masonry."  It's at http://books.google.com/books?id=JJMLAQAAIAAJ&dq=Arch%20or%20ha....

I may not have entered the URL correctly, but if that doesn't work, you can Google it.

I agree... bricks are not bricks... they all have different properties, etc.


However, that's not the issue here.  We're talking about bricks & mortar fully exposed to the elements only during the construction phase of the home.  I stand by what I said, it's illogical to think that it was required for the chimney to be constructed after framing in order to protect it from the rain.  (The part sticking up through the roof is made from the same bricks & mortar, btw.)  We're talking about a material that must withstand tens of thousands of pounds under it's own weight, extreme temperatures, fire, carbon build-up, condensation, acidic fumes, as well as any rain drops that happen hit the flu opening... a few rainstorms in the days after it's built are not going to hurt the thing before they get a roof on the house.


Sean wrote:  "I've had bricks taken from a portion of my interior masonry (circa 1807) literally disintegrate over the course of one winter when placed outside, in contrast to my pavers and exterior brick wall, both of which are two hundred years old."


I would not draw any conclusions based on those observations alone.  There are too many unknown variables and lots of possible explanations for what you see.  You have no idea how the chemistry of the brick has changed over 200 years.  The 100-year-old chimney bricks in my basement are disintegrating yet the bricks up top (outside) are not... same age, same brick.  It means nothing with regard to how it was built in 1902.

It is highly possible that the house frame was built with the space reserved for the chimney laid out, just as the hole for a stair would be framed in before it was added. Early construction (pre-1850) sometimes framed into the masonry of the chimney but I have not seen that in any late Victorian houses.
In the northeast the chimney foundation would have been laid before the house was framed because the ground freezes - the foundation needs to set securely on undisturbed soil below the frost line. I do not know about frost in Alabama!
In my experience chimneys are built after a house is framed because the frame helps support the fire boxes and the flues. It is also easier to match the fire place hearth to the floor level of the room than vice versa.
Often one kind of brick was, and is today, used within the house, another when the chimney rises above the roof. Early descriptions of how to build a structural - 3 brick thick - wall, include references to the inferior bricks in the middle row.
Bricks in basements can spawl and crumble because of wet conditions that might not have been present when the house was built..
Also from about 1875 to 1915 mortar mixes varied widely as did brick firing technology. Some have withstood the test of time, others have not. I have worked on houses where the bricks and mortar would disintegrate into dust if you brushed by them.

One of the reasons I felt that the chimney was built first is because the base is of large sandstone rock.  The house is also on piers of 2-3 rocks each.  It is a country farmhouse, probably built about 1890-1900.  The fireplaces, 2 downstairs and 2 upstairs may have been built after the house was framed in. 


I've recently found several pictures taken about 1985, after the home was abandoned.  It's been really interesting to see the changes!  The Victorian porches were removed, and a brick porch and upstairs bedroom added it it's place.  Some windows have been removed, others added.  I remember the fireplaces being of stone, but these chimneys seem to be of brick.


Thanks for everyone's help!




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