Expand Your Living Space by Removing Walls

How to add living space using subtraction, not addition by removing walls from your home. Includes detailed diagrams for wall removal and a header span reference chart.

| November/December 1987

How to expand your living space using subtraction, not addition by removing walls from your home's structure. 

Expand Your Living Space by Removing Walls

Walls might be unwanted for any one of several reasons. For one owner, a room, hallway or closet might comfortably be sacrificed in the quest for an open floor plan. For another, an existing doorway could easily give way to a full-fledged entrance. And should the search for space go beyond the house into a finished garage or porch, a wall will have to be opened somewhere to provide access.

If the thought sounds intimidating, that's probably because it should be. Most walls are significant to a home's structural integrity, and removing walls without providing an appropriate substitute is a standing invitation to worry. Fortunately, there are standard methods for safely spanning just about any opening, and most involve nothing more than a willingness to understand basic framing carpentry.

Removing Walls: The Way of the Wall

For our purposes, walls come in two varieties: bearing and nonbearing. The first, and most important, transfer live loads (the weight of people, furniture and snow) and dead loads (the weight of a building's construction materials) vertically downward to the structure's foundation and footings. The second type is merely a partition that supports no load other than its own weight. Nonbearing walls are of little significance if your home is structurally sound.

Typically, a bearing wall looks like the "before" version of our main illustration. At the base, it's supported by rows of horizontal floor joists running at right angles to its length. Those joists in turn rest on either a girder or a masonry foundation wall. The upper surface of the joists is covered with plank or plywood subflooring, and the wall rests upon that. It consists of a single soleplate, a series of vertical studs placed 16 inches on center (24 inches for 2 by 6s) and a double top plate. The joists for the second floor or ceiling above are nailed to the top plate over each stud.

Before thinking about actually removing a wall, it's essential that you assess the structure's framing. Get your hands on some old clothes and a 25 foot locking tape measure, and begin your inspection in the basement or crawlspace. Determine and record the location of interior foundation walls, or the equivalent girders and supporting piers or posts. It's likely that the pattern for the basement is duplicated in the stories above. To be sure, measure the position of the first-floor walls, and compare that of the second-floor walls as well.

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