My wife and I have been bit with the “home buying” bug. Hard. One home in particular that has caught our eye is a “fixer upper” built in 1905 in the Tyler Park area of Louisville--every engineer’s dream, right? We even went so far as to bring in a home renovation contractor to help us put a price tag on the things we’d like to do and what we'll need to budget.

This got me to thinking of the many questions that friends, family, and colleagues have had about renovating, remodeling, or adding onto their own homes. I thought I’d share some recommendations and advice that resulted from those rather common questions:

Question #1: I want to demo a wall to open up a room and my contractor assured me that it’s very simple. Are they right?

Yes and no. First and foremost, verify whether the wall is a bearing wall or a partition wall. This may require opening some holes in the ceiling if there’s a 2nd floor. If the floor joists or roof rafters aren’t perpendicular to the wall nor firmly bearing on it, you’re in luck--it’s likely a partition wall and your dreams of a new opening shouldn’t be very difficult. If you have doubts, a capable licensed General Contractor should be able to help you confirm whether this it is.

However, if that’s not the case, you should consult with a licensed professional (either a knowledgeable architect or a structural engineer) to properly size the new beam to support the floor(s) above. The fees of $800 or less for this effort (potentially more depending on the Building Official’s requirements) won’t be in vain.

Some common pitfalls: The longer the new beam span is, the greater the likelihood that infrastructure at the ground floor (if there’s a basement) and/or foundation will be needed since you’re now concentrating the load at each end of the beam; before it was evenly distributed. Also, if you have a 2nd floor, be sure to verify whether the roof rafters are framing to this wall as well, not just the 2nd floor joists.

Question #2: I want to add some windows to the exterior of my home. Is there anything I should consider?

“Holy holes in the wall, Batman!” It’s important to keep in mind that the exterior walls of your home assist with stabilizing your home during a wind or seismic event. In particular if your home is (ahem) "older." Some homes aren’t explicitly anchored to their foundations, compounding the issue. Every linear foot of wall you remove and replace with windows, decreases the strength and stiffness of the home and its ability to resist these loads, in some form or fashion, from its original  configuration. The stiffness reduction is actually exponential with each additional foot removed. Chapter 34 of the The Building Code also limits you on how much reduction can be taken without having to do something.

But do not be alarmed, Robin...there are several approaches you can take to make this happen without causing detriment to the home. The simplest method would be to replace the strength and stiffness that was removed, by adding sheathed walls somewhere else along the wall that you’re adding windows. This can be further facilitated by proprietary (slender) shear walls such as Simpson’s or Hardy Frame’s products. Though it will likely result in having to do some foundation work that meets current Building Code requirements, to anchor and restrain/stabilizes these new walls, it’s certainly much cheaper than a structural steel approach.

Question #3: What do I do if my floors are not level? What would it take to fix this?

It’s actually quite common for a floor to feel like it slopes from one end of the room to the other. There’s no such thing as a perfectly rigid member: Building elements can deform/settle with time but this doesn’t mean they’re broken. Foundations can take 30-50 years to converge on it’s final settlement, depending on the soil conditions and preparation. Unless you can see rotted, deteriorated, or damaged floor members, you could actually find that shoring, shimming, and stiffening the floor could have implications with surrounding building components or finishes. Additionally, the stiffness of a floor system is a function of many components: the floor sheathing, the floor joists, beams, girders, the connections, foundation settlement, etc. A solution to this issue can involve addressing several of these.

Plus, some might argue that it adds character to the home. You remember your grandfather’s saying, don’t you?

Question #4: I have a lot of questions about my home in general, but I don’t have a lot of money. How do I get the peace of mind without spending a lot of money? How do I find a good Structural Engineer?

Most structural engineers would be happy to make a 1 hour site visit and provide you with a verbal opinion on something. If it turns out that, in fact,  some scope of structural work is required, be sure you budget for licensed professional services required to do the job right. Because the engineering field is a rather competitive one (what field isn’t these days?), the industry doesn’t really allow for gouging or overpricing. Simply watch for those who might try to nickel-and-dime their services.

Otherwise, you remember your grandfather’s other saying, don’t you?

The best way to find a structural engineer is, like a lot of things, through word of mouth. A reputable architect who has worked extensively with residential projects in the area, can also recommend engineers they’ve worked with and trust.  Googling “structural engineer” would be almost as unhelpful as Googling “Realtor.” If a Firm is actively practicing in today's current economic climate, that's quite telling of how they do business.

Feel free to contact me or even use this blog to ask any questions or share any experiences you might have with your own project. I will follow-up later with any other advice that comes to mind, perhaps even from my own project. Wish us luck!

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