How to Tell If a Wall is Load Bearing (a.k.a. Structural)
With open floor plans all the rage, many of us with older homes are looking to remove interior walls to bring our over-divided houses in line with modern design standards.
Before you go knocking down walls in your house, though, you must be sure that the wall isn’t load bearing. Since each home is different, and this is an extremely important data point, you should always contact a structural engineer before you remove walls to confirm the walls you want to remove are not load bearing.
Remember! Home Owner’s insurance most likely will not cover a second floor or roof collapse due to the homeowner removing walls that are holding up the house. Don’t skip talking to a professional.
Load Bearing vs. Non-Load-Bearing Walls
Structural (or load bearing) walls are those that are holding up the upper floors of a house and the roof or are essential horizontal bracing members.
Non-structural (or non-load-bearing) walls are there just for show–to create privacy in a room or a design division. Even if a wall is not load bearing, it may be hiding electric, plumbing, or HVAC vents inside and could be difficult to remove without re-routing these elements.
Considerations for Removing Walls
In general, non-structural walls can be removed without any reinforcement to the building’s structure or the floors and roof above.
For load bearing walls, in order to remove or cut a hole in the wall, you must transfer the load around the proposed gap. This is usually achieved by installing a header below the joists or roof structure and running supports on each end of the header down to the load-bearing member under the floor below.
In some installations, you can avoid having a header at the top of the doorway by installing the header in-line with the joists using joist hangers. This installation is more complicated and only works if the header (rim joist) to be installed can be the same width or less that the size of the lumber used for the joists. This decision is affected by the span distance of the gap and the unavailable space on the floor above.
Either of these latter two operations we would reserve for a licensed contractor under the supervision of a structural engineer.
Ways to Determine if a Wall is Load Bearing
We’d like to stress that it is important to accurately assess whether a wall is load bearing before you remove it. Contact a structural engineer and get an assessment.
Remember, even walls that were not originally load bearing could become load bearing if other walls are removed–so this is a sophisticated analysis.
Here are some basic steps you can take to determine if a wall is load bearing. None of these are universally true; however, so the structural assessment is key.
Signs a wall is load bearing:
- The wall is an exterior wall of the house.
- The wall used to be exterior walls but have been made interior by an addition.
- The wall is built above a steel beam. If you look in the basement of your home and can see one or more beams holding up the structure, it is likely that the walls built on top of these beams on the first floor are holding up the second floor.
- The wall is perpendicular to the floor joists, especially if it is close to the support beams.
- The wall has a larger wood top frame member (e.g. two 2x4s or larger, instead of just one 2×4 top plate).
- Doorways or openings in the wall have large headers supporting the gap over the door.
Signs a wall is not load bearing:
- The wall runs parallel to the floor joists.
- The wall is a half wall.
- The wall doesn’t have a mechanism to transfer weight to the structure below.
What do you think? Will you be removing walls in your home?
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