Load Bearing Walls: What They Are And How To Spot Them

When you think of a wall, you probably picture something that stands up and holds things like cabinets, shelves, or wallpaper. You probably don’t picture a wall that can’t stand up because it can’t support the load above it; however, this is exactly what we mean when we talk about load-bearing walls. 

Understandably, many people are confused at first by the difference between non-load bearing walls and load bearing walls. The terms seem pretty self-explanatory on the surface—after all, they both refer to walls. But upon further inspection, each wall has very different properties and performance capabilities based on what’s above it in your home or commercial building. 

That said, If you’re thinking about purchasing a home, read this article to learn more about load-bearing walls and how to tell if a wall is load bearing before making an offer on that perfect property.

What Is a Load Bearing Wall?

The easiest way to describe a load bearing wall is to compare it to a non-load bearing wall. Load bearing walls (LBWs), also called structural walls, are designed to support the structure on top, such as the roof, a second floor, or a deck

This means that if you remove that load from the wall or the wall sustains any sort of damage, it will no longer be able to support the load above it. This is why it’s so important to identify LBWs before you buy a property.

Structural walls also have a much larger structural frame than non-load bearing walls. The structural frame is the part of the wall that is used to hold the weight above. For example, non-load bearing walls typically have a structural frame that is about 2” wide. In contrast, load bearing walls have a structural frame that is anywhere from 6” to 18” wide.

How To Tell if a Wall Is Load Bearing

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If you know what to look for, spotting a structural wall is actually pretty easy. Here are a few key signs that indicate a wall is a LBW:

  • The presence of joists or beams directly over the wall – If you see joists or beams directly above the wall that you think might be a structural wall, then it probably is.
  • A crack in the wall – A cracked or bowing out wall may happen as a result of the weight above it. However, it’s important to note that not all cracks indicate a LBW. 
  • The wall structure. The structure of a load bearing wall will almost always be one of three types: wood frame, concrete block, or masonry. In contrast, most non-load bearing walls are constructed with materials like drywall or plaster, which are not designed to support any weight above them. 
  • The studs. Structural walls will almost always have 2×4 or 2×6 studs running vertically through the wall. Non-load bearing walls will have studs that are smaller and are spaced farther apart.

Why Are LBWs Important?

Above we mentioned that the main difference between load bearing and non-load bearing walls is the size of their structural frame. But why is that so significant? After all, wouldn’t it just be easier to build non-load bearing walls with a larger structural frame? 

Now, to be clear, we’re not saying you should do this as this would greatly increase construction costs. What we’re saying is that the difference in sizes between a structural wall and a non-load bearing wall is significant, and for good reason. 

The structural frame of an LBW needs to be larger because it’s supporting more than just the wall itself. It’s supporting the roof, the floorboards above it, the ceiling, and any decks or walkways above it.

If you remove a LBW, the structure above it will collapse. This is because without the support of the wall, the rest of the structure is unable to hold the weight above it. 

Since most buildings have at least one structural wall, they are designed in a way that allows the rest of the building to hold the weight of the structure without the help of the wall that was originally meant to support the load. 

Now, it’s important to note that you can’t just leave a LBW in place and remove the studs that are holding it up. That would be just as bad as removing the wall entirely because the wall would likely sag and damage the other parts of the house.

So, What’s the Big Deal About Knowing Whether Or Not A Wall Is a LBW?

Removing a LBW is a very destructive process, it’s important to know if the wall you’re thinking about removing is a LBW before taking any action.

If you don’t know whether or not a wall is a LBW, you could accidentally make your home or building unsafe, or even uninhabitable. This happens if you remove the LBW without properly reinforcing the structure to hold the weight above it all on its own. Otherwise, the entire structure above it will collapse. 

This insight can also be convenient in terms of planning your construction around it. For example, if you’re constructing a new deck, you need to make sure that you don’t place it above a structural wall. 

If you know that a wall is a non-load bearing wall, you could plan to add more things above it. For example, if you have a wall that is not a structural wall, try to put a shelf or a cabinet above the wall without a problem.

The Bottom Line

When you’re searching through blueprints, it can be challenging to know exactly what an LBW and a non-LBW means. 

However, as you might have learned, knowing the meanings behind these words will help you navigate through blueprints more easily and understand their implications. 

Knowledge is power, especially in real estate. If you know which walls are LBWs and which ones aren’t, you will get to avoid costly mistakes and make smart decisions as you go through the home-buying process.

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