Remove Interior Walls Safely and Efficiently Without Wrecking the House
A lot of people's first thought in undertaking a remodeling project is to start with tearing down walls. That's an ambitious (if not impulsive) beginning to a project, with focused action for one's built-up energy, but it's a decision that needs to be well considered and fully realized before any actual work can safely begin. Walls are built for several reasons, whether as bearing walls designed to hold up a house and transfer loads from above, or as partitions designed to provide privacy or define space. Bearing walls and partitions both provide safe places to run electrical wiring and mount switches, fixtures, and outlets. Walls also provide safe places to run plumbing water supply lines, drains and vents, and heat ducts and registers. Are there practical alternate routes for these mechanicals? An important consideration, often overlooked, is what floor covering will fill the void left by removal of the wall’s base moldings and base plate. So, plan accordingly.
People's lifestyles today differ greatly from what was common 30-75 years ago. Larger open areas for entertaining and light are much preferred over smaller, private spaces, so the underlying reasons for removing walls in older homes are good. But, you've got to first assess what functions a wall serves before deciding whether it's possible to safely remove it entirely or if some kind of structural replacement will be necessary. So, before thoughtless attack with sledge hammers, jack hammers, chain saws, pry bars and backhoes, sniff out some telltale signs of perhaps why the wall was built in the first place. Then the fun of dismantling, not demolition, can begin. If you want to make a big mess and cause a lot of dust and needless cleanup work, go ahead, use a sledge hammer and chain saw, but to be most safe and efficient, follow tips in this guide.
It’s important to know if a wall is bearing weight to know what the resulting removal will finish like. Bearing walls carry roof, ceiling, and floor loads. They often run perpendicular to floor and ceiling joists, but there are exceptions. Spotting a bearing wall isn’t always easy, it may be prudent or necessary to hire an engineer, who also would be able to specify beam sizing and design to replace the bearing wall. That beam may be installed hidden within the finished ceiling in line with the floor joists above, or installed hidden in an attic from above with joists hung below with mechanical fasteners. See Bearing Wall Kitchen for framing and mechanical photos. Installed below the joists, the beam can be trimmed as an architectural detail. Cost and practicality will influence design decision.
Before removing the framing of a bearing wall, build a temporary wall to pick up the load. Consider the bearing wall may need support on both sides when joists lap. Consider the weight bearing capacity of the underlying floor joists. Further bracing below may be necessary. Use doubled 2x8 top and base plates to better distribute the load path without knowing ceiling or floor joist layout. The plates could be cushioned with towels to minimize potential damage to the ceiling and floor finishes. Cut the temporary studs slightly longer to take some weight off the bearing wall and compress towel cushion. Install them on 16 inch centers with grabber screws to make removal easier. Use of a hydraulic jack may help, but be careful not to raise it excessively.
Walls are built in an organized way, and that's the best way to take them down. Wall studs and plates go up first, and they should be taken down last. Trim moldings, casing and base, go in last, and should come off first. Sheetrock or even lath and plaster can be removed in large sections to make cleanup easier. Decide when to remove floor coverings. Perhaps saving vinyl flooring until after lath and plaster removal will make sweeping up easier and keep debris from falling through the subfloor or into the basement. Existing carpet may cushion and protect underlying hardwood flooring.
Chances are good that electrical wiring is in the wall, even given absence of the obvious indicators of switches and outlets. Check top plates from the attic and bottom plates from below for wiring penetrations and turn off the affected power circuits. It may be prudent to hire an experienced licensed and insured electrician to remove or reroute wiring safely.
Plumbing lines may be in the wall. The location of an adjoining, above or below kitchen and bathroom fixtures may indicate approximate plumbing water supply lines or drain and vent lines locations. Turn off the closest water supply valves. It may be prudent to hire an experienced licensed and insured plumber to remove or reroute plumbing lines safely. Consider heat ducting runs and register locations for future use.
Set up for the wall removal with appropriate drop cloths. Tape plastic sheets to door openings to reduce chance of dust migration. Put an electric fan in a window to provide a positive airflow out of the room. Wear a dust mask and use eye protection.
Dismantle the wall carefully for safe and efficient debris removal. Start with casing and base. Run a utility knife through the molding edges to break the caulk seams. Carefully remove the molding with a pry bar in one piece, especially if the molding is obsolete and must be reused. Large sections of sheetrock can be pried off with a prybar in a springlike action to pop the nails out, especially if screws are removed. But first, break taped joints and inside corner taped joints with a utility knife. Also, first remove outside edges cornerbead by knife scoring the wall plaster about an inch back from the corners, then pry off cornerbead. Be careful, the metal cornerbead edges are extremely sharp and dangerous. Use gloves to twist, tear, and pull it off away from nails any which way you can manage.
In general, a reciprocating saw is the remodeler’s best removal tool. Use of one can become a skill, even a sculptural artform. Gyplath and lath and plaster can be most easily removed by starting with recipro saw cuts in ceiling and wall corners. Gyplath and lath and plaster usually have expanded metal lath reinforcement in these junctions that can best be cut with a toothless tungsten carbide coated blade. Cut gyplath into sections for removal, as expanded metal lath may again be used as reinforcement at gypboard joints. Gyplath and lath and plaster also have metal cornerbead that is removed in the same manner as sheetrock cornerbead. Lath and plaster is hard to remove in large pieces, you’ll just have to be patient. Scraping or hammering plaster off the lath with a prybar may be an efficient technique to break off the plaster keys. The plaster will just crumble into small pieces. The wood lath strips may be carefully spring pried off studs to reduce nail removal.
Before cutting wall studs framing nails with the recipro saw, notch cutouts around wiring and plumbing. Remember, only one end of a stud needs to be cut free from nails! A chisel may be helpful to split plates, which then may be pried up with a bar. A cat's paw and a little practice technique is very useful to dig out nailheads and remove nails. Sometimes, a hammer and force will need to be used to remove balky studs and plates.
With some planning and care, wall removal can be done safely and efficiently. If this process seems daunting, if you feel you need only do what you do best to make an income, hire an experienced licensed and insured General Contractor such as David Taylor Remodeling. Soon, you’ll have a more modern, open living space to enjoy.