What lurks inside the walls when looking for a change of space

Filed in Construction, In This Issue by on May 5, 2017

IMG_0618By Dave Pedersen


Many worst-case scenarios were experienced when Kristi and Scott LaRowe embarked on knocking down most of the walls on the first floor of their home on Lake Fannie near Cambridge, Minn. Their story tells about the good and bad aspects in knocking down the walls.


Removing an interior wall in a home remodel may not be as simple as grabbing a sledgehammer. Depending on what’s hiding inside that wall, the project can be a treasure or be trouble.


Looking inside walls for the LaRowe family started when they were married and bought their first “project” home. It happened to be the first one built in Isanti and they found newspapers used as wall insulation dating back to 1887. It was a fun read but an extensive remodel.


When they bought a seasonal cabin near Pine City years back they found an active honey bee hive inside the walls, getting in through the knotholes in the siding.


The cabin happened to be once owned by famous gangster Al Capone, who used it as a hangout. Scott jokes they did not find any money in the walls.


Treasure has been discovered inside walls elsewhere, especially in bigger, older classic architecture. A man in Minnesota found a rare baseball card worth thousands of dollars.






Walls are important


The goal of most wall removal projects is to connect rooms and create a more open floor plan to enhance function. A positive side effect can be increased market value. Yet, there can be negative side effects if not careful.


Walls are important as the main building blocks of the house, providing a barrier between interior and exterior, supporting ceiling and roof and differentiating indoor space into rooms. So any alteration is impacted by what unknowns lurk behind the walls.


Old buildings can conceal contaminants such as lead paint, asbestos and mold. Depending on what you do find you can either do it yourself or you may need to hire more than one expert such as a plumber, electrician, engineer, architect or general contractor.


You may have to reroute gas lines and electrical wires, plus move vents that impact how the heating and cooling system works. Many parts of your home’s interior can be affected by the exterior problems, especially rotting wood and mold caused by moisture leakage.






Previous remodel history


The LaRowe family knew a lot about home remodeling, having “flipped” a couple homes per year since the 2008 economic collapse–when many people lost their homes.


“It was a chance for us to help other people to hang on to their home,” recalls Scott about it being more of a ministry. “We had a couple at our church that lost their home. We ended up buying another foreclosure that we fixed up for them where they had cheaper payments.”


Two years ago they decided to remodel their own home after coming to a realization.


“I am five years out from having cancer,” recalls Kristi. “I told Scott we should probably try to live our life more now instead of waiting until we are 60 or 70. We sold our house to our daughter and her husband and bought this place two years ago.”


The place is a 3,000 square-foot rambler built in 1988. It is located five minutes from where Scott is based as a farmer of 3,000 acres. With work on the farm, the couple found it difficult to get away in the summer so they wanted to keep their lake retreat local. They also wanted a house with an open concept, which meant removing many walls to create one big open space.


“We pretty much did the work ourselves, but had friends who helped out quite a bit,” said Kristi. “It costs too much money to hire out everything.”


The kitchen area


Kristi says when you walked in one door there was a laundry room, big walk-in closet and a small kitchen area. The couple got rid of all that to create a big kitchen, adding an island.


There was a half wall between the living room and dining room with glass shelves. The wall turned out to be hollow, so it was an easy takeout. With all the wires hanging from the new kitchen, an electrician had to be hired.


Other half walls enclosing the basement staircase were also easily removed and replaced by custom rails made of diamond willow sticks.


Removing walls between the living and dining room required a construction engineer (a friend) to design new weight bearing beams and posts. This was because the main wall going down the center of the house was removed.






Now the bad news


All was going well until they decided to replace the wood floor in a den area and found black mold underneath. Scott thought he better look inside the walls just above the bottom molding and could see more mold inside half the wall.


Water had leaked through the outside stucco wall. In one place it came through a hole where a wire was drilled into the wall. Plus, there were no drip caps over some of the windows so rain water would run under the window into the walls.


For some reason other windows didn’t get sealed properly and also had water damage and mold. All the windows had to be replaced, costing around $7,500. Hiring someone to fix the stucco wall cost another $2,200.


Scott adds he was surprised how big of an area was affected. It is hard to get rid of mold. Scott said they bleached it all make sure everything was killed, but for the most part they tore it all out.


“It was horrible,” recalls Kristi. “We had to replace all the trim work before adding the new floors.” She adds the good news is they are very pleased with the end result and have no regrets.


Scott jokes that he has friends who can tell him what to do. He adds, “I am a farmer, but I am not really afraid of anything. I just find the smart guys to help me.”


Wall remodel notes


Removing a wall in a one-story house is much different than in a two-story, which can cost significantly more. It can be a major engineering effort to accommodate the stress the second story will be putting on the other walls.


A good rule of thumb is that if the wall is toward the middle of the house and running perpendicular to the joists above, it is carrying weight.


Permits will vary from city to city. The norm is that if it is not a structural wall, a permit is not required.


When removing a wall, consider what is going to happen to the floor and ceiling. Hardwood floors will be difficult to patch between rooms. Ideally, you can replace the floors to make it all match up. Adding carpet will do the trick. Matching ceilings is fairly easy, but molding is where it gets tricky.


Begin the wall demolition by removing the baseboard. Eventually, you are going to shut off the power to the wall at the breaker, but it is a good idea to label all the switches first.


A reason for keeping your walls is they provide a large surface canvas for color, texture and form to achieve a specific ambiance.


In any home, the way walls are utilized can be transformative to the space. In the ends, one truth always remains: You cannot change a home’s location, but you can change the house, including knocking down some walls.