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Open Walls and Support Beams
Interior walls create privacy, define spaces, and sometimes bear the weight of the level above. Walls defined floorplans for centuries. Starting in the 1950s, when the open floor plan style became popular, all of those walls and doors segmenting the house suddenly fell into disfavor. Today, few homeowners want a highly segmented house. What if you want to eliminate some of those walls altogether?
Non-Load Bearing vs. Load Bearing Walls
As long as the wall is not load-bearing, you can take it down with little thought toward structural support of adjoining spaces. For load-bearing walls, it is an entirely different story. First, you must determine if the wall is load-bearing or not.
- If the wall is not load-bearing, it is safe to remove without replacement materials to support the weight. Structurally, the wall exists on its own.
- If the wall is load-bearing, you will need to carry the weight of the level above by other means, such as constructing a beam or buying a special laminated beam.
Doing It Yourself vs. Hiring a Contractor
- Hiring a contractor is the very definition of a "labor intensive, materials sparse" project. Costs can vary dramatically according to your area and local contractors. Hiring a contractor means that you get multiple workers attacking your job, saving considerable time. The type of work is not complicated, but there is considerable lifting of heavy materials, especially when it comes time to fit the support beam in place.
- When you do the job yourself, the only special lumber you need is the laminated beam. All of the other lumber is purchased off the shelf at your local home improvement store. Most tools are commonplace, such as a miter saw, framing hammer, and tape measure, though it may be necessary to purchase or borrow some specialty tools and materials, such as a powder-actuated nailer or lally columns.
Tools and Materials
Replacing a load-bearing wall with a support beam requires surprisingly few materials. This project is more about labor than materials.
Continue to 2 of 15 below.
- Beam: You can create your own beam or you can buy a laminated beam. One example of how to construct a beam is to sandwich two two-by-eight boards on both sides of 1/2-inch plywood of the same size. Wood glue is applied to all surfaces and the boards are tightly nailed together. Laminated beams are available on special order at your local lumber yard.
- Dimensional Lumber: You will need lumber sufficient to create two king posts and four jack posts. To carry a beam 3 1/2 inches wide, this would mean purchasing a total of six two-by-four-by-eight studs.
- Miter or Circular Saw: For accurate and fast cuts, an electric miter saw is recommended.
- Framing Hammer: Heavy-duty framing hammers are essential for driving the big nails needed to hold these posts in place.
- Nails: 16d galvanized nails, 3 1/2 inches long are recommended.
- Tape Measure
- Powder-Actuated Nailer: If you need to fasten studs to concrete.
- Laser measurer
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Create a Support System and Demolish Existing Wall
Whatever you remove must be replaced temporarily. When you remove a load-bearing wall, you need to create an adjacent support system prior to removal that will continue to bear the weight until the beam is fully in place. There are two ways to accomplish this:
- Adjustable steel columns (also called lally columns or jack posts) are the quickest and most effective way to add supports. Lay a strip of two-by-fours on the floor, run another doubled-up strip across the ceiling held in place with nails or screws, then jack the steel columns into place between the two strips.
- Instead of steel columns, you can use two-by-fours cut to length. Essentially, you are building a second wall. Cheaper than renting or buying steel posts, it is more difficult because you cannot incrementally raise or lower heights as you would with the jack posts.
In either case, provide supports at the ceiling and the floor for the posts to rest against or else these posts may punch through the ceiling. Use a stud finder to place the top of the support squarely under the joists.
Demolition of the Existing Wall
Add dust shields by stapling sheet plastic right to the wood. For a better dust-control solution, you can purchase an item called a ZipWall that telescopes up and presses the plastic against the ceiling.
Demolish the wall by gently hitting the drywall between studs with a sledgehammer. Light swings of the hammer will punch clean holes in the drywall. A line of these holes will allow you to pry back the drywall. You may find this to be your favored method because, unlike a reciprocating saw, it produces less dust.
Stud removal is made easier by cutting the studs in half then prying away the cut ends. Be vigilant about removing the remaining protruding nails from the ceiling and floor.Continue to 3 of 15 below.
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Set the King Stud and Nail Into Place
Your assembly will be composed of four main elements:
- Two king studs, one at each end
- Four jack studs, two at each end
- Support beam
- Peripherals, such as metal angles to tie beam in place, nails, and screws
The king stud represents the backing board for the ends of your beam. As with all other materials here, it has to be rock solid because it will hold the jack studs.
You might already have a king stud in place after you demolished your wall. However, because the king stud is such an important element, you may want to add greater strength to the assembly by tacking on a second king stud. This will produce a stronger, more stable assembly, at the cost of a slightly more narrow opening.Continue to 4 of 15 below.
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Measure for a Temporary Beam Ledge
The eventual support beam will need temporary support ledges. This support will hold the beam less than an inch below the ultimate contact points, which in this case are the joists of the floor above.
Measure the depth of your beam and then add an extra half-inch. For example, if the beam is 7 inches deep, another half-inch should be added to give room for the beam to move into place easier.
These ledges are created with short two-by-fours or two-by-sixes cut to the width of your king post. They are then nailed into place on the king studs. Nail holes do not matter since they are eventually covered up.Continue to 5 of 15 below.
