Support Beam vs. Pillar vs. Opening


    A design question. I am pondering a renovation of my 20 foot wide Cobble Hill brownstone. It is a pretty standard design in that you walk in on the parlor floor and there is a wall on your right with a set of double doors. Since we are going from a bottom duplex with two rentals to an owner’s triplex I would REALLY like to open up the space and get rid of that narrow brownstone feel. My architect (ok, former architect, the relationship really wasn’t working for me) was advocating enlarging the opening so that we wouldn’t need to involve a structural engineer, but I am leaning toward a beam covered by a soffit(sp?). I am throwing these terms around as if I know what I am talking about. I don’t. Does anyone have any insight/thoughts/inspration?

    23 Replies

    1. Yes, technically they weren’t bearing walls, as most of the time the joists span from one masonry wall to the other. However, the joists do sag over time and are often being supported by these non-“bearing” walls. Many engineers commonly refer to these walls as stiffening walls because of this. The same walls are usually bearing at the stairs as they do generally pick up the load of the joists cut around the stairwell.

      Also, the deflection we see as sagging floors would not pass current code, so today you would have to put in a bearing wall or beam, or make the joists stronger.

    2. We have removed the hall wall in a 22′ wide parlor floor.

      Technically, that hall wall is NOT structural. The older historic homes were constructed open, and lathe and plaster was applied to the ceiling before hall walls, or room dividers were put in place. When demo’ing interior partitions, there is plaster and lathe on top of framing, so “support” walls don’t touch floor joists above.

      Nevertheless, we have utilized laminated Paralams any way, in effect a huge header.

      While we did this to open rear rather than front, I can send JPG’s if you email us bruce at

    3. Enlarging an existing opening needs an engineer unless it is not load bearing. It does not sound like it is non-load bearing.

    4. BHS, that sounds like “House Thinking” by Winifred Gallagher. A very good book. Have you read it? Or perhaps write it? 🙂

    5. Actually, Bob Marvin makes a good point. You should visit some open houses for houses built from the turn of the century till WWI to get an idea of what the parlor looks like without the wall. However some of these they moved the staircase back to give the parlor more space and row houses became wider and less tall in the early 20th century. They would usually have a vestibule if not a covered front porch and a vestibule. They also traditionally would have a service entrance in the back (aka kitchen door) so that walking right into the living room was less of an issue back then. Also, there were usually doors dividing the living room from the dining room and kitchen so the living room itself took on part of the function of an entry hall.

      Personally, I think some of the current excitement about building “man cave” lairs in the house is a byproduct of open floor plan decorating. It’s nice to have adjoining spaces that can be made a bit separate when you’re talking on the phone or watching that TV program everyone else thinks is stupid, or just trying to study or read in peace.

    6. I believe in reading a building and making decisions on what will feel best in that particular building. Spend some time just sitting in the space imagining what it will feel like when it’s really cold outside and windy or hot and humid. Having the wall will allow you to keep the parlor warm or AC’d without necessarily heating or cooling the stairwell to the same degree. It will allow you to keep shoes, mail, or umbrellas in the entry without having to look at them while you’re relaxing on the couch or dining table. It will allow you to open the door for a delivery without the delivery person being able to see who all is home and what everyone is doing. And it will give visitors or delivery people a place to stand without feeling like they’re invading on your personal space. Narrow buildings can feel like perfect little homes with everything in its tidy place, so don’t feel like you have to open things up and brighten things up just because that’s most people’s first impulse. It takes a lot of patience and imagination to read what fits best with your building. I would spend the money on quality functional built-in shelves and closets before taking out a wall that was a central part of the original design.

    7. Many later row houses (c.late 1890s–1910s) with “free classic” interiors, were built with a layout similar to what you propose. IMO they DO look wider. It’s one of the things that first attracted me to PLG, in general, and my own house, in particular.

    8. I have a 20.5′ Brownstone and considered taking out that wall during our gut reno. After all the other stuff, it proved to be too costly, but i’m not sorry we couldn’t do it. Instead, we took the doors off the hinges (stowed them in the cellar for future purists) and created an open archway. It made the room feel much bigger than i thought it would because there was no need to make room for said doors. The LR seems plenty big enough for us. I’d try doing the same before demolition. It only takes a few minutes and it could save you $$$.

