Ask The Experts


I am hoping to remove the wall between my kitchen and the dining room. How can I tell if this is possible, or if the wall has to stay to support the ceiling?

This is a question we often hear from clients when inspecting their prospective home purchase for them. It is actually always possible to remove a partition, whether it supports the ceiling or not. The real question is whether you will need to replace the partition with a supporting beam, or whether no beam will be necessary. Ceilings are generally attached to wood floor joists, (if we are on the 1st floor of a two story house), or ceiling joists, if there is only an attic space above. In any given room these joists are parallel to each other and run in one direction, either front to back, or side to side. If the partition you wish to remove is parallel to the floor joists, it can be removed with no additional support installed. If it is perpendicular to the joists, they more than likely require the partition or a replacement beam to hold them up. While it may not be possible to determine with absolutely certainty which way the joists run without removing a small section of ceiling, some clues may be available. In a two story house the floor joist pattern for the 1st floor (which may be visible in the basement) usually matches the ceiling/floor joist pattern above the 1st floor. In a typical rectangular shaped house plan, a central beam, or bearing partition, usually runs the long way down the center of the house. The floor joists rest on this partition, making any partitions perpendicular to this long wall non-load bearing. If attic space above the partition in question is constructed using trusses rather than joists and rafters, any interior partition is likely to be removable. You may be able to use a relatively inexpensive battery operated stud finder to determine joist direction, but final determination is probably best left to the professionals.

I have a couple of large cracks in the walls between my kitchen and dining room and between my dining room and living room. I am concerned that my foundation may be settling. Who should I call to have my foundation inspected?

Cracks in interior partitions rarely indicate problems with your foundation. Wall cracks, when found on interior partitions, are usually an indication of sagging floor joists, or settlement of the support posts below the center beam in the basement. The wall cracks may, or may not, warrant professional evaluation, depending on the degree of associated movement. Unless the cracks correspond to significant and visible sagging in the floors, and the deflection is noticeably ongoing, they are probably not a cause for concern. Minor wall cracks are very common and usually do not indicate a defect in the construction of the house. All wood that spans from one bearing point to another over any distance, such as typical floor joists or beams, will sag to some extent over time. Noticeable deflection of floors is to be expected in an older home. If the house has been recently constructed, wall cracks can also be caused by settlement associated with shrinkage due to the initial drying of the wood, as well as tightening of small gaps between wood framing members under load.

If the cracking is ongoing and corresponds to readily noticeable sagging floors or unlevel door openings, further evaluation may be appropriate. Diagonal cracks usually indicate settling in the downward direction that is perpendicular to the crack. If the direction of the cracks indicates settling toward the center of the house, inspect the bearing beams and posts in the affected area. Often, wood support posts are set into the concrete basement floor. These may be decaying due to contact with moisture below the floor, resulting in compression and settlement. If the center support beam and posts show no evidence of this settlement, look at the floor joists directly below the cracked partitions. The joists should be doubled for extra strength below a partition, they should be free of any major cracks or large knots that would weaken the joists, and they should not be significantly chopped out for wiring, plumbing or ducts. If any of these defects are observed, reinforcement will probably be necessary.

My builder tells me that wood beams are safer in a fire than steel. Is this true?

It has been our observation that, in general, appropriately sized steel beams perform better than wood over the long term, resulting in less structural movement due to shrinkage or deflection of the beam. We typically find less wall cracks and fewer uneven doors or floors in homes with steel beams.

However, it is generally understood, and some testing has confirmed, that in a fire, a wood beam performs better. Steel twists and deflects under intense heat, but wood only chars, causing some reduction in overall strength, but not sufficient reduction to result in failure over the same fire exposure period.

Heat resistance should probably not be your prime consideration, but rather the cost of materials, ease of installation, resistance to deflection and shrinkage, and suitability of the material for the application of desired finishes. Either material will perform very well if properly treated, installed, and maintained.