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Cut the Support Beam With a Miter Saw
Measure the inner distance between the two king studs. This is the ultimate case of that classic axiom that says, "Measure twice, cut once." Even if you are comfortable with absorbing the cost of a replacement support beam, you will need to order it and wait for it to be delivered.
You can cut your beam on an ordinary electric miter saw. If the beam is too deep to be cut with the saw blade, cut as far as you can and then flip the beam over and cut the remaining section.
Ultimately, the support beam can still be cut with a manual hand saw if you do not have an electric miter saw. Care must be taken to get the cut perpendicular.Continue to 6 of 15 below.
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Use a Ladder to Position the Support Beam
As with any home remodeling project, it is always better to have two people work on a project that requires heavy lifting. But it is possible to do this job by yourself.
As long as you have the physical strength, it is possible to lift support beams that are up to 10 feet long. The issue is less about the weight of the beam than the fact that beams are positioned above your head. When heavy items are higher than your head, you have exponentially less stability than if they were located below shoulder level. In addition, lifting heavy items high is a major cause of back injuries. This might be a good time to call in a favor from a friend.
If you are doing this by yourself, one trick is to rest one end of the beam on the top of your ladder while you hold the other end. Then tilt the beam down on your end until the free end reaches the height of your beam ledge. Finally, swivel the beam into place on the beam ledge.Continue to 7 of 15 below.
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Use Laser Measurer to Check Joist Movement
Keep track of what is going on with the floor above that you are trying to support with the beam. Use a laser measurer to measure the distance between the joist above and the floor that you are standing on. Write this distance on one of the joists and occasionally check it to make sure that you are not losing any distance. This way, you will know if the floor above is slowly subsiding.Continue to 8 of 15 below.
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Create Side Channels for the Support Beam
With the beam placed on the beam ledges, create side channels on all four sides of the beam. As with the beam ledges, these channels are simply two-by-fours that are cut to the width of your king stud. Nail or screw these supports into place.
This effectively creates channels on both sides of the beam, preventing it from slipping out. This way, you can slide the beam upward and not fear that you will accidentally slip the beam off of one side.Continue to 9 of 15 below.
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Use a Jack to Hold the Support Beam in Place
Raise the beam until it touches the bottoms of the joists of the floor above. While you can lift one end at a time, you will have a better, tighter fit if you move the entire beam straight up and level. You can do this by having a helper at each end press the beam up until it contacts the joists. Then you block under each beam end. Another method is to position a temporary post in the center of your beam and use a car jack to raise the beam and lightly press it up.Continue to 10 of 15 below.
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Tightly Fit the First Jack Stud
Now it is time to install the jack studs. The first jack stud will do most of the raising of the beam. This is where you begin to see why it is called a jack stud: it performs jacking duties. Be extremely cautious and do not jack too tightly, as you risk cracking elements in the level above, such as the flooring, plaster or drywall, and trim.
Rest the lower end of the first jack stud below in place. Then swing the top of that first jack stud towards the king stud until it begins to rub against the beam. You want to have a few inches where the first jack stud is rubbing against the support beam. Basically, these are the few inches where you will be pounding the first jack stud in place, rather than having free movement.Continue to 11 of 15 below.
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Set the First Jack Stud
Hammer the first jack stud in place. Use a two-by-four as a block. You are not trying to preserve the surface of your jack stud since this will get covered up with trim or drywall. Rather, it helps distribute the impact of your hammer across the entire width of the jack stud.Continue to 12 of 15 below.
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Set the Second Jack Stud
Measure the second jack stud to size, rather than transferring measurements from the first jack stud. Minute variations in the floor and beam may throw off transferred measurements. As with the first jack stud, cut the second jack a little bit longer so that it has to be hammered into place. However, this second stud should only need minimal hammering. The first jack stud already did the majority of the lifting.Continue to 13 of 15 below.
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Raise the Jack Stud With a Lever
For the second jack stud, if you happen to cut it too short, you can put a lever underneath and raise it. You can use a wrecking bar as a lever.Continue to 14 of 15 below.
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Tie in the Support Beam
Tie in the support beam to the jack and king posts and to the joists. Toe-nail the support beam to the joists or attach with metal hurricane straps.Continue to 15 of 15 below.
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Additional Matters and Follow-Up Work
- Building permits: It is nearly guaranteed that you will need a building permit to replace your wall with a support beam. Verify if you need a building permit by calling your local permit office or checking online.
- Engineering: Is your support beam sufficiently sized for the opening? Consult span tables or, better yet, hire a structural engineer to determine dimensions of the beam you will be adding.
- Services: Plumbing or electrical services likely run through the wall. Shut off the electrical circuit breakers, then check with a voltage detector. If you have plumbing, shut off the water at the source. Electrical wires will need to be addressed. Most likely you will have at least a couple of outlets and a light switch or two that you will need to relocate. In many cases, it is a matter of moving existing wiring to a different portion of the wall or to a new wall. If you feel even the slightest bit uncomfortable with electrical work, hire an electrician.
- Debris: Post-demolition, you will have a large pile of drywall, two-by-fours, nails, and other construction debris which can be disposed of in a roll off dumpster.
- Finishing: To make your support beam and posts blend in with the rest of the house, you will need to do drywall work. Trim must be replaced or fixed. This may include baseboards, door casing, and crown molding. New drywall must be primed and painted.