Wednesday, May 17, 2023
What is a load-bearing wall?
It is quite literally a wall that bears the load of anything above it.
It transfers the weight of everything from the shingles on your roof down to the foundation walls and footings until all those loads eventually hit undisturbed soil (earth).
It’s part of a structural system composed of concrete, steel, and wood, all working together to provide shelter for the family.
So, what does all of that exactly mean?
Visualize a game of Jenga or a house of cards.
They are both a series of objects, rectangular wooden blocks in the above photo, stacked in layers that are perpendicular to one another. That’s not all too dissimilar from posts, beams, joist, and walls in a home wouldn’t you say?
Now, if you remove the wrong piece in either of those games, the structure you had becomes less and less stable until eventually collapsing on itself. Apply that same concept to your home, and you’ll have have a good grasp on things.
If you’ve played either of these games (and you want to win), then you probably aren’t removing a playing card or Jenga piece nonchalantly. You’re being methodical in your decision-making.
Again, if applying to your property; it’s probably not a good idea to start removing walls without a plan.
That plan should involve contacting a third-party professional, like an architectural designer, structural engineer, or contractor to discuss your plans first, so they can assess the situation and provide you with the proper guidance for your next step.
When I get asked for my opinion on whether a wall is load-bearing or not, I will always start with the following questions:
1. Is there an as-built set of drawings from when the home was built?
If you do, they will detail the size, location, and orientation of posts, beams, and joists.
The answer to this question is usually, no.
2. How committed are you to this renovation?
If you’re 100% committed to following through on the renovation no matter the cost, start cutting exploratory holes in wall(s) and ceiling(s). This will give visual confirmation of the structure. Something a structural engineer will want to see with their own two eyes anyway.
If you’re not 100% in yet, then making holes in wall(s) and ceiling(s) to just “have a look” is probably not the best way to start.
So, what can you do instead?
3. Is the basement unfinished?
There are two ways which you can make an educated guess without opening up walls and ceilings.
You can opt to start from the top (in the attic) and work your way down, the same way the loads are transferred down until reaching undisturbed soil (earth).
Or you can start from the bottom (basement) and work your way up. This is my preferred route and it happens to be the same way the structure was originally built.
So, what do I look for in the basement?
- Where are the steel (or wood) posts located?
- Now, look for the steel (or wood) beams supported by the posts and foundation walls. Which direction is the beam (or beams) running?
Important Note: In older homes, poured concrete or concrete block walls may serve the same load-transferring purpose as posts and beams.
- Which direction are the 1st floor-floor joists orientated?
They’ll be perpendicular to the beam (or multiple beams).
- Where is the staircase located in all of this? The middle of the home or along one of the exterior walls?
There will be two or three joists laminated together on all four sides of the stair case opening. It’s very likely that at least two are supported by the foundation wall and/or a post and beam.
I’ll then make a sketch of all of these different components before continuing to the main floor and second floor (in two-storey homes).
What am I looking for now?
Where are the walls situated above those posts and beams in the basement?
Load-bearing walls will be situated above the beams in the basement.
Important Note: Load-bearing walls are not always constructed directly above the structural components below them. They may be offset 1 or 2 feet on one side or both (like a hallway). Do not be fooled by this.
- Where is the staircase situated from the main floor to the second floor (if it’s a two-storey)?
Most of the time the staircase will be located directly above the basement staircase. It is the most practicable and cost effective packaging for home builders. The structure for this opening will be nearly the same as the staircase opening in the basement.
- Which way are the 2nd floor joists orientated?
Interior load-bearing walls will always be perpendicular to the structure they’re above and below, while walls running parallel are more likely to be non-load-bearing. Not always the case, but a general rule of thumb.
If you have a stud finder, use it to confirm the location and spacing of the 2nd floor-floor joists. You can also do this if the basement ceiling is finished. The joists are likely spaced 12 inches apart. Use painters tape to mark the joists on your ceiling to have a visual.
I’ll make another sketch (or two) of these different components on the main and second floors. The final stop is the attic.
- Which way are the ceiling joists (in older homes) or engineered roof trusses (in newer homes) orientated?
You’ll be able to visually confirm their orientation at this point. Although, you may have to move some blown insulation out of the way. Ensure you are wearing adequate PPE (personal protective equipment). Again, they’ll be perpendicular to the load-bearing walls on the main floor (or second floor)
With ceiling joists you may find a point where one overlaps the other. This is a sure sign that you have a load-bearing wall directly below. Remember this. If you remove that wall bad things will happen. Maybe not from the weight of the joists themselves, but add drywall, a heavy snow fall. It’s an accident waiting to happen. Don’t put yourself in that position.
After gathering all of this information, I now have a sketch of each floor and can make an educated guess as to where the load-bearing walls are located. This is the same simple process I follow anytime I visit a property where the homeowner is looking to open up a living space.
My years of formal education in Architectural Technology taught me that it’s one thing to come up with a spectacular design, but you also have to know how you’re going to build it. When I’m standing in a home these are the things I’m thinking about. Where are the major structural components (ie: load-bearing walls)? How can we route the plumbing and HVAC to the 2nd floor if that wall is no longer there? What’s the most efficient way to do this?
The nitty gritty details.
I try to envision deconstructing the various building components piece by piece, until I reach the structure. From that point I can make a highly-educated guess as to the way the home was built, and therefore what’s likely load-bearing and what’s not. What does this accomplish? It allows us to formulate a plan of attack and move forward the right way.
I suspect it is load-bearing, what do you do?
If yes, make exploratory holes in strategic locations and have a licensed structural engineer review it to confirm, they’ll provide several solutions until like "Goldilocks and the Three Bears", you find the one that’s just right (for your budget and schedule).
I suspect it isn’t load-bearing, what do you do?
If no, make exploratory holes in strategic locations and have a licensed structural engineer review it to confirm. If they confirm it’s indeed not load-bearing, you are safe to remove it.
All of this planning sounds boring…
A permit? That’s going to take too much time, and I want to start right now…
Of course, the alternative is grabbing the biggest sledge hammer you can find and start knocking down walls with no disregard for your safety. It may look good on television, but I’m sure even they have a plan going in the background. You would be in for a rude awakening without one.
So, to answer the question, “Is this a load-bearing wall?” Maybe.
My advice: Hire a third party professional before you reach for that sledge hammer.
Until next time!
(a.k.a. ""The Real Estate Rehabber")
Bestselling Author, Real Estate Investor, and Entrepreneur
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