I am often asked the question during a site consultation; “Is this a bearing wall”? What people want to know is, “can this wall be removed or a new entry installed”? Most of the time it is very easy for an experienced builder or designer to determine which walls are bearing in a home and which ones are not. While it doesn’t always require a structural engineer to figure out where the bearing walls are, in Massachusetts any opening larger than the beam, header or girder sizes located in the code book require a structural engineer to specify the beam size, connections and load path.
Enough of the boring engineering (sorry engineers). In residential remodeling we are constantly asked to open walls and it is a huge pet peeve of mine to install the easy low hanging beam that announces; “I am where the room used to end”! Because of my penchant for better design and a stronger end result, our firm uses a lot of steel beams and therefore we often need to involve a structural engineer.
Benefits of steel:
1. Steel beams are always more compact than engineered lumber or typical lumber headers.
2. The deflection (how much the beam will bend under stress) is easier to dictate.
3. Steel can offer larger openings that other beams cannot.
Cons of Steel:
1. Cost is a little more to pay for engineering (about $500), and the material itself is a bit more pricey depending on the size.
2. Steel should be installed by very experienced workmen who are familiar with the equipment, weight of lifting this into place, and the connections.
3. Steel installs require more hands on deck for safety and alignment.
The reason some contractors shy away from steel is that it can be intimidating to work with steel because it requires some heavy duty tools like a welder or drills that are commercial capacity. It also requires more hands on deck and is not the job typically for a carpenter and helper.
The real bottom line is that when you are going through the design phase, make sure you understand the result aesthetically of when a wall is removed and that you are comfortable with how your home is going to be held up.