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How to Identify a Load Bearing Wall

Doing a home renovation requires the identification of load-bearing walls in order to protect the integrity of the structure and the safety of the people inside. If you have doubts as to whether or not a wall in your home is load bearing, there are ways you can figure it out without a contractor.

How to Identify a Load Bearing Wall

Planning a major home renovation can be both stressful and complicated. If you are the kind of person who is intent on doing your home renovations yourself, you may find yourself researching everything from how to wire electricity to how to tile a backsplash. One of the most critical pieces of home renovation knowledge deals with building, specifically the identification of load-bearing walls.

What Is Home Renovation?

Many homeowners are happy with the condition of their house when they purchase it. These homeowners don't feel the need to make major changes or additions and like the way that the kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms looked and felt when they moved in. However, other homeowners do not. While homeowners may like the size, shape, layout and overall style of the house in which they live, they may also find that there are things they want to change on a more granular level.

When you are removing, remodeling or changing the major fixtures or structure of a part of the house, you are doing a renovation. It may be as simple as retiling a countertop or as complicated as fully gutting a kitchen and replacing all appliances and plumbing. Whatever your plans for your home, you will need to decide whether it's a DIY project or whether you are going to hire a contractor to help you with the lion's share of the work.

One of the most complicated kinds of home renovation involves knocking down walls. There are a number of reasons people might want to knock down a wall in their home. They may want to create a feeling of openness and fluidity in their internal floor plan. They may want to find ways of accessing natural light from another part of the house. They may also wish to create a loft-like feeling in their space. Whatever the reason, before you decide to knock down a wall, you need to identify if it's a load-bearing wall or not.

What Is a Load-Bearing Wall?

A load-bearing wall is defined as a wall that surrounds a support beam that runs from the basement all the way up to the top story of the house. A load-bearing wall is a wall that carries the full weight of the house. It's the wall that all the other walls are built around, and it is required for the house to remain standing. Needless to say, keeping it intact is a pretty important thing to consider when you're deciding to do home renovations.

A load-bearing wall is typically the first wall built in a structure. A load-bearing wall is what moves the weight of the house from one story to the next, so it is a very good bet that load-bearing walls are the ones that are stacked on top of each other from the basement to the attic (if you have one). Even in newer houses that may have been done with an open plan to begin with, there are load-bearing walls that cannot be torn down without serious consideration and the redistribution of weight.

How Do You Identify a Load-Bearing Wall?

The best thing to do if you're concerned that a wall in your home might be a load-bearing one is to get a hold of the original blueprints for the house and see if you can identify it. Typically, blueprint symbols for a load-bearing wall will be clearly marked and easy to spot. If you know the contractor or contracting company that built the house, that's another excellent way to identify the load-bearing wall. They should be able to tell you exactly which walls in the home are load bearing.

Another strategy for figuring out which walls are load bearing is to go into the basement. If there's a wall on the very lowest floor of your house that is directly beneath another wall on the floor above, it is likely that this is a load-bearing wall. If there is only one such wall in your house that runs from the bottom to the top, it is almost guaranteed that this is a load-bearing wall. You should absolutely not attempt to move that wall without a contractor's evaluation.

Another popular strategy is to look at the floor joists in your home. Which way do floor joists run? In almost every case, floor joists run perpendicularly to load-bearing walls. If you see a wall running perpendicular to an intersection of floor joists, it is likely load bearing. However, this is not a tried-and-true method, and it shouldn't be a determining factor in whether or not you knock down a wall. It's just one factor.

What If I Need to Remove a Load-Bearing Wall?

Often, homeowners develop a renovation project and become extremely excited about it only to discover that their plan hinges on taking down a load-bearing wall for which they are not prepared. This is certainly a monkey wrench in the machinery, but it doesn't have to derail your home renovation plans completely. While a load-bearing wall is critical, it is only critical as a means of support.

If you take out a load-bearing wall, you must use temporary supports until you can replace it with an equally supportive structure. This could be beams, or it could be columns, or it could be any other architectural support that can take over the weight of a load-bearing wall and provide the same level of support. This is good news. It means that you can likely continue with your renovation project as long as you make provisions for an additional kind of support for the wall.

What Kind of Walls Are Not Load Bearing?

In almost every case, an external wall is a load-bearing wall. Most external walls are part of the original perimeter of the house and are required to bear a significant load. These may have large windows or doors in them, giving the impression that they are not load-bearing walls, but the fact is more likely that there are steel beams or pilasters in place in the nonopen areas to absorb the necessary weight and make up for the parts of the wall that cannot bear a significant load.

Partial walls are rarely load bearing. A partial wall is designed as a wall that is mainly set up to divide a room and doesn't appear to be part of the main structure of a house. If a wall appears to be hollow and built of light material, it is very likely that it is not load bearing. Even walls that appear to be made out of heavy masonry or heavy materials like brick and cement may simply be a facade wall and easily removable.

What Should I Do Before Tearing Down a Load-Bearing Wall?

If you are fairly certain that you have identified your wall as non-load bearing, a good idea is to have a contractor come and confirm that you are correct. The consequences of taking down a load-bearing wall are near disastrous, so it is a very good idea to be absolutely certain before you do anything that could permanently damage the integrity of your home. A contractor will be able to look at the structure and foundation of your house and give you an unbiased opinion as to the risk you are taking if that wall comes down.

On the other hand, if you know that the wall you want to remove is load bearing, and you still intend to take it down, there are a number of things you will need to do. Whether you are hiring laborers or doing the work yourself, you should have a contractor come and advise you on exactly how to go about it before you secure the necessary permits.

About the Author

Ashley Friedman graduated from Sarah Lawrence College in 2003 with a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and Social Sciences. She has experience writing copy for the websites of creative professionals, and regularly contributes to several blogs covering popular culture, travel, food, and social action.