Retaining Walls

Leveling the playing field in your yard

Retaining walls are vertical structures that are built with the purpose of holding back soil or rocks that would otherwise slide down a hill, preventing erosion and dividing land into levels of different elevation. They are commonly found on properties that are sloped. If you own a sloped yard that isn't conducive to daily use, a retaining wall can help transform it into level segments that are much more practical.

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How to Build a Retaining Wall

Retaining walls can be made out of many different construction materials, including stone, concrete, brick, wood and metal. Make sure to pick a building material that suits the look and feel of your yard.

For beginner to intermediate do-it-yourselfers, the best option is to use stackable concrete "stones." These stones are manufactured to lock into each other so that no mortar is needed to hold them together. They are quite versatile and come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are four basic models for building a wall. They are:

  • Gravity walls. Gravity retaining walls rely on their own weight to hold back the earth behind them. Simply put, the weight of the wall must be greater than the force exerted by the soil behind it. Gravity walls are the easiest kind of retaining wall to build.
  • Cantilever walls. These retaining walls are tied to a footing (often made of steel), which provides the wall with extra stability against tipping. Basement walls are an example of cantilever walls. You should consult an engineer before you attempt to build a cantilever wall (or, better yet, have him or her do all the work).
  • Counterfort walls. These walls are almost identical to cantilever walls, except that they have one additional part. In counterfort walls, a triangular-shaped piece connects the back of the footing to the top of the wall. Again, consult a professional before you attempt to build such a complicated structure.
  • Buttressed walls. These walls are, essentially, backward counterfort walls. They include all the same components, except the triangular support piece isn't buried inside the soil - it's on the other side and is visible. Buttresses are sometimes used for decorative purposes, but most home owners choose one of the other three types of retaining walls.

When building your wall, be sure to have plenty of landscaping fabric on hand. Lay it behind the wall to prevent any soil from leaking through the cracks between the stones.

The only limitation to using pre-cast stones is that they can only be built to a height of about three feet. Unless you're an experienced builder, you should consult a professional before attempting to build any wall larger than three feet tall.

Don't Forget

Depending on the size of the retaining wall, you may be legally obligated to obtain the proper permits from your local government before you begin building.

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