Home & Garden Columns
Okay Matt, I have been thinking about this for a while. There is a design feature I’ve noticed while looking at open houses these past years.
Many times, when an older but small house is “remodeled” or “updated” walls are removed so that living/dining/kitchen all become one big room. Real estate descriptions often say “open floor plan” as though really, it just is the best (kinda like they say granite or stainless steel with the same final-statement tone).
So, do we assume the masses really prefer an “open floor plan”? Does this structurally compromise the house in earth-quake terms? What is actually wrong with a separate kitchen? What about noise and smells? Is this just a style preference? What do you, someone who appreciates historical homes, think of this type of remodel?
Your thoughts please!
—Tina always-thinking-about-floor-plans Laxar
What a great question. The removal of interior walls is a subject worth at least a few words so here goes:
First, from a seismic standpoint, interior walls produce very useful “shear resistance” and can be critical in preventing collapse of portions of a building. While it is possible to build large open spaces suitable for earthquake forces, our buildings are generally not built that way and depend to a large extent on interior walls to transfer those forces between the planes of the building and to help hold walls up as they move to and fro.
I’ve often seen interiors that have been “opened up” to give a more modern feel and better flow and wondered if there had been any engineering applied to the remodel. Usually there had been none and those homes were left vulnerable to increased damage when the big one hits. By the way, one group from UC Davis is claiming that a major earthquake will hit Northern California in the next year to 18 months so these issues may be more pressing than previously considered. I have no idea how accurate this data is but it will doubtless beg these questions more than before.
Another issue regarding the removal of walls is that they are often done without consideration for roof or ceiling loads. All walls cannot be fully removed without some serious alterations and here are some basic concepts that one can apply to the question if you’re thinking about doing such a removal.
First, it’s essential that one determine what loads rest upon the wall. If you have a living space above the room in which you plan to remove a wall it’s less likely you can get away with it. You’ll have to determine if the floor joists (the planks that stand on edge and run from wall to wall below the floor boards) are resting upon the wall. If they do not, and run parallel to the wall, then the wall may be considered a “curtain wall.” If you have a roof or attic directly above the room you’re planning to change, it’s more likely you’ll be OK, but again, you have to find out what rests on the wall you want to eliminate. If loads are bearing on the wall, you’ll have to find a way to carry them down to the foundation other than via that wall and there are several things to consider. My first question always would be, “Do you really need to remove the entire wall?” If not, a header or beam can be run across the part of the wall you want to remove. This can be fairly small and the effect can be dramatic without any major structural change. An opening of eight feet can feel much the same as a complete removal but may only require a 4” x 8” beam as substitution.
Each situation is different and an expert does need to look and be sure that the removal doesn’t have nasty consequences. This job is also fairly cheap so it might be just the thing to turn two small dead spaces into one that changes the way your home feels and functions. Another way to manage a wall removal (either partial or complete) is to open up a large archway. I’ve done this in my own home and it creates an airy feeling while keeping wall space and adding architectural interest. We have both full arches and partial archways that have cabinetry and counters from waist height down. The latter gives views and resolves claustrophobia without losing the practical elements of storage and division.
This is a good point at which to stop and discuss those issues. Loss of wall space isn’t just an engineering issue. It’s also practical and aesthetic. While the 1960’s edict of all plans as open plans may have once seemed sophisticated and free, a wall is not really a bad thing. Walls shape space and provide surfaces on which to develop storage and work-space. Walls provide a modicum of privacy and generate hubs of activity. One of the reasons large commercial open spaces are often so dead is that they lack as sense of place created by barriers.
Don’t get me wrong, I opened my own house up quite a bit but it’s very important to consider the effect of each wall either kept or ushered away since the effects on the space can be dramatic. A small section of wall can make a huge difference and a big empty space might not work as well as it looked in the magazine.
Before I finish with the structural stuff let me talk about one last strategy since it’s a really good one and might help you get what you’re after. It’s often possible to remove a wall in a room directly below an attic by adding a beam which rests above the ceiling joists. Now, this may sound nutty but it actually works quite well. A “strongback” is a beam that connects with the ceiling joists that lose support through the loss of a wall. The strongback must rest at either end on a wall or post that remains in place and the ceiling joists then hang off of it. It’s pretty simple really and the effect is such that you can remove a large section of wall and have the ceiling run smoothly from space to space without any visible change or bump. This won’t work in every house but if you have a fairly accessible attic, I’ll bet it will work for you. The only hard part will be getting the strongback into the attic in the first place. This sometimes requires punching a hole in the roof and, of course, repairing said hole.
I’ll finish with the last part of Tina’s question, that having to do with historical homes. It’s a rare remodel on an older home (say 1930’s on back) that looks right with major walls removed. Division of spaces is a critical component in design and snatching one arbitrarily out of an antiquarian residence often (but not always) doesn’t feel right. It may be that a partial removal or a half-height arch might be enough. This is where architects shine and are well worth their fees, so consider one if you’re going down this road. Also don’t forget our friend the structural engineer. If you’re planning on removing more than one short wall, you might want this gal/guy to lend a hand.
Whatever your final decision, don’t rush through the design process. Take your time and make it fun. There are few things in my life that have ever proved as much fun as playing games with walls. Yes, I know. I’m really weird.
Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at email@example.com.