    9. It is daunting having an old house and not being able to articulate your thoughts. As Jim said, it is the architect’s role to help get at “what you want”–work with you on your style, your house and advise you what is appropriate to your tastes, house, budget etc. It is a service biz. If removing existing structure is in the plan, a structural engineer is needed. Regarding size, width, openness–a furniture plan will be helpful to determine function/use of the front and rear parlors and so on. Traditional or contemporary detailing/ornament varies on the condition and authenticity of the brownstone. some houses have already been stripped by past renovations. some are intact and should be carefully treated. Sensitivity and appropriateness is something to strive for with your design professional.

      look at houses in the area, see what others have done and form an opinion about what you like, etc. I am always looking in windows. Some are open and modern, some are “original” or “authentic”. Some parlors are divided by pocket doors, pilasters, free standing columns, swing doors, piers or a combination of some of these.

      feel free to contact me.


    10. I have a 20′ wide space and took out the wall. I’m glad I did, it definitely makes the space feel larger. My neighbors and I have the same layout, so we walked back and forth checking both out, we all agree, the space feels larger and more open. I dealt with the foyer issue by building a landing over the last two steps, and then putting a 90 degree bend in the stairway with a wall between the stairs and the doorway. Now it feels like you walk into a foyer, there’s space for shoes, coats, etc, but you still have the spacious feeling.
      The downside is that I don’t have as much wall space for pictures, of which I have a lot. It was an easier call for me, the original pocket doors were long gone and there was no original detail left worth saving. While purists could argue that it goes against the original design of the house, so does electricity in this case.
      I took out not only the hallway wall, but the wall between the living room and the kitchen, soffiting both beams. If I want, it’s an easy enough process to stud out under the beams and put in a wall, but I’m happy with the results. The soffits give the impression of separate rooms, the lack of walls gives the space some openness. I also painted both rooms different colors, although it’s a subtle difference so that it doesn’t jump out at you, but subliminally it feels like two different rooms (at least that was the plan, I think it worked) I also think you can avoid the loft look by adding period details, my space certainly doesn’t feel like a loft.
      The hallway seems like a waste of space to me, although I did see a house on DeGraw street where they left the hallway, but put a powder room on one end and a closet on the other which I thought was a really interesting use of space and provides that all important first floor bathroom. The bottom line though is ultimately the architect is right, what do you want? It is your house after all.

    11. Cobblekrill – As an architect, I can agree that my first question would be “What do YOU want?” It is important that you do some homework and decide what you’re looking for. Otherwise your designer’s not designing for you, but for what s/he THINKS you want.

      However, it’s not necessary that you come to a designer with a complete design. I often ask clients to come to me with ideas, pictures torn out of magazines or emailed to me, websites, and anything else they can cobble together to demonstrate what appeals to them. Then we sit and look at it all en masse and look for commonalities of style and taste. Often as the outsider in the process it’s easy for me to recognize trends and tastes that the client wasn’t aware of. Then it’s my job to put it together in a consistent, meaningful manner.

      I can definitely appreciate your comment about a thoughtful interpretation. I like to think that we strive for just that. There’s one project I have in mind (unfortunately not on my website yet) that was a gut reno of a narrow brownstone in which we created open, modern spaces, but with rich, traditional details consistent with a typical brownstone. I’d be happy to email a pdf of it to you if you’re interested.

      Jim Hill, RA, LEED AP
      Urban Pioneering Architecture
      (646) 309-7259

    12. agreed with boerumresident. in my view, with your dimensions, whether it works actually depends on what you plan to do with the parlor room space. will it be formal or informal? how many/how large chairs & sofas? will you be putting in air conditioning and thus having soffits anyway? you say you want to keep your pocket doors, but that, I think, might be awkward without the wall. we have an open space, and we are huge fans of it in our home, but our home is narrower and we really needed an open plan for our parlor/kitchen floor to work. that said, here are some of the things we don’t love about it:

      -it disappears your foyer, so your coats and shoes etc. are part of your parlor. in fact, anything happening anywhere on that floor flows to some extent into your parlor. for good and bad.

      -no place for those nice pocket doors or parlor entry doors

      -noise carries more easily to the next floor up

      in our house, all of these things were more than counterbalanced by the additional space, the more open feel, and the resultant better transfer of light between the front and back of the house and our skylight.

