A common aim with home renovations is to have a more open plan. This is especially true in older homes where original kitchens are completely closed off from adjacent dining and living rooms. So how do you know when it’s safe to remove a wall or if it is load-bearing and needs to be replaced with columns and beams?
There are a few tell-tale signs:
The wall stacks
If the wall in question stacks above walls in the same location on a lower level, it’s probably structural. The job of a load-bearing wall is to transfer the load of the roof and floor levels down to the ground. The most efficient way to do this is through one wall stacked directly above another. So if the wall aligns with others above or below, you can bet it’s load-bearing.
Columns in the basement
Similar to above, if you find columns or piers below the wall in the basement or crawl space, you can bet it’s load-bearing.
It’s a primary wall
Okay, so what if your house is one level? Then you’re looking for primary walls – those that run more or less continuously throughout portions of the house. These are the exterior walls (generally load bearing in most houses) and walls along hallways or those that run parallel to the ridge of your roof.
If your target wall fits none of the above, then it may not be structural. But it’s still advisable to ask an architect, contractor, or structural engineer before you break out the sledge hammer.
A note about chimneys
In old houses in particular, chimneys are often structural. So if you’re removing one of those, plan to compenssate by adding framing and columns as directed by an engineer.
So what do you do if your wall is structural, but you still want it gone? There are two ways you can proceed:
One. Open up the space with a large doorway instead of removing the wall entirely. You’d be amazed how open a space becomes simply by widening or aligning doorways from room to room. Before you tear out every last stud, ask yourself if your room would be fine with a large cased opening. More on this below.
Two. Remove the wall, add a beam. If you have to have that wall gone, there’s usually a way. It just depends on whether you have a place for the beam and how much you can spend. If you’re in this situation, you definitely want to enlist the help of a structural engineer. You can either call one yourself, or call an architect or contractor who will consult with one on your behalf.
If you decide to remove a structural wall and span the opening with a beam, there are a few more architectural issues to consider.
Check your ceiling heights. It’s not uncommon to have slightly different ceiling heights from room to room. If you’re connecting two spaces with different ceiling heights, more work will be required to frame down the higher one so the two match up across the new space.
Make it clean. Here’s a mistake we see all the time – someone removes a wall and leaves sloppy leftovers. Sometimes it’s two little stubs where the wall used to start and stop. Or the new beam won’t fit in the ceiling with the rest of the structure (or the homeowner didn’t want to pay to make that happen), so it’s just hanging out like a weird soffit in the middle of the room. Anything that makes it obvious a wall used to be there is going to look odd and unprofessional.
I mentioned before that aligning and enlarging doorways can often achieve your aim without the disruption of tearing out walls. As architects, this is one of the biggest missed opportunities we see. We love an open plan as much as the next guy – our own craftsman house is very open and connected. We’ve found in many situations, you can achieve openness and keep your walls. Plus it makes the space easier to paint and furnish.
Our advice? Remove walls strategically in small doses. And always with the help of a professional.
This article does not constitute professional counsel about your unique situation. Please don’t go knocking down the walls of your home after reading an article on the internet (ours or anyone else’s!). Follow the steps above and, when in doubt, call a professional. Many pros even provide free consultations.