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AGE of a BUILDING - how to determine
ARCHITECTURE, STYLE, & Building Age
DEFINITIONS of Mobile Home, Doublewide, Modular, Panelized
DEFINITIONS of ENGINEERED WOOD OSB LVL etc
FLOOR, ENGINEERED WOOD & LAMINATES
MOBILE HOMES, DOUBLEWIDES, TRAILERS
MODULAR HOME CONSTRUCTION
STAINS on & in BUILDINGS, CAUSES & CURES
WOOD STRUCTURE ASSESSMENT
This article describes and illustrates common building framing materials used in different epochs of residential construction. Knowing when certain materials were first or last in common use can help determine the age of a building. The age of a building can be determined quite accurately by documentation, but when documents are not readily available, visual clues such as those available during a professional home inspection can still determine when a house was built.
See ARCHITECTURE & BUILDING COMPONENT ID and Framing Materials Age for the history and date ranges of various building framing materials. Also see NAILS & HARDWARE, AGE and SAW CUTS, TOOL MARKS, AGE for additional building age clues likely to be available when examining building framing materials. Page top sketch courtesy of Carson Dunlop Associates.
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Building methods and building materials should be considered together as the materials available for construction largely defined the building methods used. In very general terms, in North American building construction, later than in Asia and Europe, evolved through log construction, rough cut hand hewn beams and plank construction, sawn lumber, machine sawn lumber, dimensional lumber, factory-produced lumber and sheathing, and engineered wood products such as laminated beams and factory-built trusses.
The Arkansas building framing method became popular in North America following the 1970's arab oil embargo and addressed concern for high energy costs. You might read about Arkansas framing or OVE - optimum value engineering, just about the same design idea that was promoted by the Small Homes Council, SHC, now renamed the Building Research Council.
Modern wood framing uses sill plates, rim joists, floor and ceiling joists, wall studs, and rafters made from dimensional lumber, nominally 2x4's (3.5" x 1/5") and larger members (x" deep by 1.5" thick), spaced 16" on center or in some cases using 2x6 wall studs, 24" o.c. See Balloon Framing and see Platform Framing
Wall studs and first floor joists rest on the building sill plates (flat wood members set atop the building foundation). The wall studs extend from the first floor sill to a height sufficient to frame both the first and second floor walls.
Our photo (above left) of a (mostly) balloon-framed multi-floor building (at an airport in Newburgh, NY), shows that the first two floors were balloon-framed and then the building was extended upwards with additional platform construction.
Rafters in balloon framed buildings attach to the top plate of the building walls. Ceiling joists for the top floor are nailed to the sides of the balloon-framed wall studs just as the floor joists were nailed below.
Perhaps the earliest known balloon-framed building was St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church constructed in Chicago by the fall of 1833. (Walker Field, Chicago Historical Society). Sketch at left, courtesy Carson Dunlop Associates.
According to some histories, balloon framing got its name from people who feared that the dimension-lumber built structure was so flimsy that it was as weak as a hot air balloon, held together by ropes and cloth - a structure that would blow down at the first wind.
That event did not happen, however.
Fred T. Hodgson's 1883 Practical Carpentry contains one of the earliest (and minimal) references to balloon framing. Hodgson later promoted the balloon framing method for the Sears Roebuck Company. See our references at America's Favorite Homes.
Log homes (1640 - est U.S.): solid logs usually felled and prepared at or close to the building site, set on ground level, on flat stones on ground, or on a stone foundation, corners joined using various notch and overlap methods.
See Log Home Guide.
Kit home logs, unlike their more rough ancestors, are milled to consistent diameters and use various spline and gasket methods to seal joints between horizontal and vertical members. See Antique & Old Log Cabins.
Modular construction (1910 - present) was first provided on a large scale with Sears Kit homes that were distributed from about 1910 to 1940 - see SEARS KIT HOME IDENTIFICATION.
Some modern modular homes built in the U.S. during the 1950's post war building boom originally enjoyed a less than stellar reputation several decades ago, having the reputation of flimsy construction.
That is no longer the case. Since at least the 1980's a modular home is constructed in a factory of one or more sections which are carried to the building site on a trailer (photo above left) and lifted by a crane to be set upon a foundation which has been prepared ahead of time.
Our photo (left) shows an easily-recognized hinged roof truss design used in modular construction. On many modular homes the roof is folded down onto the top of the upper floor building sections during transport. During the modular building section set procedure the roof section is elevated and support, typically by a knee wall, is placed into position. In our photo you can see the plywood gusseted hinges at the lower end of each rafter.
