How To Identify A Load-Bearing Post On Stairway

For those of us who like to do our own home renovation work, we easily and without doubt rip out carpet, replace floorboards with suitable plywood, and lay our own floating floors.  We eagerly take down kitchen cabinet doors to refinish.  We patch holes in sheetrock, plaster over, sand and paint with dispatch.

These are cosmetic renovations, and we’ve learned to scout Youtube for how-to videos for so many home renovation projects.  They don’t necessarily require a professional’s involvement, and we’re not worried about the structural integrity of our home being affected.

But, when it comes to identifying load-bearing walls, that’s a different story.  Load-bearing walls play a vital role in the structural integrity of the house.  They distribute weight from the roof, through any second story, through the floors, and down into the basement foundation.

The easiest, and perhaps smartest, thing to do is hire a structural engineer to investigate for you.  He or she will understand what to look for and how to determine if the wall(s) that encase a stairway and stairwell is/are load-bearing, and advise how to account for this in your renovation project.  Another professional, perhaps a contractor or builder experienced in removing a load-bearing wall, might be another smart choice to do the work either for you or with you.

Here’s what either or both will be looking for when they visit your home to advise you.

How To Know If a Wall Is Load-Bearing

How To Know If a Wall Is Load-Bearing

To determine whether the wall(s) encasing your stairwell are load-bearing, you’ll go down to the basement or up to the attic to see which way the joists run.  The joist is a structural part of the house used in framing it over an open space (like the ceiling in your living room, or its floor).  These floor joists and ceiling joists then transfer loads (from the weight above) to vertical framing points (posts).

If upon inspection the wall runs parallel to the joists, it’s not likely load-bearing.  If the wall is perpendicular to the joists, then it likely is load-bearing.  You should assume that nearly all walls next to stairs are load-bearing because they interrupt joists from more than a single direction.

If the purpose of your renovation project is to create an open-room concept in your home, with an open staircase (something that has become somewhat popular in recent years), then the wall(s) you want to remove will have to be replaced by something to the structure of the house to supplant the carrying of the load.

Adding Temporary Walls

Before you begin to remove any portion of the wall(s) you have determined are carrying the load from above, you will want to add temporary walls to either side of the wall you want to remove.  Make it close enough to the structural wall to bear some of the load, but far enough away to allow you access to the wall being removed.

Then, you can remove the wall safely without worrying about the second floor or roof falling in on you.  

Installing Posts

Wooden Staircase

Secondly, locate the weight-bearing structural beam below the floor.  You want to redistribute the weight above, so you’ll install some posts on either side of the wall you just removed.  Placing those posts above the structural beam below that once supported the load-bearing wall will carry on with that weight support and distribution.

These posts will serve to support the new beam that will be necessary to carry the weight of the load-bearing wall once carried.  That beam will either be flush with the ceiling, or below the ceiling (exposed beam is also a popular feature in an open space concept), and that will be your choice.  

Installing a New Beam

The only difference your choice will mean is the final length of the posts you install on either side of where the load-bearing wall once was.  If the beam will be exposed, the posts will need to be shorter than if the beam will be flush with the ceiling.  Beam size will be determined by the span it must support, but 9” x 12” is a standard size to carry the weight of a roof and second floor.

Above Ceiling and Below Ceiling (exposed) Beam

If the new beam is to be flush with the ceiling, you’ll cut into the joists to make room, fit the beam in, support it with posts, and attach the joists to the new beam.

If the new beam is to be below the ceiling (exposed), the posts will be cut shorter, and the new beam will rest on them, to support the joists above.

Ceiling Beam

With either choice, your ceiling is going to be opened up.  It had to be when you removed the original load-bearing wall, and when you installed new posts.  The posts will be along the beams both above and below.

Getting Help With Load-Bearing Wall Removal

Beams are heavy.  A second pair of hands, or a third, will be necessary to make the installation of the new beam above easy and smooth.  You’ll want to have supports of some kind handy to hold it in place as it is being installed.

Joists will already have been cut to accommodate the new beam if you have chosen the flush with the ceiling option, and then the same joists will need to be attached to it.  There is special hardware that will do that job for you, so you’ll need to account for that among the nails, hammers, air compressor, nail gun, saws, etc. that are a part of this job.

By now you are beginning to see that it is a lot more than the other jobs you’ve tackled in your home before.  It’s not a job you can handle alone, and if you have any qualms about your determination of load-bearing or not, you shouldn’t.

The prudent course of action is to hire a professional of some sort – a structural engineer, or at least a contractor with experience in these sorts of jobs.  The structural integrity of your home is at stake, and you don’t want it crashing down on you because you erred.

Understand, too, that there will be cosmetic work involved in the project.  Ceilings will need to be repaired and finished, and it’s likely you’ll want to encase the exposed beam if you opted for that technique.  Painting, staining, and some finish carpentry will be involved in the cosmetics that will follow the hard parts.

These are likely projects you can take on yourself, and probably already have experience with them.  But for the serious stuff, our advice is to leave it to the professionals.  

A contractor may very well let you participate in some of the work, and you can get a good education from it.  He or she is going to know the tool and hardware requirements for the job, and understand the stock needs to order from the nearby lumber yard.  This will also shorten the time to completion, and get that paint brush or staining cloth in your hands sooner.

Don’t take our word for the seriousness of such a project, please.  You can always count on the “This Old House” crew to give you the straight dope on everything.  As you’d expect, they have a video with demonstrations from a model addressing this type of project.

You can see from the demonstration in the video how dangerous a bad decision can be – ceilings collapsing, etc.  Didn’t you marvel at how clever that model was, too?  It clearly showed how bad things could get. 

Stay with the things you know, and find someone who knows what you don’t.  Your house will turn out better for it, and that open space concept will be just what you wanted.

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