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Even if you aren’t planning on building your own home anytime soon, as a homeowner you most likely want to have a basic understanding of how your house is built. If you’re looking to do an interior renovation or even trying to hang something from the ceiling or wall, you may wonder how rafters, joists, studs, and other framing members are constructed. How do these framing members relate to each other?
Most of the time, floor joists will run parallel to the rafters, but occasionally they will be perpendicular. There are many custom features and other aspects of a home’s construction that can impact how your framing members are oriented.
Let’s take a look a closer look at the different framing members and how they impact construction structurally.
Wood Frame Construction Basics
Most homes in the United States are constructed with wood framing members, such as dimensional lumber. Lumber is cost-effective and durable, suiting the needs of residential construction well. Over time, the industry has developed a standard for constructing homes to make it easy and accessible for a wide range of people, from homeowners wanting to do-it-yourself to contractors who make a living from building homes.
Every home is built on a foundation, whether that foundation includes a basement or crawl space, or if the foundation is built with simple footings or slab on grade. The walls of the home are then framed with studs, typically 2×4 or 2×6 dimensional lumber, that are held together with a sill plate and a top plate. The walls attach to the foundation through various means, depending on the type of foundation, but anchor bolts attach the sill plate to the foundation.
The size of the joists and the spacing depends on how much weight they will need to bear and how far between supporting structures they are, like columns or foundation walls. For example, a library with stacks of heavy books will have larger and/or closer spaced joists than a bedroom.
Similar to how stud wall framing needs a sill plate and top plate to keep the studs together, the floors and ceiling of the home are framed with rim joists that enclose the joists and secure them. You will typically see rim joists around the perimeter of the floor or ceiling.
The floor joists attach to the rim joist in even spacing. In residential construction, this is typically 16”, 20”, or 24” on center, abbreviated OC. If you ever want to hang something from the ceiling of your home, make sure you secure it through the drywall ceiling into the floor or ceiling joist above, which can hold more weight than the drywall.
Finally, rafters frame the roof of your house. The rafters will bear on the top plate of your load-bearing walls with the roofing members on top of that. The rafters will typically be equally spaced to distribute the load from the roof to the top plate or rim joists of the floor or ceiling below, but the spacing may not be the same as your studs or joists.
Since the floor joists typically attach perpendicular to the rim joists and roof rafters typically bear perpendicularly to the rim joists as well, then the joists and rafters are typically parallel.
Joists and Rafters
Generally, floor or ceiling joists run parallel to the rafters. You would be able to check if this is the case in your home by going up into the attic. Unless you have a finished attic, the ceiling joists are typically exposed. You may need to lift insulation or plywood to see the joists.
Floor joists and ceiling joists serve similar purposes. Ceiling joists may be smaller than floor joists because they have to bear less weight, but typically, if the ceiling and the floor have the same footprint, they should be oriented the same.
Why do the joists run parallel to the rafters?
In wood-frame construction, the exterior walls are typically load bearing. This means that all the weight on the roof, of the roof, and all the furniture and people and materials in the house gets transferred to the walls. When you stand on the roof or the floor of your house, your weight is transferred horizontally by the rafter or the joist to the load-bearing wall or rim joists.
Joists and rafters want to be oriented to span the shortest distance. The longer the distance to span, the bigger the joist or rafter will need to be, or you may need to add intermediate columns to help bear the weight on the joist. Most of the time the floor footprint and the roof footprint are the same so that the shortest dimension is the same on the floor as well as the roof.
However, even though you may see rafters and floor joists parallel to each other, there are many unique situations in wood frame construction that could cause the orientation to change.
When are Joists and Rafters not Parallel?
There are occasions when floor joists and roof rafters are not parallel, whether ideal or not. When done intentionally in good designs, the floor below often does not match the roof outline above. However, there could be other instances where the joists have been built rotated from the rafters without realizing the consequences.
Here are a few good examples of why the joists might not be parallel to the rafters:
- The home has several architectural features that produce setbacks or outcroppings, such as an L or U shaped home. The builder may want the roof to change orientations with the home. These roof designs may be called a Cross Gabled Roof or a Cross Hipped Roof.
- The levels of the home change, such as with a half-finished basement or split level home. The floor joists may run parallel to the short dimension at the floor level, but at the roof level, the short dimension is the opposite direction.
- The roof is modern or unique, such as a single sloped roof, flat roof, or a unique overhang. In custom homes or custom roofs, the roof rafters or roof joists may be oriented to optimize the structure of the roof, while the floor joists are oriented differently to optimize their structure separately.
- Roof rafters don’t need to be parallel to ceiling joists when rafter ties are used. Rafter ties help tie the roof rafters together structurally, eliminating the need for ceiling joists. The rafter tie is attached to the top of the rafters, such as the topmost point in a cable or hipped roof.
However, if you see that the roof rafters are not parallel to the floor joists, there may be cause for concern that the roof rafters might push out the exterior walls. Wilcox Inspections notes that the joists keep everything tied together and structurally sound. If you find this condition in your home, check for a rafter tie or other horizontal element, like structural steel or other horizontal beams. If you see any cracks in your walls, slanting, or other concerns, call an inspector to evaluate the safety of your home.
Understanding Your Home
With a little basic knowledge of wood frame construction, you can have a better understanding of how your home was built or how you might build your new home. Next time you’re in your attic, take a look to see if your joists are parallel to your rafters.
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Giovanni Valle is an architect, designer, internet entrepreneur, and the managing editor of various digital publications including BuilderSpace, Your Own Architect, and Interiors Place. He is the founder of BuilderSpace LLC.