Behind The Walls

Article 1 – Removing a Wall by Bob Stevens

The Hong Residence

Last year Stevens Residential was brought in as the General Contractor for a kitchen remodeling project in Palatine IL. The house was as 1960’s tri-level which had recently been purchases by my new clients. It was obvious that the previous owner,who lived there for 6 years, had cared for the house and was working on having updates made to bring the house more into this century. New hardwood floors had been installed in the living room and dining room. The roof was new and most of the windows sported new vinyl inserts. The house appeared to have “Good Bones” and with the exception of the kitchen it was move-in ready.

Picture1 – A partition wall divided the kitchen and the living room.  The dining room was separated by a wall of cabinets.

Picture1 – A partition wall divided the kitchen and the living room. The dining room was separated by a wall of cabinets.

The floor plan was typical for a suburban house of this period. The front door, which is the main entrance,is on the middle level and entered into the living room. The living room was part of a three room cluster which also included the kitchen and a dining room. The front of the house faces south and has a large bay window that brings in an enormous amount of sunlight.   But the back of the house faces north and even with a large dining room window it felt dark. The roof of a screened in patio off the back of the house also hindered sunlight from entering from that direction.

Picture 2- A large dining room window on the north facing wall brought very little sun light into the room.

Picture 2- A large dining room window on the north facing wall brought very little sun light into the room.

The kitchen, which had been updated decades earlier, also shared that back wall. The window in the back door and a small double hung window to its side did little to brighten the kitchen. The previous makeover of the kitchen had included ceiling height wall cabinets on two walls which is a very popular option today. But the dark wood cabinets on three sides of the 10×10 kitchen gave the room a claustrophobic feel.

Two short stairways, one leading up and the other leading down, connect the living room to the other two floors of the house. The bedrooms were upstairs and the family room where the client’s two small children would play was downstairs. But the kitchen felt isolated from the rest of the house and it was our job to connect the spaces.

Picture3 – The kitchen was claustrophobic with cabinets surrounding a small dark space.

Picture3 – The kitchen was claustrophobic with cabinets surrounding a small dark space.

Everyone agreed that the project would involve removing the partition wall that separated the kitchen and the living room. But what I didn’t know at the time was that the homeowner wanted one smooth continuous ceiling for the entire middle level. You see, the wall that was to be removed held up the ceiling. The removal of the wall meant that ceiling would have to be held up by a long beam, 22’ long to be specific. This is typically done by installing a supporting beam underneath the ceiling and then wrapping the beam in drywall. The depth of the beam can be reduced by installing a post under the center of it but something has to hold up the ceiling!

But, not to worry, there is a technique that can accomplish this feat. A beam can be installed on top of the ceiling joists. The ceiling joists are the wooden boards that stretch from opposing outside walls.   These are what the drywall on the ceiling is attached to. By installing a beam over the top of the ceiling joists and grabbing the joists from the bottom with long steel hangers, the beam can be hidden out of site and the drywall can be installed across the ceiling without interruption.

Great, just throw a beam up there and we’re on our way, right? Not so fast, there is engineering work to be done. What are we engineering? The forces that keep the house standing up regardless of the rain, snow and wind…and gravity. Many contractors will go to the lumber yard and pick a big beam that they are sure will hold up the structure. Fortunately for them they guess right in most cases so there is not a rash of calamities reported in the press on a regular basis. But houses falling down aren’t generally the result of poor planning of structural issues. More common are the annoying issues of cracked drywall, squeaking floors and misaligned doors and windows.

Picture4 - The Hong Kitchen AFTER Remodeling with a new French door and a large sliding window. The partition wall between the two rooms has been removed allowing

Picture4 – The Hong Kitchen AFTER Remodeling with a new French door and a large sliding window. The partition wall between the two rooms has been removed allowing the sun light from the large bay window in the living room to brighten the entire space.

A structural engineer’s job in a project like this is to look at the forces that will push and pull at the house. How much weight does the roof have to hold if we get 3 feet of snow? How does he plan for those 60 MPH winds that push against the side of the house? How does he transfer all of the weight of the house and the “Load” on top of the house down to the foundation? You get the idea.

So in this case we employed a structural engineer to tell us, without guessing, what size the overhead beam needed to be, what size and weight steel strap we needed to hold up the ceiling, how many and what size nails would hold things together and how we were to transfer all of this to an adequate foundation.Piece of cake.

Demolition day came and the kitchen cabinets were removed. In this case we saved them for the client who wanted them installed in the garage. In many situations we will donate cabinets that are in good condition to Habitat for Humanity. They will sell them in their store and use the proceeds to build or repair houses for the needy.

Once the cabinets were gone the drywall came off the walls of the kitchen, the partition wall and the middle of the ceiling for the entire length of the combined rooms. The structural engineer could have done his calculations by crawling around in the attic but since we knew we needed to take down the ceiling anyway we brought him in when he could stand on the floor and just look up at the existing structure. And he did. And then he gave us the bad news.

