Imagine you’re playing Jenga – the nerve wracking, block-stacking game that challenges your physical and mental skill – and your tower is looking a little bit wobbly. You know that if you remove the wrong block, a supporting one, the structure will crumble in a loud crash and you’ll lose the game.
A similar principle applies when you undertake a major home remodel. When a house is built, load bearing and non-load bearing walls are created to make up the framework of the home. The difference between the two types is that load bearing walls are accountable for shouldering the weight of the house, while non-load bearing walls are solely responsible for dividing rooms and creating privacy.
Therefore, before taking a sledgehammer to your kitchen wall to create an open floor plan, it’s important to be absolutely sure which walls are and are not load bearing. If you make a mistake and remove or modify a wall that’s supporting the weight of your house, you risk compromising the structural integrity of your home – or worse.
There are seven steps involved in figuring out if a particular wall in your home is load bearing.
Step 1: Check the basement
The best place to look for load bearing walls is in the lowest part of your home. If your house has a basement, start here. Those who don’t have a basement should start at the house’s lower concrete slab.
Step 2: Check the walls
Now check for walls with beams that go directly into the foundation. Any wall that interfaces directly with the concrete foundation is likely load bearing and shouldn’t be removed. Any exterior wall that rests on the foundation is a load-bearing wall, too.
Step 3: Check the first floor
Look for wood or metal beams that span from the foundation up through any wall above it. These walls are load bearing. Also, if any of the floor joists on your basement ceiling meet a wall or a main support beam at a right angle, the wall is load bearing.
Step 4: Check the center of the house
The bigger the house, the more likely it is to have load-bearing walls in the center. On the first and second floors, identify any walls that sit in the middle of the home and run parallel above the center basement beam. These are probably load-bearing walls.
Step 5: Check posts or columns
Think those Roman columns in your living room are purely decorative? Not likely. While they certainly add aesthetic appeal to your abode, they probably also help support the weight of other walls as well as the second floor and roof above.
Step 6: Check the attic
Climb into your attic to see which direction the rafters or joists run. The rafters or joists will travel perpendicular to load-bearing walls. If you see a wall that appears to be holding up an intersection of joists at any point, that wall is probably load bearing as well.
Step 7: Consult a professional
When in doubt, it’s always a good idea to call in the big guns to help you determine whether or not a wall is load bearing. Unintentionally modifying or moving a load-bearing wall can cause not only major structural damage to your home, but can be fatal to those inside.
Photography: Richard Powers/Corbis