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Load-Bearing Wall: Definition, Identification & Construction

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  • 0:04 Load-Bearing Walls
  • 0:42 How They Work
  • 1:15 Identification
  • 2:56 Construction
  • 3:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

One of the most important elements of any structure is understanding how it carries its weight. In this lesson, we'll explore the concept of a load-bearing wall and look at some tricks on identifying them.

Load-Bearing Walls

Let's say that you've just bought a house. You like it, but it's a slightly older model with smaller rooms and you'd like to open it up a little bit. That's going to mean tearing down some walls. There's just one problem here: aren't walls kind of important? The answer is yes. And no. You see, most structures contain two kinds of walls. Some are purely used to segregate space. They are partitions, nothing more. Other walls hold up the house. A load-bearing wall is a wall that supports the weight of a structure. Those are the walls you definitely don't want to tear down. Understanding this can be the difference between a renovation and a demolition.

How They Work

Your house is heavy. It's made of wood and steel and possibly bricks, blocks, or other materials, and it's got all of your stuff. A structure has to support a lot of weight, and architects need to understand how that weight is distributed. Starting from the roof, weight presses downwards as well as out. This weight being transferred down a structure is called the load. So, a load-bearing wall supports this weight and transfers it safely from the ceiling down through the foundations. Since a few walls can handle this job, it isn't necessary to make all walls load bearing.

Identification

So, how do you know which walls are load bearing? This is an important question, and honestly, the best thing you can do is to consult the builder and/or the blueprints. It's better to be safe than sorry here. However, there are a few tricks you can use to help identify these walls on your own.

Let's start with the exterior of your house. Since the pressure of weight presses down as well as out, all exterior walls are load bearing. That's always important to keep in mind. While we're outside, let's also look at the roof. The ridge of the roof is the pinnacle of the building, from which weight begins to disperse downwards. So, load-bearing walls inside the house tend to run the same direction as the ridge.

Now let's step inside. Not only do load-bearing walls tend to run parallel to the ridge of the roof, but they're also those with the most studs and are connected to wood or steel beams. However, in most homes, these features are covered by drywall, which is why one of the best places to look is in the basement.

In many basements, you can see the structure of the house much more clearly. So, what are we looking for? One telling sign is the joists, or horizontal beams that support the floor. Load-bearing walls are often perpendicular to the joists, creating a strong dispersal of weight. So, if you're in the basement and you look up and see a series of horizontal beams, find the wall they attach to perpendicularly. That's likely a load-bearing wall.

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