How to Identify a Load-Bearing Wall: A Tutorial for the Novice Contractor
I don't know if it's because of HGTV or a sudden obsession with openness and natural light, but more in-home renovations are including the modification and/or removal of load-bearing walls. Of course, in order to remove these all-important architectural structures, you have to know how to identify load-bearing walls in your home or home project.
This tutorial will give you a few pointers, so you don't feel so befuddled. Let the load-bearing wall identification commence!
What Are Load-Bearing Walls?
Load-bearing walls (sometimes called bearing walls or support walls) are so named because they typically support the weight of a floor or roof structure above. Indeed sometimes they support the weight of a substantial portion of your home or building. It is probably best to think of these walls as load distribution points that collectively take the weight of your home and transfer it to the foundation it sits on.
On the other hand, non-load-bearing walls (often called partition walls) typically do not have any load bearing down on them. Therefore, these walls can often be removed without fear of compromising the overall structure.
How do you identify a load-bearing wall will mostly depend on identifying a few key tell-tale signs. Below, we've compiled a list of these indicators, ranging from simple to moderately complicated. And of course (like most things in life), there are sometimes exceptions to the following rules.
Look at the Floor Joists
If you have ever been the site of an unfinished house and looked at the ceiling, you may have noticed a series of long wooden boards that span the length of the floor above. If you are in the basement, these boards would span the length of first floor (supporting it). If you are on the first floor, these boards would span the length of the second floor (supporting it).
Joists are depicted by figure 1 above. The lengths of board stretching from left to right are the joists. The vertical pieces of board that intersect them periodically are called beams, they add additional support to the joists.
Now, when these floor joists are oriented perpendicular to a connecting wall, as in figure 2, then this wall is almost always load bearing. This is probably one of the best ways of determining whether of not a wall is load bearing.
Of course, in a finished house, floor joists and beams are usually hidden behind drywall and ceiling panels. Therefore, you may have to remove these coverings to make this determination.
If Floor Joists Are Perpendicular to a Connecting Wall, Then It's a Probably Load-Bearing One
When floor joists are oriented perpendicular to a connecting wall, then this wall is almost always load bearing. This is probably one of the best ways of determining whether of not a wall is load bearing.
Look at Your Basement or Foundation
Since your basement or crawlspace is typically the lowest point in your home—and therefore, the point closest to the home's foundation—it helps to start there. Once you are in the basement, look out for some of the following features:
- If there are beams of columns that go directly into your home's concrete foundation, check to see if these beams or columns interface directly with any of the basement walls. If they do, then we can very reasonably assume that these are load-bearing walls.
- If you find beams, pillars, or columns in the basement—and you know that there is a wall directly above these structures on the floor above—there is a very good chance that the wall on the floor above is a load-bearing wall. For example, in the picture above, we can see a series of columns in the middle of the basement floor. If on the floor above, we see a wall in the same area running the same path as those particular columns, that wall is probably load bearing.
- Once again, check to see if you can see the joists on the basement ceiling. If we see that floor joists run perpendicular to any basement wall, that wall is (in all likelihood) load bearing.
Look in Your Attic
Another spectacular place to look for clues as to where load-bearing walls might be is the attic. The attic can often give you the best overall view of the load distribution below your feet—and one huge advantage! The attics in many peoples' homes are (intentionally or unintentionally) unfinished or only partially finished. Here's how the attic view can assist you in identifying load-bearing walls:
- If there are any attic supports, like beams or columns, then look for any walls that are directly beneath these beams and columns on the floor below. More than likely, those are load-bearing walls. For example, if there are any walls below the vertical beams in figures 3 and 4, those walls are almost surely load bearing.
- If the roof's ridge is directly above a wall in the attic or on the floor below, that is probably a load-bearing wall.
Check Door and Window Headers
Another clue as to whether or not your wall is load bearing is to check any door headers on the wall in question. If you don't know the what headers are, they are framings located above door or window openings that help to redistribute weight from the floor above (around the window or door).
If we look at the top of the door frame in figure 5, we will see (more or less) solid pieces of wood above the door opening. This is the type of header typical in load-bearing walls. This header is composed of two 2x10s that are standing on their edge with another structure on top (top plate, cripple, etc). This configuration provides a lot of support to the floor above and adequate weight distribution. Therefore, we can reasonably assume the wall that this door or window is attached to is load bearing.
In contrast, we can see that the header above the door in figure 6 is not as sturdy. It is composed of a single 2x10 that is laid flat. In this configuration, we can reasonably assume that the wall this door is attached to is not load bearing.
Exterior Walls Are Load Bearing
It is almost always safe to assume that exterior walls are load bearing. Typically, exterior walls include multiple beams and headers that give further evidence of their load-bearing capability.
There are some instances where an exterior wall has very little or no load-bearing capacity at all. Generally speaking, however, constructing a whole house with exterior walls that are not load bearing is very expensive and rarely ever seen.
With that in mind, we can pay special attention to our next tip.
Look for Home Modifications
In many cases, older homes may have many several modifications carried out over the years. Rooms may have been expanded, or completely new additions to the home may have been erected.
During these renovations, a wall that may have once been an external wall may now be an internal wall according to the new design scheme. As I mentioned earlier, external walls are usually load bearing, so this may be something to keep in mind.
Seeking Professional Help and Expertise
As I mentioned earlier, the aforementioned tips should be accurate enough to identify most load-bearing walls. To be absolutely sure, however, you should seek outside help.
Of course, outside help often involves payment. Therefore, we've broken down some sources of outside assistance in the list below from least to most expensive:
- Look for the original blueprints: The original blueprints for a home can give you tons of detailed information. This information can include but is not limited to the location of original exterior walls, the location of support beams, and sometimes the directions of joists. Original blueprints can usually be found at your local county clerk's office, with the original building or contracting company or with the original owners themselves. If all else fails, you can have an architect redraw your home's blueprint from scratch (at great cost of course).
- Hire a structural engineer: A structural engineer can tell you without a doubt whether or not a wall is load bearing. At most, a visit from the engineer should cost a couple of hundred dollars, but you can have peace of mind that whatever you are doing won't damage your house.
- Hire a home remodeling consultant: Since the removal or modification of load-bearing walls often plays a part in the larger context of a home remodeling project, it may make sense to hire a home remodeling consultant. These consultants are often private entities that help you to manage, cost out, and execute home remodeling projects of various kinds. More than likely, they will have the capability to identify load-bearing walls and proceed with the best course of action in dealing with them.
Always Use Caution
Whatever you decide to do and whatever advice you decide to take, just remember the following: removing or modifying a load-bearing wall is extremely risky. Not doing it properly can result in extreme damage to your home. Your walls can sag in over time or, in the worst case scenario, the entire side of your home can come crashing down. Sweet dreams.
Do you have a home project involving the removal of a load-bearing wall?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.