Most American suburban homes have more walls than people want. There are two types of walls in most homes: those that carry weight (bearing walls) and those that don't (nonbearing walls).
Removing walls that carry weight means that you have to have beams and columns to carry that load down through the home to the ground. Walls that act only as curtains can simply be pulled back and removed.
In this typical small suburban Cape, there were a few walls too many, so those were removed to fully connect the living spaces.
In the living room where an existing column had to be pulled back to accommodate a new entry path, the end of the existing beam was left to cantilever to carry the load above but its underside was cut to a gentle curve to make a potentially awkward element a visual feature.
Similarly, a staircase that divided the two social areas of the house had been enclosed by two walls and those two areas were further separated by a door.
By leaving the stairs in place, removing all the walls above the stringers (the diagonal trim on either side of the steps themselves) and the door, and adding an open railing, maximum visual connection was achieved.
Can I Take that Wall Out?
Most homes in America fall into a few distinct types — Cape, Ranch, Foursquare, center hall Colonial — and each has some predictable structural approaches. Basements usually tell the truth that's otherwise hidden by ceiling and wall surfaces.
The Cape typically has one bearing wall that parallels its street-facing front wall, but many Capes built before the 20th century are post-and-beam structures, and so in truth the chimney bears the center loads and there are posts in the perimeter walls.
Similarly, the Ranch can have a center bearing condition that parallels the front wall but often transitions to be 90 degrees to it at the open, social end. The Foursquare can have bearing walls in any direction of its pinwheel layout.
In about 95 percent of old Colonials the hall walls are the bearing walls, but newer homes can have a center bearing wall paralleling the front. Any home that is asymmetrical (Contemporary, Victorian, Mediterranean) can be framed in any way imaginable, but normally the shorter room dimension is the direction of the floor framing.
The unpredictability of framing is usually the first hurdle you have to get over when you want to remodel your home in terms of cost prediction. There is no way builders or architects can know precisely which way the framing runs if all the floors and walls are sealed up, unless they break through finish surfaces before they start figuring out structural design (and thus determine cost). It's possible to make reasonable assumptions, but, as the Boy Scouts say, "Be Prepared."
There are over 80 million single family homes in America, and it's estimated that in 2011, 18 million of these were underwater, meaning with a mortgage larger than the value of the house.
Millions of families feel trapped, living a life of domestic frustration in homes that do not work for them, while being unable to move to solve the problems they confront on a daily basis.
The benefits of concise, appropriate remodeling where you live now, independent of market conditions, can include improved convenience and lifestyle satisfaction, better looks, and a reduced environment impact, since improving an existing house is almost always greener than building new from scratch.
This series in ArchitectureWeek, and the book Staying Put that it's drawn from, offer tangible hope for getting the home you want from the house you have right now.
Each of these projects is a select example of the great and affordable outcomes that can be created, when a good architect and a good client team up together.
Architect Duo Dickinson runs his own practice in Madison, Connecticut. In over 30 years of professional practice, he has built more than 600 projects across the United States, with budgets ranging from $3,000 to $5 million. Dickinson has written seven books, including The Small House, Expressive Details, and The House You Build. He is a contributing writer for Money magazine, the architecture critic for the New Haven Register, and a contributing writer for New Haven magazine. He has also taught at Yale University, Roger Williams College, and the Harvard Graduate School of Design summer program.
Shown here after a remodel, the walls on either side of the stairs of this Cape Cod style house were removed, providing better visual connection between the front half of the house and the back. Photo: Mick Hales
A section of floor was also removed between the main living level and the finished attic and a new window array was installed at the peak of the vaulted space Photo: Mick Hales
An existing beam, partially removed during the renovation, was left exposed and became part of a decorative element in the living room. Photo: Mick Hales
Before remodeling, the attic space was cramped and limited. Photo: Duo Dickinson
Prior to the remodel, the living spaces were very compartmentalized. Photo: Duo Dickinson
The hallway was small and inconvenient before remodeling. Photo: Duo Dickinson
A new guard rail runs along either side of the existing stair, where walls used to be. Photo: Mick Hales