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Structural Repairs: Load-Bearing Walls

Our house had numerous structural problems, many (but not all) of which were the result of bad DIY by the previous owner. This post is part of a series outlining what we did to correct these problems.

It is possible to remove load-bearing walls, as long as that load is carried by some other means (usually by a beam). The previous owner of our house did not understand that basic concept, and thought it okay to remove studs in order to put in doorways, cut top plates to run plumbing, and simply remove walls without paying any attention to the structure.

Is it a load bearing wall?

You could be dealing with a load bearing wall if:

  • the wall runs perpendicular to the ceiling joists (especially if joists overlap above the wall),
  • the wall is directly under a wall on the next floor,
  • your house collapses when you remove the wall.

Before removing any wall, you should get advice from a building inspector or structural engineer.  This may be a requirement of the permit process anyway.  Skipping this process could have devastating consequences.  You can remove a load bearing wall as long as you redistribute the load in another way.  Again, a structural engineer is your friend.  There are minimum codes that must be met, for both legal and safety reasons.

Weakened structure

The Problem

The previous owner removed studs from a load-bearing wall to allow for a doorway. In the same wall, he completely removed part of the top plate for the plumbing vent stack.  The original wall studs were a bit too short, causing some sagging. This wasn’t a serious issue, but it was something we could address with the wall opened up.

top plate cut for vent stack
Top plate cut for vent stack.

no structure around door
No structure around doorway.

The solution

As part of our overall renovation, the contractors removed an even larger section of the wall. A beam comprised of two 2x10s now carries the load.

A bulky header completes the load bearing stud wall.

The plumbing was re-routed. The vent stack now runs through an accurately sized hole drilled in the top plate. Additional studs reinforce the wall and help level the joists above. This load is carried by the foundation block walls and one of the new stud walls in the basement.

new studs
New studs to level the floor joists.

Compensating for a removed structural wall

The problem

In creating a larger master bedroom, the previous owner removed a load-bearing wall– an error that could have had very serious consequences. He should have installed a beam to carry the load, but instead he just left the top plate of the wall in place, which sagged by close to an inch over the years.

sagging top plate
The top plate had sagged significantly due to the previous owner removing the load bearing studs.

Oddly, he built a lower ceiling using a framework of 2 x 4’s and drywall. The 2 x 4’s were installed below the level of the top plate–I guess so the ceiling was all the same height– so he could have replaced the top plate with a 2×8 beam without sacrificing any head room at all. This span would likely require a beam of 2×10′s or greater, but even that would have only protruded a couple of inches below the lower ceiling.

drop ceiling
Framework for the drop ceiling in the master bedroom

The solution

The obvious solution would have been to use jacks to raise the sagging top plate back up to level and restore the stud wall below it. But we had in our grubby little hands architectural drawings that changed the floor plan of this area yet again.

A new wall was built a few feet from where the original wall had been. This wall features a steel I-beam supported by jack-posts sitting over the block foundation on one side and the block basement partition wall on the other side. This is our new load-bearing wall.

Load-bearing steel I-beam supported by jack posts.

A stud wall was built under the I-beam, but it is the steel that actually carries the load.  New joists installed between this new wall and the other wall now carry the load of the upper floor.  The old joists are no longer necessary for carrying any load, but remain in place.

new joists
The new joists are now the actual structure, the old joists are redundant.

A closer look at the I-beam

More structural reinforcement: the second floor hallway

The problem

Meanwhile, in the hallway, we learned some more secrets of the house’s past which revealed more inadequate structure. The upper hallway is open, overlooking the stairs. Where there should be a beam supporting the second floor joists across the stair opening, there was only two 2x4s which appear to have been a top plate at one time as the stud locations were clearly marked. It seems the staircase may not be original to the house.

stair header
Two 2x4s were not enough to support the second floor above the hallway.

The solution

To properly support this span, the contractors installed an angle iron to reinforce the top plate.

angle iron header
Angle iron was installed to reinforce the structure.

Restoring the underlying structure of this house started shortly after we moved in (2003) and continued to the Spring of 2009. Considering our “home inspection” focused solely on structure and apparently revealed no issues, we were completely blindsided by the scope of the repairs that were necessary. Had it not been for the structural issues, we would not have had to renovate so extensively. It is far easier and much less expensive to do things right the first time. A few hundred dollars worth of lumber would have saved tens of thousands of dollars worth of demolition and construction.

Structural Repairs: How to “unbutcher” a house

The Back Dormer: Repairing water damage and fixing framing problems
The Back Dormer:  Adding ventilation and eliminating water leaks
The Sunken Tub
Supporting a house from the basement up
Load-bearing walls