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Things to consider before removing a structural wall

Posted: February 21, 2016 4:59 a.m.
Updated: February 21, 2016 4:59 a.m.
Annie Schwemmer and Ann Robinson/

When structural walls are removed, beams and columns must be installed, but they can be placed above the ceiling and inside the walls so as not to have any visual impact on the space.

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One of the most common requests we hear these days is to design an open floor plan to create a great room that houses areas for the kitchen, dining and living areas. Such a request generally involves removing walls. How simple this process is depends on whether or not the wall is "structural," which means that the wall is part of the structural design of the home and is supporting the load (weight) of the floor and/or roof above.

We often have people say they would like to remove a wall but cannot because they think it is structural. There are two fallacies in this statement.

First, it is not always easy to determine if a wall is structural or not. A trip to the attic to look at the roof and ceiling framing can often determine this issue, but if the actual framing is not visible it is only when the wallboard or plaster is removed that the exact situation can be confirmed.

Second, removing a structural wall is not so difficult that avoiding this possibility should be the driving factor in the redesign of your home. The most important consideration is to determine how your family functions and how your home can be changed to support your lifestyle. If a structural wall needs to come down to achieve your goals, then so be it.

Removing a structural wall will require the services of a structural engineer. The governing body that will issue the building permit will require a stamped, signed drawing by a licensed structural engineer. We like to take the engineer to the home before we begin drawing the final plans to consult on what we are going to assume the existing structure is. All the design professionals can do at this stage is use their education and experience to the best of their ability and proceed with these assumptions.

When the contractor actually tears into the project there is a chance that some of these assumptions may prove to be wrong. There are many ways to put a house together — some much better than others — so it is not shocking or upsetting if we have to reconsider part of the solution. That is why you have a great team with a competent, experienced architect, engineer and contractor on board. The adjustments can be quickly made, and you are on your way again. There is usually not a great financial impact to such a redesign, but if you have remembered to keep a 10 percent contingency fund, you will not have to be stressed by the adjustments that may happen along the way.

The structural wall we want to remove has been distributing the load of the floor or roof above across its length and transferring that load down to additional structure below — either to a beam or wall in the basement or onto the home’s foundation walls. Every load has to travel down to the earth, which absorbs it. If we want to remove that wall, we need to install a beam in its place.

The proper size of the beam will be determined by the structural engineer, in consultation with your architect. We can select a number of profiles for the beam, such as tall and skinny, short and fat, etc., depending on the architectural design and how we want the beam to look. There are times when we may not want to see the beam at all; in this case, the architect works with the engineer to place the beam above the ceiling rather that under it.

In any case, the uniform load of the structure above (picture floor joists or roof rafters resting on the beam at even increments) will then be gathered at two (or more) points, which are the columns that will be holding the beam up. These columns will then transfer the load down on its way to the ground.

Understanding that the load needs to get to the ground will help a homeowner see that opening up a wall on the main level will have some impact in the basement. When a column is added on the main floor, unless it rests on a foundation wall, we will need to continue the column through the lower floor to get the load to the ground.

In residential construction, columns are not large. They are often just three 2-by-4 studs ganged together and they can fit nicely inside a wall. In order to install them, the wall needs to be opened, but it can be patched and painted so that you will never know there has been a disturbance.

Depending on the size of the load and where it hits the basement floor, a new concrete footing may be required to receive the load of the column. This can be added by removing the flooring (for instance, rolling back the carpet), removing a piece of the existing 4-inch concrete slab, and pouring a new concrete footing. A common size would be a chunk of concrete about 3 feet by 3 feet by 1 inch, but your structural engineer will size it correctly for the load it will be receiving. As with the "disappearing" column, the flooring can then be reinstalled and you will never know the footing is there.

While it may sound like a lot of trouble to remove a structural wall, it is done all the time and is not all that daunting in actuality. It will cost several thousand dollars (but not tens of thousands) and is worth the effort and expense because of the impact it will have on how your home functions and, therefore, on the life of your family.

Our 21st century lifestyle craves light, open, inclusive spaces in which to gather family and friends together. Take charge and make your home work for you.

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