What Is a Load-Bearing Wall?

Load-bearing walls support the weight of a floor or roof structure above and are so named because they bear a load. By contrast, a non-load-bearing wall, sometimes called a partition wall, is responsible only for holding up itself. If you have remodeling plans that include removing or altering a wall, you must determine whether the wall is load-bearing or non-load-bearing. Any part of a load-bearing wall that is removed must be replaced with a suitable structural support, such as a beam and/or columns to bear the same load that was supported by the wall.

While you should consult with a building professional, such as a carpenter, architect, or structural engineer, to confirm that a wall is load-bearing or non-load-bearing, there are several clues you can check for to get a preliminary answer. And you can do this without removing drywall or other invasive measures.

Is the Wall Parallel or Perpendicular to Joists?

Generally, when the wall in question runs parallel to the  floor joists above, it is not a load-bearing wall. But if the wall runs perpendicular (at a 90-degree angle) to the joists, there is a good chance that it is load-bearing. However, there are cases where a bearing wall is parallel to the joists. In this case, the wall may be aligned directly under a single joist or bear on blocking between two neighboring joists.

Is a Partial Wall Load-Bearing?

If the wall is a partial wall, meaning it stops short of an adjacent wall, it may or may not be load-bearing. For example, the builder may have installed a microlam beam to span across the opening and carry the load above. Therefore, you cannot assume that a partial wall is a partition wall.

Is an Exterior Wall Load-Bearing?

Exterior walls are walls that form the perimeter, or outer footprint, of a house. Exterior walls are almost always load-bearing. Where there are windows and doors, the walls include beams, or headers, spanning across the tops of the openings. Posts on either side of the openings support the beams. 

A house will rarely have an entire stretch of exterior wall that is non-load-bearing. It is possible to build a house this way, but it would come at a high financial cost. Often, homes that appear to have no supporting exterior walls still do have support in the form of steel or wooden columns interspersed between the windows. Because window glass and the exterior view take visual precedence, it is easy to miss the fact that substantially sized columns are in place.

Is a Masonry Wall Load-Bearing?

A masonry wall would appear to be load-bearing since masonry is a solid, substantial, and exceedingly strong building material. But a masonry wall may or may not be load-bearing. The position of the masonry may point to its load-bearing capacity (e.g., is it on the exterior?). One type of masonry called manufactured stone veneer cannot support loads. As the name suggests, it is a decorative veneer, very lightweight, and prone toward crumbling under stress.

Foundation walls, which are typically built of masonry materials, are by nature load-bearing, as their primary role is to support the weight of the house. 

Is There a Support Structure Below the Wall?

If the wall is on the first floor of the house and there is a basement or crawlspace below, you can check in the lower level to see if there is another wall or other supporting member (piers, beams, columns, jack posts, etc.) directly below and following the same path as the wall above. If there is no support structure below the wall, the wall most likely is non-load-bearing.

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