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Wall Panels - What Are They?

Walls are nothing new to the construction industry. Ever since balloon framing superseded

timber framing in the 1830’s, we’ve been building walls. A wall is a vertical structural system

that supports gravity loads from the roof and floors above and transfers the loads to the

foundation below. It also resists lateral loads resulting from wind and earthquakes. All the walls, collectively in a structure, are called the wall system.

The objectives of a wall system are:

  • to resist snow, live and dead loads, and wind and seismic forces

  • to provide an adequate subsurface for wall finishes

  • to provide openings for doors and windows

  • to serve as a component in the thermal and weather barrier

  • to provide space and access for electrical and mechanical equipment

  • to serve as a component in rated one- to two-hour fire barrier assemblies

A typical wood-framed wall is composed of the following elements as shown in Figure A below:

  • studs, including wall, cripple, jack, and king studs

  • top and bottom (sole) plates

  • headers

  • sheathing

  • diagonal let-in braces, if used

Residential wall systems have traditionally been constructed of dimensional lumber, usually 2x4s or 2x6s, although engineered wood studs and cold-formed steel studs are now seeing increased use. Wall studs are vertical, repetitive framing members spaced at regular intervals to support the wall sheathing. They span the full height of each story and support the building loads above. King and jack studs (also known as jamb studs) frame openings and support loads from a header. Cripple studs are placed above or below a wall opening and are not full height.. Top and bottom plates are horizontal members to which studs are fastened. The top and bottom plates are then fastened to the floor or roof above and either to the floor below or directly to the foundation. Headers are beams that transfer the loads above an opening to jack studs at each side of the opening. Structural wall sheathing, such as plywood or oriented strand board, distributes lateral loads to the wall framing and provides lateral support to both the wall studs (i.e., buckling resistance) and the entire building (i.e., racking resistance). Interior wall finishes also provide significant support to the wall studs and the structure.

Figure A: Structural Elements of a Wall System

Load-Bearing Walls

Load-bearing walls support gravity loads from either the roof, ceiling, or floor joists or the

beams above. Exterior load-bearing walls must be designed for axial loads as well as for lateral loads from wind or seismic forces. They must also act as shear walls to resist racking loads from lateral wind or seismic forces on the overall building. Interior walls may be either load-bearing or non-load-bearing. Non-load-bearing interior walls are often called partitions. In either case, interior walls should be solidly fastened to the floor and ceiling framing and to the exterior wall framing where they abut. It may be necessary to install extra studs, blocking, or nailers in the outside walls to provide for attachment of interior walls.

The framing must also be arranged to provide a nailing surface for wall-covering materials at

inside corners. Interior load-bearing walls typically support the floor or ceiling joists above when the clear span from exterior wall to exterior wall is greater than the spanning capability of the floor or ceiling joists. Interior walls, unlike exterior walls, seldom experience large transverse or out-of-plane lateral loads; however, some building codes require interior walls to be designed for a minimum lateral loading.

Non-Load-Bearing Partitions

Interior partitions are not intended to support structural loads. Standard 2x4 or 2x3 wood stud interior partition walls are well proven in practice. Openings within partitions do not require headers or trimmers and are commonly framed with single studs and horizontal members of the same size as the studs. Particularly in the case of closets or other tight spaces, builders may frame certain partitions with smaller lumber, such as 2x2 studs or 2x4 studs turned flatwise to save space.

So what are “Wall Panels?”

Wall panels are merely the modern method of designing, manufacturing and assembling a wall system. Wall panels are designed to optimize material usage in a factory controlled

environment, fabricated to specification, sized appropriately to meet transportation and site

logistics, delivered to the job site, and assembled with no special equipment needed and no extra framing techniques required.

To obtain more information on how Stillwater Building Systems wall panel solutions can be an asset in your project, please contact us at


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