As a contractor, I love questions about possibilities; questions that open a window into the idea filled heart and mind of an eager homeowner. This is one of those questions:
Can we take out this wall?
The real concern, of course, is “will the roof come down if I move this wall?” It’s a reasonable concern. Take out the wrong wall and you can open up a real can-of-worms.
Load-Bearing vs. Non Load-Bearing Wall
The primary question any design professional or contractor is going to seek to answer when considering removing a wall, or a portion thereof, is: Does this wall hold anything, other than itself, up? If it does, it’s a load-bearing wall. If it only serves the purpose of partitioning off space and only structurally holds up the drywall and maybe an interior door, then it’s a non-bearing wall. These are often referred to as “partition walls.”
You don’t want to mess with load bearing walls without a well-considered and professionally designed plan. These walls support upper floors and roofs so taking them out without otherwise providing support for those structures will cause problems. A sag in the roof or floor above is the best you can hope for. A dangerous building collapse is the worst. It’s bad when it happens, so never just go blindly cutting into a wall you don’t know anything about.
Most Walls Can Be Altered One Way or Another
When a homeowner points to a wall and asks me if it can be removed or a large opening added, my answer is always ultimately yes. For the most part, any residential wall can be altered. It’s just a matter of how much engineering and construction the project will require.
Beams Come in Many Forms
For bearing walls you want to see go away, the solution is usually a beam. But before you start envisioning a hunk of ugly lumber breaking up the ceiling in your dream room, let me share a couple of more appealing options.
Beams Above the Ceiling
Sometimes a beam can be installed at the same level as the structure it’s supporting. This is done using steel connectors to hang the other framing from the side of the beam rather than rest on top of it. This allows the finished ceiling to be flush, and nobody will ever know a wall was removed and a beam installed.
If the beam will be exposed there’s no reason at all that it can’t be turned into a design feature. Plain lumber beams can be wrapped with decorative wood or other material. Or, if your overall decor allows it, a solid timber beam can be the visual focal point of the room. That’s how you turn a negative into a positive!
Beams Integrated into Built-Ins
Another functional and beautiful option is to integrate both the beam and the required posts into some sort of built-in element. It’s common to see half-wall height bookcases integrated with archways above that look fantastic!
How to Identify a Bearing Wall
Unfortunately there is no sure fire way to know that a wall is not bearing just by looking at it. A contractor or engineer would employ a few techniques to make a determination.
Look at original building plans
If you can gain access to the original house plans that will usually clarify how the house was framed and show which walls are bearing and which are not.
Get in the attic if possible
If the wall is beneath an attic space, then it’s sometimes possible to gain access to the attic and get a look at the framing above. It takes an expert level understanding of framing to know what’s what, but a design professional should be able to make a determination if they can see above the wall.
Look at the overall house structure
Some homes have very telling structural elements, such as an older home that has a long continuous wall that runs the entire length of the house, pretty much dead-center between two exterior walls. That wall will almost always be a bearing wall. A contractor or engineer might also look to see if the house is built using pre-engineered and manufactured roof trusses, or if it was conventionally framed on-site. Even an expert can usually do no better than a hypothesis by looking at structure alone.
Inspect the framing of the wall in question
If the drywall or plaster is removed from the wall in question and the framing is exposed, there are a couple of telltale signs. A double top-plate often means the wall is bearing, and a single top plate often means it’s not. Studs on 24-inch centers often mean the wall is just a partition, whereas studs on 16-inch or closer centers often mean the wall is structurally important. These are just indicators though, so please know you really need a professional to make the call.
Remove all of the drywall to reveal the framing
As a matter of last resort, if there has been no clear way of understanding how the house was framed, there is always the option of just gutting the space so the framing is revealed. This shows the interaction between the wall and the framing above so a determination can be made.
Think Big, But Stay Safe
Always get a qualified professional to plan work like this, never just guess and always have a safety plan. Stay safe.
But don’t let your design ideas be stymied by a wall that just isn’t working for you. Almost any wall can be removed somehow, so take the time to look into it. You might find a whole new world of possibilities open up!
Author: Tim Layton