Figure 5 – A depiction of a typical roof framing structure

Figure 5 – A depiction of a typical roof framing structure

He noticed that there was a substantial crack in the ridge board that needed to be addressed before we could continue. The ridgeboard is the highest piece of wood on any pitched roof. (Figure 5) It runs the length of the roof and all of the other roofing parts are attached to it. And my client’s was badly cracked. The original builder many years ago used two pieces of wood and not one to create the ridge. There is nothing wrong with doing this except that the connection where the two pieces meet should cantilever (hang over) the roof rafters that attach to it. The roof rafters,or common rafters as they are depicted in Figure 5, are the long wooden boards that run from the top of the roof down to the wall. In this case, the original builder connected the two pieces of the ridge board right where a roof rafter landed. The nails used to attach the roof rafter to the ridge had split the wood of the ridge board. In the years since the house was built, the heat of the attic dried out the wood and it shrank. This coupled with the weight of the “load” on the roofcaused the split to grow in length.

Figure 6 - Engineer’s Drawing - Component sizes and nailing schedule

Figure 6 – Engineer’s Drawing – Component sizes and nailing schedule.

It wasn’t practical to remove the ridge board and replace it because the entire roof would have to come off to do that. We would have to support the cracked piece from underneath. But how do we transfer the weight of the roof all the way down to the foundation? A post placed under the crack would bring the roof weight down to the ceiling but we are already trying to figure out how to carry the ceiling weight down to the foundation. The answer was a truss.

The engineer was already creating a plan to hold up the ceiling with a beam. What he proposed was a truss system over the new beam that would also hold up the roof. Think of a truss as the iron work on a bridge over a river. It is a series of straight and angled pieces that when assembled correctly create a long beam capable of holding incredible weight. His plan was to build two of these trusses in the attic, one on either side of the cracked ridge beam, running the length of the room.

He drew up a plan which included the number, size and type of beams we would need. It also included the location, size and material of each piece; how it was to be assembled all the way down to how many nails to use; where the nails were to be put; and what size they needed to be.

Figure 7 Engineer’s Drawing - Component layout

Figure 7 Engineer’s Drawing – Component layout

Armed with this new tool we now had to figure out how to make this happen. Our task had changed from installing one beam in the attic space to eight beams in the attic space. The beams are manufactured piece of wood called a “glulams”. Glulams are a buildup of many pieces of wood which are glued and laminated together similar to plywood.Each new beam was 1-3/4” thick by 9” tall by 22’ long. On previous builds we have brought beams of this length into an attic by removing the siding from the side of the building and sliding them in from the outside. But in this case we discovered that we had just enough room to maneuver the beam inside and up the stairs to the third level. By removing the drywall from a wall over the top of the upper stairway we could slide the beam into the attic from inside. We moved the drywall from the rest of the middle level ceiling to give us some room to work. Then we headed to the crawl space for the next step.

Why the crawl space? Because that is where the foundation is. Remember, the entire weight of the roof needed to be placed on the foundation. Now we were installing two separate truss systems which meant we needed four points of contact with the foundation, two at either end of each truss. The truss would be set on top of posts which are built in the walls. The walls were setting on the floor but the floor was not in direct contact with the foundation. The floor, like the walls and the roof, was made up of a series of boards and plywood that created a platform. Parts of the platform rested on the foundation but not all of it. What we needed to do was install blocking, pieces of wood that fill in the void under the new posts so there is a continuous solid wood connection between the post in the wall and the foundation.

Once we had the crawlspace blocking in place and the posts in the walls it was time to build the beams. There would be four beams, each one made up of two glulam boards 1-3/4” x 9” x 22’. These would be too big and heavy to lift into place as a single unit, so the beams were built inside the attic, one at a time. To build each beam we laid one board on its side, coated it with construction adhesive and then laid a second piece board on top of it. The two pieces were nailed together, following a pattern of three nail high (top, middle and bottom) every 16” for the length of the board. When we finished with one side we flipped the beam over and nailed the other side the same way.

Figure 8 – Trusses in place in the attic. The truss shown at the top of the picture was installed with cross members as noted in the engineer’s drawing.

Figure 8 – Trusses in place in the attic. The truss shown at the top of the picture was installed with cross members as noted in the engineer’s drawing. The truss show at the bottom of this picture was sandwiched between two sheets of ½” OSB. Due to height restrictions there was not adequate room to build the bottom truss. This alteration was approved and signed off by the structural engineer.

When complete, the finished beam weighted several hundred pounds. The beam for the bottom of the truss was fairly easy to cut to length and then slid into position. The beam for the top of each truss was more difficult. We could not just lift the beam straight up and attach it to the roof,but by nailing a couple of 2×4’s to each end of the beam and then lifting the bottom of the 2×4’s with a couple of 20 ton hydraulic jacks, the beam raised into place without much effort. Now that we had a beam on top and one underneath it, we started creating the web, the pieces that go in the middle of the truss to give it its strength.

A day later and couple of thousand nails and we were done. We added the steel hangers, the partition wall wasremoved and the house roof was safe. We still needed the electrician to finish his work in the ceiling, but we were almost ready to start installing the drywall.

Not all wall removals are this difficult. Most get accomplished without the drama that unfolded here. But there will always be surprises when you are doing a remodeling project. Having the knowledge to identify a problem and the experience to fix it properly are both strong arguments for hiring a General Contractor with experience, like Stevens Residential Remodeling and Repair.

Want to know what we found in the walls when we removed the drywall?

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