When renovating or remodelling a house, we often plan to move or demolish walls, but we must first ascertain if they are just partitions, whose function is merely to separate and hide spaces, or if we are faced with a load-bearing wall. This is especially important when the reform or rehabilitation is to be carried out inside an old building (constructed before 1950, for example), or a house in a rural setting or the countryside. The type of architecture influences load-bearing walls, as they serve a structural function in the building. They work with other supporting walls as well as elements of the building such as arches, vaults, beams, slabs or decks to strengthen the building.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for a house or a building to collapse when changes are made to the structure without the required permits or the appropriate technical advice, resulting in the alteration of its load-bearing walls. Luckily, today these types of renovations require legal compliances, and we are becoming more aware of the dangers that result from neglecting the rules or not hiring professionals for the renovation or remodelling. Therefore, before venturing to intervene on a vertical element in a house or apartment, it is important to consult a professional, who has the expertise to determine which elements have load-bearing capacity and which do not. If you want more information on how to determine when a wall is a supporting one, we invite you to continue reading:
A key detail to know if it is a load-bearing wall is its position, which is an important indication of the wall's function. It is common that the facade walls are supporting walls as they are also particularly good as thermal and acoustic insulation, an issue that is also quite obvious if you observe the walls. The position of the rest of load-bearing walls can be determined by the distance between them and the façade walls or by their relation to other structural elements, such as the direction of the beams, for example.
If the building has several floors, it could be very useful to observe the position of the walls that we think may be serving as structural support on the different floors. To find out which of the walls of the house are load-bearing ones, it is best to start from bottom to top. It is usual in multi-storey buildings that the walls are less thick as we ascend to the top floors, and some walls may even disappear in the upper floors (very common in the case of buildings with roofs). Therefore, it is necessary to observe the walls in the lower floors, which serve as the base of the building, as it is in these floors that it is especially important that the load-bearing walls are not affected so as not to compromise the stability of the building.
The thickness of the wall will give us a clue as to whether it is a load-bearing wall. The depth of these supporting walls can vary greatly, depending upon the type of building or the material used for the construction of the walls. The material most commonly used to build load-bearing walls in large buildings is concrete, prefabricated concrete or cement blocks, ceramic bricks or thermo-clay blocks. However, all these types of walls have a thickness greater than that of the partition walls that are used to divide spaces within modern houses. Partition walls are usually made of brick or plasterboard and have a thickness of around 10 cm.
When the wall is made of brick, it is more complicated to differentiate whether it is load-bearing, because separating partitions without the support function are also made with the same material. A brick load-bearing wall will, however, be of a greater thickness than partition walls built with the same material. We can also differentiate it by the direction in which the brick is placed for a supporting wall (1-foot walls, for example) and by the gaps between the bricks, as we see in the lobby in this image. Another method is to build walls with several sheets of brick, thus increasing their thickness.
Load-bearing walls are not the only elements that serve as a support element in buildings. Horizontally placed slabs and beams have structural function, especially those that are placed to save the existing light in the house and to keep the structure more stable. These elements can also be built of varied materials, quite commonly, for example, with solid wood.
It is customary, in old buildings or not-so-well constructed ones that the beams and forged slabs get deformed over time, causing a shift in the horizontal support structure. What happens in such cases is that the structure ends up being supported by some internal partitions, which were not initially load-bearing walls, and they become an active part of the structure. This is the reason we emphasize the importance of using experts when breaking down partitions in old buildings as the removal of elements that now support the load, although they may not usually compromise the stability of the building, could lead to cracks and leaks.
When we are dealing with old buildings and want to undertake a renovation, an architect will start by studying it to determine which walls to retain for the project. He will also make the necessary calculations to propose the most appropriate solution in case it is required to make changes on a load-bearing wall, so that the stability of the house or building is not compromised. And, when legally nothing is untouchable and no idea is impossible, with the right technical solutions, we can replace old load-bearing walls with structural frameworks like the one you see in this image.
See 16 ways to separate spaces without walls for ideas on partitioning spaces in your home without losing out on light and airiness.