Dear James: I see these makeover shows on television. I want to open up my kitchen to the family room and it would be fun to knock out the wall myself. Someone said to be careful of bearing walls. What are they? -- Kyle G.
Dear Kyle: Your friend gave you excellent advice. People often see these types of do-it-yourself shows and the projects look simple and fun. Many of these television shows are only 30 minutes long, so they don't have time to discuss all the precautions and possible problems that can occur.
A bearing wall is one which supports the structure of the house. The primary bearing walls in most homes are the exterior walls. There are secondary interior bearing walls which support a second floor or the attic above the first floor. Larger houses have more interior bearing walls because the spans are greater between the exterior walls.
If you knock out an interior bearing wall, the materials above it will not be adequately supported. This may result in a gradual settling or cracking in adjacent and walls above. In the worst case, drywall and lumber may actually start falling down on your head.
The trickiest part of the entire project is that it is difficult to determine which walls are bearing walls. Once all the walls are covered with drywall, it is difficult to determine what is what. Try to find the original building plans to be sure how the house structure is supported.
If you cannot find the plans, an experienced builder can often inspect a house and give you a pretty good idea of which ones are bearing walls. Interior walls which run perpendicular to the floor joists are often bearing walls. This is particularly true if there is one located directly above another, but they can be offset sometimes.
If your house has a basement or a crawl space, check under the floor for the location of the support beams. When a support beam is located directly below a wall, you can expect the wall to a bearing one. You will usually find this near the center of the house and running the length of the house.
You can open up a bearing wall and remove part of it as long as it is properly supported. Go ahead with your project cautiously until you determine the nature of the wall. If it is a bearing wall, a structural engineer can design a supporting structure so you can open the wall between the two rooms.
The fun part is using the sledgehammer, but it is best to put it back in the garage for another project. Begin by removing the drywall from the wall. Do it carefully by separating the pieces at the drywall joints. Once the wall is totally opened, it will much easier for a professional to make a determination on the type of wall it is. If you choose not to continue with the project, at least you will not have damaged the wall beyond inexpensive repair.
Also inspect the plumbing, wiring and heating ducts in your home. Some of them may pass inside that wall which will make the project much more difficult. Most heating ducts are located on outside walls, but the return ducts from a second-story room may come down through that interior wall.
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