Modular homes can be quite large, involving four or quite a few more individual sections which are lifted and "set" into place at the site (photo at left)
Some manufacturers provide custom architectural services and can deliver unique, but factory-built homes in sections. Contemporary modular construction of homes have these attributes:
For full details about modular home construction and inspection, including how to recognize details that indicate that modular construction methods were used to make a factory-built home, see our full text article at "A Photo Guide to Modular Home Construction, Identification, & Inspection".
Panelized construction: floor and wall panels constructed in a factory are delivered to and assembled at the building site. Panels may be conventionally-framed stud walls in modular sections or structural panels may be constructed of a sandwich of OSB (oriented strand board), plywood, or wafer board on either side of solid foam board insulation.
Panelized construction makes use of wall, floor, ceiling or roof "panels" which have been framed off-site and brought to the site by truck. Panels are lifted into place by crane and fastened together on a foundation, and possibly a framed-in floor which have been prepared before the panels arrive. Small panels for some kit homes (left) were light enough to be lifted into place by two workers.
Some framing panels make use of special materials, such as plywood and foam roof panels for insulated cathedral ceilings.
Please see Panelized Construction for our full article on panelized home construction history, identification, construction methods, and other photographic details.
The photo (left) shows a plank house constructed by Charlie Frye for the Margaret Keting School in Klamath, CA.
In the North American Northwest (extending through British Columbia and even southern Alaska) rectangular plank houses were built by native Americans using redwood, cedar, and further north, spruce. Using planks up to 4" thick, some of these homes were secured by ropes so that they could be disassembled and moved.
Museum quality scale model Yurok Plank Houses (photo at left) are being sold to raise money for the Blue Creek - Ah Pah Traditional Yurok Village project that includes preserving plank houses. We encourage readers to support that project.
In their most widespread use by Europeans in North America, plank houses were constructed entirely of sawn planks and without the use of larger dimensioned 2x lumber.
Plank house construction methods have not been entirely abandoned, and occasionally continue to be built, as the New York Times pointed out in March 2012. The Times article describes a plank house contructed in Klamath, California by Willard Carlson, Jr. Carlson's plank house, built for ceremonial uses and named Ah Pah "the beginnning of the stairway", follows traditional Yurok Indian design and uses large hand-split solid old-growth redwood planks for the building's walls and roof. 
How Typical Plank Houses are Built
The following describes plank houses built in various communities in North America as early as the 1920's. The traditional Yuroak Indian plank houses described above will differ somewhat from what we outline below:
A 6"x 6" or 6" x 8" sill beam was placed on the ground or on a stone foundation. Long vertical planks consisting of thick 5/4" (or thicker) boards of varying widths (up to 12" wide) were nailed to the sill beam and extended vertically to the building eaves, at a height of up to 20 ft. The vertical planks were often spaced apart, up to one inch.
In a plank home or box house the floor framing was constructed of floor joists set into notches in the sill beam. To support a second floor in a two story plank house, floor joists were nailed to a rim joist that had been itself nailed to the vertical planks at an appropriate height. In other words, the plank wall is also structural, supporting the upper floor as well as the building roof.
The walls of a plank house or box house were made weather tight by nailing a vertical batten 1"x3" board over the gaps between boards. The wall interior was finished by nailing lath strips to the battens and then applying a plaster wall. The walls were not insulated.
Plank Houses in Some Communities May Be Covered with Modern Siding & Are Tricky to Recognize
From the exterior these homes may look quite conventional since horizontal siding was installed over the original planks on the wall exterior. Owners may not discover that their home was originally a plank house until they attempt to open walls to add insulation, plumbing or electrical wiring. But a clue to plank construction might be the observation that all plumbing was run around the interior of the building walls (to avoid freezing in cold climates and because there was no wall cavity).
Some of the plank houses we've inspected were made from scraps or salvaged lumber such as a home in Dutchess County New York that was constructed from packing crate wood.
Support the Ah Pah Project
More information about the Blue Creek Ah Pah traditional Yuroak Village can be found at Ah Pah Traditional Yurok Village project - http://www.bluecreekahpah.org/
Scale models of plank houses of this traditional design are also available for sale  - proceeds support the Blue Creek Ah-Pah project. [InspectAPedia is an independent publisher of building, environmental, and forensic inspection, diagnosis, and repair information provided free to the public - we have no business nor financial connection with any manufacturer or service provider discussed at our website. ]
Platform Frame construction (sketch above, courtesy Carson Dunlop): also called western construction: the most-common residential wood structure framing method in North America. Our photo (above right) shows typical platform framing from indoors, including an interior wall partition.
A floor is constructed atop of the building foundation, forming the first "platform". Walls are framed either stud-by-stud vertically as each stud is nailed to a sole plate which in turn was nailed to the floor platform, or wall sections for the first floor are framed flat on the floor (the platform) and tilted up into place.
The next floor (platform) is constructed atop these walls and subsequent walls for the floor above are framed on that second floor platform. Typically each section of framed wall is 8 feet high.
