What is a Load-Bearing Wall?

Dan Cavallari

Home construction necessitates that some walls within the house support the weight — or load — of both the upper floors and the roof itself. Therefore, any of the walls within your home are likely to be a load-bearing wall, or a wall that is holding and distributing the weight of anything above it. Identifying a load-bearing wall can be difficult since most walls look the same, and removing one from your home without replacing it with another load-bearing structure can be catastrophic. It is best to consult a structural expert to determine if a wall is load-bearing, but some basic steps can help you determine what to look for.

Load-bearing walls are constructed to sustain the weight of the upper floors and roof.
Load-bearing walls are constructed to sustain the weight of the upper floors and roof.

Any exterior wall on a house will likely be a load-bearing wall, but not always. In some cases, only two of the exterior walls will be load-bearing, depending on the orientation, shape, and size of the roof. This wall will transfer weight above it into the foundation below, so exterior walls are always good candidates to be weight-bearing. With exterior walls, it is best to consult a structural engineer for an accurate assessment.

A load-bearing wall may also be present within the interior of a home. The walls most likely to be load-bearing within the home are walls that run perpendicular to floor joists. Such a wall will distribute its weight among several joists, effectively transferring the load over a larger space. Walls that run perpendicular to joists are not always load-bearing, however, adding to the difficulty of identifying a load-bearing wall.

It is sometimes necessary to remove drywall from a wall to discover if it is a load-bearing wall. While such destruction can add the cost and frustration of a needless teardown, it may also quickly reveal load-bearing structures within the wall. Some small, unassuming walls may be hiding a support beam inside; in such a case, the wall itself may not be a load-bearing wall, but it is concealing a load-bearing structure that would have to be otherwise concealed or replaced if the wall is removed .

Tearing down the drywall will accomplish two other important things as well: it will allow you to identify any hidden pipes, electrical wires, outlets, supports, or structures within the wall; and it will save you money in the long run if you choose to have a structural engineer examine your home for a load-bearing wall. By tearing down the drywall in advance of the engineer's visit, you will save him from having to do it, effectively eliminating a costly charge. While reconstructing the drywall will certainly cost you money, it will end up being less than the cost of the engineer's charge for doing the job.

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