Heritage Restoration, Inc.

Altering Structures

Do it yourself projects are great. It gives us a sense of accomplishment and makes are homes better. Yet what we can do and should do is based more on what we know how to do instead of what we should do. We all have our limits, even professionals.

Early in my career I did projects out of financial constraints and an overabundance of time. I dabbled in plumbing, electrical, and masonry, three things where I was way over my head but thought I had seen and read enough, as well as sought professional advice to make me competent enough to get the job done. I learned pretty quickly I had no business trying.

What constitutes being over one’s head? Being proficient at a trade is more than calling oneself a professional. While some trades have licensing to be deemed competent, others require only insurance and a picture ID that belittles the skills and knowledge necessary in being a professional. As a homeowner, acquiring a building permit does not require professional credentials, but the responsibility of conformance is on the homeowner. So, when you are embarking on a home project that is a bit more sophisticated, seek advice from the right professional, not just any professional.

The biggest mistake many have made in judging and manipulating the structure of a building. I have seen remodelers and homeowners alike inadvertently swap out framing and cause a house to drop and move. There are some common field judgments that can be made when it comes to helping or swapping out framing, but the best advice comes from the experts: structural engineers.

Structural engineers deal with any building item that affects function or safety. Structural engineering theory is based on observation and experimentation, as well as physical laws. This knowledge allows them to develop solutions based on the all of the factors that make up a building. Building built more than 50 years ago have a particular challenge of many methods of construction. Stud frame timber frames behave differently that a plank frame timber frame. Balloon frames behave differently than platform construction. And then mix in varying sizes of spans and frame sizes, and you have a complex system that relies on the performance of one or all to make a building sound.

This stairway dropped over 1-1/2" from settling and building modifications

This stairway dropped over 1-1/2″ from settling and building modifications

So something seemingly as simple as putting on a larger opening where there was is a door can have a big affect on a building. A wall could have been a non-bearing initially but over time can essentially become bearing can require additional support. Yet many have made assumptions that are wrong 100 years ago or 2 months ago. These “mistakes” cause walls to crack, walls to bounce, doors to bind, or outright failure. While collapses are extremely rare, excessive movement certainly is not a good thing. My rule of thumb, bigger is always better, even when it is way harder to do.

Once you are confident in the proper sizing, one key in swapping out framing is ensuring once the new frame is in, there is a lot of compression from the old building to your new frame. The best way to accomplish this is to lift the existing frame, cut it perfectly, install the new frame, and lower the old frame. What this does is makes sure any compression, which could be as much as ¼” or more, is factored in.

Also, basement supports are key to a building’s stability, since gravity starts there. Basement floor jacks, the hollow steel posts with adjustable pin heights and a screw jack on the top, is designed to assist a floor, and is not a permanent post. A lally column, on the other hand, is not adjustable, and is a solid steel tube filled with concrete. The concrete helps in compressive strength and preventing load buckling, so a lally column is far superior, and permanent. And while it is convenient to install a floor jack, the even more important feature of a basement support is the base. A common base size is about 2 foot square and one foot deep. It can be a large stone or concrete.

So assuming is great for paint colors and cabinets, but not for a building’s structure. Seeks professional assistance either in the design or the execution. Then you can make a space or building pretty with confidence.