In North America, up to about 1930 it was common for dimensional lumber to be full-sized - a 2x4 was really 2" x 4" in cross section. Modern wood framing wall studs 2x4's (a modern dimensional lumber "two by four" is actually 1.5" thick by 3.5" wide) and larger members (x" deep by 1.5" thick). See Dimensional Lumber for details.
Also see Pre-Cut Frame Construction
Fachwerk (German) or half timbering (Britain) is a newer term describing post and beam timber framing from the 1700's, but timber framed structures and timber framing with stone or stucco infill older than that.
The age of "modern" half-timbering fachwerk dates from about the 1100's, as scribed timbers were used in Europe in the 11th century or earlier. Wikipedia reports this sort of timbered construction dating to neolithic times, probably with a stone infill rather than plastering over lath.
In Europe, similar framing connections using logs rather than hewn beams are still older - see Antique & Old Log Cabins for examples from both Europe and the U.S.
Our photo (above, left) of a fachwerk home near Frankfurt Germany was taken by the author in the 1960's.
Adze cuts and axe cuts are normally visible in the rough surface of early hand hewn wood structural beams. Our photos show a barn in upstate New York (above left) and an 18th century Norwegian timber frame building using brick infill and stucco to complete the wall enclosure (above right). See this post and barn post and beam photo for more details. See Hewn beams & planks for details about this framing method.
Post and beam construction (1700 - est. in North America): (timber framing) uses horizontal and vertical timbers that are connected (joined) using mortise and tenon joints pinned with wood pegs (treenails). Timber frame construction initially used hand hewn beams, later manually or mechanically sawn beams cut by a pit saw.; Later timber frame beams were sawn in mills using circular saws.
Beams for a post and beam barn or home were typically cut to 4", 6", 8", or 12" square, sometimes larger, and not always square in cross section. Early hand hewn beams used a tree in rough form, hewing flat only the upper surface of the beam to which flooring was to be nailed.
Modern post and beam framing uses the original techniques but beams are milled and are uniform in dimension (photo at left). (Some modern post and beam buildings also encompass engineered steel and bolt braces and more complex structural designs.)
The observation of framing materials, framing markings, and framing styles provides considerable information about the probable age of a house.
We discuss framing materials and styles here as an aid to house age determination.
Antique and modern trusses are distinguished and modern laminated beams and I-truss beams and wood joists are discussed.
Keep in mind that even when we can identify specific types of building materials and building methods, precise dating of the time of construction of a building remains difficult: old building materials were often re-used, so beams, siding, and other components may appear in a building built later than when the materials were first made.
Also, in the U.S. various states had machines for making cut nails, screws, and sawmills at different times. For example, New York State was industrialized earlier than some western or southern states, so machine-made nails appear earlier in New York than elsewhere.
Pre-cut framing describes the use of dimensioned lumber that was pre-cut to standard lengths at the lumber yard where it was produced, then shipped to a building supplier or directly to a building site in order to speed, simplify, and reduce the cost of construction of homes.
Details about the history of use of pre-cut lumber are at Pre-Cut Lumber Construction. Excerpts are below.
Leavittown New York Pre-Cut Lumber Constructed Homes
According to the Leavittown Historical Society, the default of the Strathmore development project by a Rockville Centre Long Island developer in the 1930's Great Depression forced lawyer and real estate investor Abraham Levitt to take over and complete development of the project even though he and his sons were not trained in construction. That experience led to Levitt & Sons successful bid on a Navy contract to buildng homes for shipyard workers in Norfolk, VA where they perfected the techiniques used for high-speed, low-cost, mass production of homes built in what became Leavittown at the end of World War II.
On Long Island, in Island Trees, a golden nematode infestation that wiped out much of the area's potato crop led to farmers' selling off land in order to survive.
The combination of a surge in demand for housing for returning GI's from WWII, low-cost land on Long Island, and Leavitt & Son's expertise in mass-produced housing formed a perfect marriage when William Leavitt proposed to his father taht the Island Trees land be divided into small lots on which could be built modest, inexpensive homes. In May 1947 the Leavitts announced the plan to mass-produce 2000 rental homes. In two days, 1000 of the proposed homes had already been rented.
In 1949 the Leavitts changed from constructing rental homes to building slightly larger 800 sq.ft. ranch houses that were sold for $7,990. These homes also were constructed on concrete slabs, but incorporated radiant slab heating. (See RADIANT HEAT). The last of the 17,447 Leavittown homes was built in 1951. For a description of the role that this mass-produced housing project played in the American civil rights movement, also see Levittown: Two Families, One Tycoon... by Kushner.
Welded-wire sandwich framing panels: polystyrene or polyurethane foam core insulation is surrounded by a welded-wire space frame.
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