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Question DetailsAsked on 5/13/2016

How do I find out if a column between the foyer, dining room & living room is decorative or load bearing.

Also Are load bearing columns nailed to the flooring?

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2 Answers


A General Contractor / Remodeling Contractor can give you a fair idea but are known to judge wrongly at times - I have made a fair amount of money fixing a few of the more spectacular misjudgements which resulted in partial failures or collapses. Nothing like a 3 foot deep roof load of snow and ice crashing through your house down into the basement to make your Christmas morning, as in one case I worked on where a contractor mistakingly said an intermediate wall line was non-load bearing.

Definitively - a Structural Engineer can tell you if load bearing or not, and design alternative support as needed if you are opening up a wall area - typically about $250 or so for a site visit to tell you if load-bearing (get a signed and stamped report or letter in writing stating that if the case - contractor and building inspector will want to see that), another $250-1000 commonly for the design of replacement support and possibly construction sequence needed for the replacement if it is load bearing - commonly more to lower half in most cases.

You can find a fair number of similar previous questions by putting the phrase - load bearing - into the Ask box, and it will suggest links to 5 or so prior similar questions, each of which will have more similar questions linked below them.

As for the nailing to the floor - with combined action box flooring - typical plywood or OSB (shudder) sheathing over wood/plywood joists, if there was adequate support underneath a column not carrying a lot of load might be mounted (typically on a spreader pad of say 2x8 or so) directly on top of the subfloor sheathing and toenailed to keep it from kicking out - but normally a column would bear directly on top of the underling wall, column, slab, or concrete footer (depending on whether there is another floor under it or not). GENERALLY - and that is definitely a generality - if toenailed directly to the sheathing without a bearing block under it and without continuation to support structure below the floor, it would be a fake column.

If you meant toenailed to hardwood flooring, rather than the subfloor, that would certainly most likely be for appearance only, because an original load bearing column would certainly (I say with tongue in cheek, knowing how some contractors "creatively" build homes) have been put in before any finish flooring.

However - even a fake column (or row of them) might be supporting a beam that runs between them for architectural purposes - either a real wood beam (exposed or drywalled) or a fake box beam made of plywood or just light wood framing with drywall surfacing to provide a beam or arch appearance between the rooms - so if you have any type of dropped structure like that above the column(s) extending below the general ceiling height, then the column likely supports that at least. Also - if you have a dropped kitchen ceiling (lower than other rooms, typically with recessed can or trougher flourescent lighting) the column might be holding up one side of the joists framing out that dropped ceiling.

Also - on "non-load bearing" beams and columns - many times a beam or wall will technically be non-load bearing, but actually is carrying part of the load from the floor joists or trusses above it simply because it is there - so taking it out restores the ovderlying structure to its full supporting length, which can cause visually objectionable although structurally safe sag. This something contractors and sometimes engineers neglect - that because it is there, as the overlying floor or attic structure sags with age (due to creep of the wood under load) even though the wall might not be needed for support, once it touches it there is a load transfer, with the intermediate beam or wall supporting part of the load the joists or trusses were designed to carry. Therefore, this intermediate support carries part of the load and reduces the natural time-dependent sag of the overlying structure. Remove the intermediate "non-load bearing" support and the overlying structure will then, because of the longer effective span, resume its normal sagging. A classic example is the typical upstairs "lengthwise" central hallway house running the long dimension of the house with walls down both sides of the hallway, but a beam continuation of those walls to the endwall of the house between living room and dining room to provide an open floorplan in that area, say. Ditto commonly on the dining and/or living room side of the kitchen. That beam may technically be non-load bearing, with the upper floor or attic joists/trusses designed to span the entire lesser dimension of the house, but in actuality proably supports the middle of those roof trusses or joists. Removing it might be structurally acceptable, but commonly results in roughly doubling the effective supporting length of the roof joists/trusses, which roughly quadruples the sag in those over time - so removing the beam can result in an inch or two (or more on "deep" houses exceeding about 30 feet in "depth") of ceiling sag and ceiling drywall joint cracking over the years which can be visually very objectionable. Get 2-3 inches of sag in your living room ceiling and most people start heading for the door, even though it may meet code and be structurally safe.

[The design standard for sag in structural members varies by application and code use, but commonly between L/120 and L/360, where L is the free span of the member. So - a 30 foot beam (360 inches) with an L/360 design would have an expected 1 inch deflection over time - but an L/120 design could accept 360"/120 = 3 inches of mid-span sag. Push that up to 60 foot span like some homes I have worked on and you are talking potentially up to 6 inches of mid-beam sag - that just plain looks like the ceiling is caving in ! In fact, on long-span beams/joists sometimes an intermediate "non-load bearing" wall or column is put in specifically to reduce the sag for architectural purposes.]

Answered 2 years ago by LCD


BTW - if this is a DIY job - one of the old standby contractor methods of determining if a column or wall is load-bearing is to take a skilsaw or sawzall and cut through the fasteners and contact area wood are the top, across the junction between the overlying joists or beam and the supporting column or wall. Rule of thumb has been that if it pinches the blade tight at your cut (usually when about half way through) then load bearing (though might just be a tight fit). If goes through without pinching not load bearing.

That is not definitive, especially with some newer truss designs and most especially with steel or built up engineered plywood trusses (which are generally stiffer than wood framed trusses or wood beams/joists), because sometimes to limit total time-dependent creep and sagging the design is done so the truss can carry all the dead building loads by itself, needing intermediate walls or columns only to help carry the live load. So until wind or snow or overlying furnishings/people load comes on the wall or column it may actually not carry any noticeable load and may even be "loose", especially in newer homes where creep sag has not really begun yet. Worked one insurance company job where a whole line of prefab "greek" columns were taken out by a remodel contractor to open up a sunroom to the adjacent living room and the contractor said that once he removed the trim around the ends of the columns and cut a few toenails they slid right out - but when heavy snow load came on the roof the roof framing collapsed into those rooms because the columns were needed to carry the "live" or "environmental" loads. So don't count on that method to definitively tell you if it is load bearing or not.

One afterthought on the nailed to floor thing - even if it is nailed to the finished flooring (rather than the subfloor sheathing) there is always the possibility it was added after the fact because an intermediate support was determined to be needed. I have seen this in heavy snow load country - also where cracking occurred under unusual loads like waterbeds or massive bookcases - and in one case under a spare bedroom room used as a lawyer's office which was packed with file cabinets and bankers boxes of papers.

Answered 2 years ago by LCD

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