Can I Tear Down This Wall?

Aug 10, 2020

A question that is often asked of Arrow’s engineers is “Can I Tear Down This Wall”?  And it is a great question because if you’ve planned on doing any renovation projects, this question has probably come up a time or two!

To help answer this question, Arrow has put together this article to help our clients understand what needs to be considered in order to do this.

Is The Wall Load Bearing?

In buildings there are generally two types of walls:  load bearing walls, and non-load bearing (sometimes called partition) walls.  Load bearing walls are, as the name implies, used to support the weight and occupants in a building.  Non-load bearing walls are used to separate spaces or “partition” off different rooms.  Though they sometimes connect to the underside of the floor or roof above, they are not effectively supporting that floor or roof in most cases (keep reading for some exceptions to this!).  If the wall is load bearing, it takes a little more consideration to tear it out but it is not impossible.

To confirm whether a wall is load bearing, here are some other useful tips and tricks our engineers use:

  • What is the overall layout of the house and is a common bearing wall obvious?  Most homes prior to the year 2000 were constructed with a single, common bearing wall running down the middle of the home.  Newer construction has changed this to meet more complicated floor plans.
  • A good indicator of where the load bearing walls are can often be viewed from the basement where those walls will be supported with posts or beams.
  • Use a stud finder or demolish a small hole in the ceiling to identify the direction the joists are running (parallel or perpendicular to the wall)?  What is below is a good indicator, but not always and there are instances where the direction of the floor framing may change floor to floor.
  • Do the span lengths for the floor or roof framing above this location seam reasonable to assume it could be load bearing?
  • If you can see the framing above the wall, see if any of the floor joists are continuous over top of the wall or do they stop at the wall?  If they stop, it is likely this is load bearing.
  • If the drywall has been removed from the wall in question, the old trick’ of partially cutting into one of the studs with a thin blade saw can always be used (with caution).  If the wall is load bearing, the studs will be in compression and the saw blade will be noticeably stuck in the wood when trying to remove it.
The Wall is Load Bearing, What Do We Do?

If you suspect that the wall is load bearing, then you should plan to use a header (a structural beam) below the floor or roof framing above the wall you want to remove in order to help support the weight of the building above it.  Although the header should be sized and detailed by a structural engineer (see if we can help), a general rule that can be used for planning is to expect the header to be at least 1″ of depth per foot of wall removed with a minimum depth of at least 8″.  So, if you were to remove 12 feet of wall, you can expect the header to have to be 12″ deep.  In order to install the header though, the contractor who is doing the work will need to temporarily support the framing above this location.  If this is an exterior wall, the shoring that may be needed for these supports will have to be carefully detailed to account for heavier finishes like brick and stone. One other aspect which must be strongly considered is that there will need to be  posts on either end of the new beam as well and that these posts must bear all the way to the foundation wall or slab below in some fashion.  This is an important detail that is often missed and can lead to problems with the floor if not carefully planned for.

If it’s Not Load Bearing, Can I Get my Sledgehammer?

If the wall is not load bearing, you do not have as much to worry about but you should still be cautious!  While it may not be serving as a primary load bearing element within the structure of your home, the house may have settled or moved over time and even a non-load bearing wall can be supporting some weight of the structure.  This is especially true in older homes which have gone through many seasons of movement and settlement or are constructed with heavier materials like brick.  It is often necessary to include a header above these locations as well to account for some of this additional weight unless the structure can be fully analyzed by a structural engineer to determine it is not necessary.

Choosing to demolish an existing wall in a home can be an exciting prospect to consider and can offer many benefits.  But like most modifications to the structure of a home or building, it must be done with caution and done correctly to truly be successful.  If you are planning a project and are considering tearing down a wall that may potentially be a load bearing part of the structure, consulting a licensed structural engineer can help you understand the specific needs of your project and help make your project a success.

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