Knocking down a structural wall? Before getting the ultimate Kitchen / Diner… some words of advice

I am a HUGE fan of opening up and ‘knocking through’ in residential houses, believing such work often can create a better flow from room to room and add space and light to dark and dingy areas. In the 70’s it was quite the done thing to leave the kitchen as a separate room and have a through living /dining area, as was done in my childhood home. Fast forward to the noughties and it’s the kitchen through to dining room spaces which are most popular to create, leaving a separate living room for nestling down or noisy kids.

In the image above of one of our rentals, we took down the stud wall dividing a teeny weeny galley kitchen from the main living area to create a much more open, airy and attractive space. Because it was on the top floor and in what was effectively the roof space, the stud wall wasn’t supporting anything or important in any way, so it could be simply removed in a couple of hours.

However be warned, knocking through and opening up isn’t always this easy. The other day I went to view a property with a mind to buy and renovate it, only to meet an ashen-faced building surveyor on his way out. His comment was that he’d never seen a property with so much of it’s supporting structure removed still standing. Apparently the previous owner, a DIY fanatic, had randomly removed chimney breasts and walls to the extent that the property could collapse at any time. Needless to say I didn’t buy it (or go in!) but what is actually meant by ‘supporting structure’?

If you look at the middle image in this kitchen-through-to-dining-room series, you’ll see the property internal wall brickwork and a steel beam which has been inserted along the top of the opening. The internal walls of most properties are built of brick and quite simply these bricks are often supporting something above, so it’s a BIG problem to just take them away and expect everything resting on them to just float in mid air! In the case of the above knock through, the bricks of the orange wall were removed to allow the clients to walk from kitchen into dining room, but first a steel beam had to be inserted to take the weight of the first floor joists and wall above.

In building and structural terms, this is called checking to see whether the wall you want to remove is ‘load-bearing’ and it’s essential. It basically means that you need to check whether the bit of the wall you want to remove is taking any structural weight or ‘load’ from above. Your ground floor wall may be taking the weight of floor joists for your bedrooms above, or the weight of another wall built directly above it, and ultimately may be taking part of the weight of the roof so it’s vital to get it checked out by a structural surveyor or specialist builder if you aren’t really sure what you are doing or looking for.

A specialist will check which way the floor joists run above and whether there is a wall or partition built off the one you are proposing to change. If so, before the section to be removed is taken out, what’s above will needed to be supported, usually with acrows, which are the long metal poles you can see holding up the timber roof purlins in the image below where new support was being given to the roof structure:

For smaller openings, a single door or openings up to approx 2m, a prestressed concrete lintel may suffice. For larger openings, the new support required will generally be made of steel and often the abbreviation RSJ (rolled steel joist) is used, but it does have other names, like the UB (universal beam). Once the new support is in, secured and safe, these temporary acrow supports can be removed.

Importantly, the new support needed should be calculated by a structural engineer to make sure it’s adequately sized for the load it’s being required to take. There are many different sizes and types of support so you need to make sure you’re using the correct one for the job.

Also the new support will need to rest on adequate bearings on either side, usually a minimum of 150mm but larger could be required. The load on the surrounding and possibly weak brickwork may need to be spread by the use of a padstone, the size of which again should be calculated properly. This is what one looks like below:

A good knock through can make the world of difference to a house, whether you go the full hog and take a whole length of wall out, like below where the client wanted both a long run of kitchen units into the dining area and also a wet area (sink, washing machine etc) leaving in the small ‘old’ kitchen section at the back of the house:

Or whether you just take out a small section to allow a better flow from room to room, such as at Rose Cottage below. Bear in mind that with any listed property like Grade 2 Rose Cottage you’ll need to get listed building consent before doing structural alterations to internal walls. It isn’t always refused just because it’s a listed property but you will need to put forward a good case to the relevant authority.

For properties which aren’t listed, Building Regs will normally apply for any substantial removal of internal structural walls or part of. This is to ensure the work, done by yourself or by your builder is up to current standards and is safely within the realms of what is considered to be good building practice. If you don’t know whether the work you want do falls under the requirement of needing to be signed off by the Building Control department of your local council, give them a call and ask them! If your builder doesn’t know, be worried ;-) It’s a relatively straightforward procedure which requires a Building Notice to be filled in, a fee to be paid, then a site visit during work (when all is open and exposed) so works can be approved. If you ever sell your house, future buyers know the work is safe, as of course, do you.

Just think what you could achieve if you move towards open plan living and a fabulous kitchen / diner …….

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