    13. Your house width (20′) makes this a tricky call. Brokelin says 12′ wide for a LR works — but IMO 14-16 feet is much better. If the house was 18′ or less in width I would encourage you whole heartedly to get rid of the wall if structurally possible. The benefits of the wall are generally outweighed by the narrowness of the living rooms there.

      If it was wider (22′ or more), I’d say there is no need for removing the wall — the parlor will still feel very wide. This is especialy true if you have or plan to have a parlor floor bath room — with a real hallway you can place the bathroom entrance in the hall at the landing leading to the stairs going down to the basement level (assuming of course you are keeping those stairs).

      A 20 foot wide building is a tough call. The parlors can feel a little confining (especially with a large fireplace — they are pretty but eat into the feel of the space) but the wall is a nice architectural feature for a lot of reasons.

    14. Agree with Jim above. You really should get an engineer to do the actual calculations of the structure- just “enlarging the opening” could work theoretically, but you really want to be sure that you are supporting the building above properly!
      rodriguez studio architecture p.c.
      139 Fulton St. PH-3

    15. Original poster here. Thanks for all feedback. A few comments–I am definitely planning on hiring an architect and have already interviewed several. The problem is, the architects all say, what do YOU want? So I feel it would be better if I had resoved certain key issues in my mind before bringing in the pros.
      Also, I have noticed a real bias among the trendy architects towards modern. You go on their websites and everybody has put a wall of windows in the back and ripped out all the original details. One of the reasons I got rid of the first architects I hired (among many) is because their plan took out my existing pocket doors and destroyed a lot of original molding. That seemed crazy to me. I had been hoping for a thoughtful interpretation, not kneejerk destruction. Plus, they charged a fortune. (13k and we were still dawdling in schematic, but ok I am going to let this particular bitterness go…)
      I take one poster’s point about the faux loft aesthetic but still would be curious to know how people define a “successful” removal of that wall vs. a “cheesy” one?

    16. I’m also generally not a fan of removing the stair hall wall – except when the brownstone is so narrow, as in one that was up here for comment yesterday, so that the living room is less than 12′ wide. When the living room is less wide than that, it really does help to open up the space.

      I agree – I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done poorly. Whether to make some openings, or open the whole area with a beam, depends largely on the house itself, what will work visually and spatially with the particular house.

      If your house is one of the wide ones, consider whether doing this will really add anything to the house, as it won’t add at all, and will detract from the house – unless it is one of the narrowest of brownstones.

    17. If you want to avoid “that narrow brownstone feel” why do you want to live in a brownstone? Wouldn’t it be better to trade it in for a loft? No matter what you do and how much original fabric you blow out you will always have a twenty foot wide dwelling. The pocket doors and the walls with their cornices and ornament is what makes a brownstone special. It’s what makes it an historic house. Once the original interior features are gone, they’re gone forever. Think about it.

    18. We’ve seen a couple of HOTD for sale postings here where this was done poorly and some where it was done quite tastefully, retaining a lot of the original architecdtural detail and enhancing it. If done properly, it’ll enhance resale value down the road.

    19. We’ve done a number of these in the past few years. There are a few different ways, and picking the right one will depend upon your budget and the desired character of the space. We’ve completely removed that wall and replaced with a beam (sometimes steel, sometimes laminated lumber) within a soffit (yes, you spelled that correctly) bearing on a column or two, depending upon the length of the opening.

      We’ve also managed to eliminate the wall without the use of a beam or column by beefing up the floor structure. This is more invasive and I’d only recommend it if you’re gutting anyway.

      Call me if you want to discuss it directly.

      Jim Hill, RA, LEED AP
      Urban Pioneering Architecture
      (646) 309-7259

    20. Believe it or not, the space will look bigger as it is now, divided up. If you remove the wall, you might have more room for a couch, of course, depending on how you do the renovation. Also, you may lose some thermal adjustment options. I presume you’re not eliminating the entryway, which is necessary to keep cold out in the winter.

      I’m not a fan of moving original walls. I think it looks funny and cheap. But many people like to turn brownstones into faux-lofts.

    21. And you can span any length with the right sized steel beam (enclosed in a soffit). You need an engineer to size it.

    22. Just about anything is possible but regardless you’ll need the professional services of an architect or engineer to complete the necessary drawings/specs/filing with the DOB, so it’s best to re-hire one as soon as possible. Otherwise you’re simply treading water in what may be pipe dreams.