Is it a load-bearing wall?

Posted by Jeffrey Anderson ~ April 24, 2013

Is this the year that your living and dining rooms finally become one large area? According to some experts, an emerging trend in home design is wide open interior spaces -- especially if you're single or a couple with a newly empty nest. That means many interior partitions could soon end up in local landfills. But prior to swinging that sledge hammer, it might be a good idea to determine if you're about to remove a load-bearing wall.

What exactly is a load-bearing wall?

While the walls in your home might seem to just serve as separations to create rooms or hallways, some have an additional function: to carry a structural load. A house's exterior walls almost always support the roof framing or trusses and depending on the floor joist layout, a portion of that weight as well.

In addition, some interior partitions may help provide support for structural components with long spans. An example of this would be when a floor joist can't reach from the front to the back of the home without interior bearing points to prevent deflection.

The good news is that many load-bearing walls can be altered or even removed. However, in almost every situation a substitute means of support such as a header or beam must be installed. Their sizing is determined by the distance spanned and weight being carried.

While the only sure way for a DIYer to determine whether a wall is load-bearing is to look at the home's blueprints or consult with an architect, here are a few telltale clues:

  • Exterior walls -- A home's exterior walls are almost always weight-bearing.
  • Headers -- If you remove sheetrock from an interior wall and there are headers over the door openings, there's a pretty good chance the wall was designed to carry a load. Headers are normally framing lumber that is 6 to 12 inches wide and 2 inches thick. The lumber is doubled across the top of the opening.
  • Stacked walls -- When walls are constructed in the same locations on different floor levels, they are normally carrying a roof or floor load down to foundation walls or concrete piers.
  • Stairways -- An interior partition that parallels a stairway may support the floor joists that have been shortened to create the opening. The exception is when the floor joists also parallel the stairway.

Load-bearing walls always have double top plates, but many partitions that don't carry any weight do as well so that isn't a reliable indicator.

Always determine if a wall is designed to carry weight before doing any demo. You may not notice any immediate changes to your home when a structural wall is removed, but over time the damage often becomes very apparent. And while removing the wall may be DIY-friendly, the sizing of the new support header or beam should always be done by an architect or engineer.

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