Mary Cerrone, architect and board member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Pittsburgh chapter, gives tips on how to open up an isolated family room.
Photo by Ed Massery
We’re contemplating removing a wall to better connect our isolated family room with our kitchen and other living areas. What should we do before we begin?
First, you should never remove a wall without consulting with an engineer or architect. Next, determine if the wall to be removed (or opened up) is load-bearing. Oftentimes this can be determined by looking at how the first floor is framed from the basement — if this wall sits over a masonry support wall, steel or wood beam, or a double or triple floor joist with columns supporting it, it’s most likely transferring load from upper floors or roof to the foundation. Sometimes a wall might not be a main load carrier, but it will still pick up miscellaneous second-floor framing.
Does that mean we can’t remove or open up the wall if we determine it’s load-bearing?
No — chances are, you can carry the loads with a beam or header and still achieve your goal of having a more open space. Keep in mind that the beam will require supports that must transfer its loads directly to the foundation.
Aside from the wall’s structural role, what other factors should be considered?
Look in the basement to see what ducts, plumbing lines, electrical wires and even clothing chutes run through this wall; those items will need to be rerouted (or eliminated) work with the new design (in terms of aesthetics and function).
What if we determine the wall is not load-bearing and does not contain major ductwork or plumbing lines? Are there any other issues to keep in mind?
Yes — lots. Whenever a wall is removed or opened up, the formerly isolated floors and ceilings now come in contact with one another. This can create subfloor and framing challenges. Ideally, you’ll want to remove all or a portion of the finish and subfloors. Alternatively, you can connect the rooms in such a way that doesn’t rely on perfect wall alignments.
Knocking down a wall can get messy, and dirt released during demolition can invade the entire house. Be sure to establish a workable containment plan to keep the demo area sealed off from the rest of the house. Go to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website (epa.gov) for procedures on renovating spaces containing lead paint (applicable to homes built before 1978). Also, make sure the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems are shut off or disconnected from the construction area to minimize damage to the equipment.