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How to Remodel a Load Bearing Wall

Remodel load-bearing wall
Updating your home for better energy efficiency and mechanical performance often involves installing up-to-code wiring, plumbing and insulation. Running new elements requires the removal of at least one side of most walls to allow open access to the stud space within. While you can tear out partition walls that do not support the structure above, load-bearing walls must stay in place. You can still remodel load-bearing walls and even beef-up their structure during the process.

Wall Surface Removal
Old drywall panels come off with relative ease. By breaking a small hole anywhere in the drywall face with a hammer, you can then pull the surrounding drywall off the studs by hand. With the claw end of the hammer, pull the remaining nails from the wall studs. Old plaster and lath walls are messier but not more difficult to remove. The best way is to use a hammer to shatter the plaster coating, breaking it off in chunks from the wood laths. When all the plaster is off, remove the thin wood laths, prying each one off with the claw of the hammer. As the plaster comes off, the dust will fly so don protective eyewear and a respirator mask. 

Wall Reinforcement
The key to reinforcing a load-bearing wall’s structure is to remember that you can add studs but you can’t remove them. If the old studs are warped or show insect damage or decay, cut and install new studs beside the old studs. The new studs should fit snugly between the top and bottom wall plates and tight against the old studs. Usually, one new stud beside each damaged stud is sufficient, but for added strength, you can put a new stud on both sides. Use a framing nailer and angle two nails through the top and bottom of the new studs, attaching them to the plates. Insert additional nails about every 12 inches on the inside of the new stud to secure it to the existing stud.

 Adding Mechanical Elements
Drill ¼-inch larger than the diameter of the wire or pipe. For example, if you’re installing a 3/8-inch water-supply line, use a 5/8-inch drill bit to make the holes. To install drainpipes, which are typically 2-3 inches in diameter, the wall must be framed with 2-by-6 or larger, wall studs. Two-by-fours, which are only 3.5 inches wide, are not large enough to accommodate drainpipes. If running a drainpipe involves drilling holes in more than two adjacent load-bearing studs, consult an engineer first to make sure you don’t compromise the integrity of the wall.

Framing New Doorways
Before adding a doorway to an existing load-bearing wall, consult an engineer. In most load-bearing walls, you can install a doorway, but you must build a structural header over the doorframe that is substantial enough to transfer the weight load to the studs on either side of the door. Double doorways require larger headers than do single doorways. Depending upon width, existing stud dimensions and spacing, the engineer will design a header and determine how many supporting studs, called “jack studs,” are necessary.

Installing New Wall Finish
After new wiring and/or plumbing elements are in place, you can install drywall panels. For the smoothest walls, keep seams to a minimum by making a drywall layout to scale on paper first. The typical method for installing drywall on standard 8-foot walls, involves attaching two horizontal rows of 4-by-8-foot panels. Always install the upper row first, pushing the drywall sheets as tightly as possible against the ceiling. Use drywall foot jacks to raise the bottom row of panels snugly against the top row before attaching the panels to the studs with a drywall screw gun. 

Fill the seams with drywall compound and apply a layer of drywall tape during the initial compound application. The drywall finishing methods used on load-bearing walls are identical to those used on partition walls. The trick is to apply the compound in multiple, very thin, layers and to let each layer dry completely and sand it with a drywall sanding screen before apply the next layer.

The Even Numbers: Framing in a Header Over Doors