Contrary to older homes that typically contained many walls to separate rooms, the modern preference for most homeowners is an open floor plan. Often times, people purchase a home that is not as open as they’d prefer with the intention of opening up the space, or current homeowners may wish to remodel to achieve a more open feel.
Of course, before you go tearing out walls there’s one very important consideration you have to determine… is the wall load bearing? A load bearing wall is a wall that, as its name suggests, supports load (weight and force) from the structure. Load can be “dead” load, meaning it is always present as part of the structure itself, or “live” load, meaning the load is not permanent and can be moved (furniture, appliances, people, etc.). If a load bearing wall is removed entirely and no longer present to provide support, devastating consequences can result for the structure.
So how do you determine if a wall is load bearing? Well, it’s actually not as difficult as you might think. If you have a basement, begin there. If not, begin with the crawlspace or slab. In other words, start at the lowest point of the house, regardless of the type of foundation. If your home has a basement or crawlspace like most in my area, you will likely see vertical columns with long, thick wood or metal beams running on top of them. Above the beams, you will typically see wooden floor joists running perpendicular (at a right angle) to the beams and bearing on the stronger exterior walls.
The load from the structure is constantly transferred through this entire system – from the roof, through the walls and floor structure, and finally to the more substantial foundation at the base, and ultimately into the ground. All of the individual members of the structure are designed to effectively transfer load continuously and to withstand the dead and live loads that may be exerted on the system at any time. In general, foundation walls and centrally located interior walls are load bearing.
Once you’ve verified the direction of your support beams and floor joists, you can move to the first floor. If the wall in question is running parallel to the beam and perpendicular to the floor joists below, there is a good possibility that it is load bearing. This is because the joists above the wall are probably running in the same direction as those in the basement, and the wall is likely supporting the joists above it. If the wall is running parallel to the joists, there is a good possibility that it is not load bearing. Often (but not always), short and narrow interior walls are not load bearing and are not exerting much weight on the structure below. Longer, wider walls are load bearing more often than not, even if they contain doors or larger openings.
If you have a one-story house with an unfinished attic, you can easily access the joists above the wall to see if they are bearing on it. If you have a two-story house or a finished attic, a little more investigation may be needed.
If you discover that a wall is load bearing, it does not mean that you can’t open up the wall to create more open space. The wall can usually still be altered by placing a “header” (horizontal support member) above the new opening to transfer the load around the opening and downward toward the foundation. Windows and doors have headers above them to achieve the same goal. It is important, though, that the header is properly sized for the load requirement (not too small or too big) and that the wall is adequately supported with temporary bracing while it is being altered.
Because of the vital importance of determining whether a wall is load bearing and ensuring that alterations are properly done, it is always advisable to consult a structural engineer prior to remodeling work that involves wall alterations. Likewise, it is important to hire an experienced contractor who can complete the work properly and safely. “Bear” all this in mind if you’re considering alterations to create a more open floor plan.
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