10 Dos And Don’ts Of Building Retaining Walls

A retaining wall is a wonderful, and sometimes necessary, addition to your commercial or residential property. 

While they always fulfill a functional purpose, retaining walls can also add value and beauty to your property and can even create some additional outdoor spaces. 

Some of the practical purposes of retaining walls include minimizing soil erosion and its effects, creating gardens or outdoor spaces, adding layers and levels to a property, as well as decreasing slopes. 

If you live in an area that is on a heavy incline, it’s likely that you will need to install a retaining wall at one point or another. Even if you don’t, however, they can be a great way to add value and usable outdoor space for enjoyment. 

The most common type of retaining wall is a simple retaining wall that is not higher than four feet and more or less fifteen feet long, but this is by no means the only possible option. 

There are many different types of retaining walls and materials that you can choose from, and all of those decisions will normally be made after evaluating the type of project you have; retaining walls hold a heavy load of soil, so it’s vital that they are designed and constructed professionally and with a high level of expertise. 

For this reason, many homeowners opt for a professional retaining wall contractor to design and construct their wall. The more soil the retaining wall is meant to support, the more height and anchors you may need. 

If you don’t calculate these elements correctly, your retaining wall will likely fail. For your safety and protection, it’s much better to have a hardscape company take care of your retaining wall project. 

There are a number of dos and don’ts for retaining wall construction and having a clear understanding of these different elements will help you to have a successful relationship with your hardscape contractor and get your design exactly where you want it to be. 

Let’s get started!

DO Choose The Right Retaining Wall Material

There are plenty of materials that can be used to build a retaining wall, ranging from concrete to wood. They all offer a variety of pros and cons and will allow you to choose what will work best for your specific project, budget, and desired aesthetic. 

Here are some of the most common retaining wall materials:

Concrete blocks: a popular option, concrete blocks are especially good for modern landscapes or neutral looks. They can also be customized with veneers, stucco, or paint as well, so concrete is more than just the gray stone that people know it to be. There are also interlocking concrete blocks that are specifically created for ease of installation which can save on labor. 

Poured concrete: poured concrete can give your property a smooth and clean aesthetic and can be beautified in similar ways as concrete blocks can. It’s vital that you use an expert for this retaining wall installation because if poured incorrectly it can crack, bulge, or fail altogether. 

Treated pine: treated pine gives your property a natural look and can be a great option if you want to blend in the look of your garden or outdoor space with the rest of the surrounding nature. They are a bit cheaper than other options but can also present problems in terms of longevity. 

Railroad sleepers: this material is a pretty straightforward option for retaining wall construction. The material is usually readily available as well but should be treated. Natural stone: one of the most expensive options, natural stones are very heavy and durable and add a lot of natural beauty to your property. 

Brick: a brick paver retaining wall is lovely, especially when it doubles as a garden retaining wall because the plants are a beautiful complement to the natural color of the stone. Brick does require mortar, so it’s a good idea to go with a hardscape company that is well-equipped to do this. As you can see, you have many options, so you always want to consider the purpose of your wall, your desired aesthetic, and what your budget will allow. 

Most hardscape companies offer a wide range of different options in terms of these materials and they’ll be happy to partner with you to help you select one that meets all of your criteria. 

DON’T Ignore Climate And Soil Conditions

One of the biggest mistakes someone can make when building a retaining wall is to start a project and buy materials without first assessing the area. The climate and soil conditions will always be a top priority for deciding on what type of retaining wall will last the longest with low maintenance.

Your hardscape contractor will inspect the area and evaluate the needs of your specific property and job, and they can then advise you on which type of materials and designs would be the best choice for your project. 

Things like water, heat, and frost will all affect your retaining wall. If you aren’t aware of these environmental elements, you may find that your wall fails or will require repairs down the line. 

For instance, wood is notorious for becoming decayed or damaged over time, and it’s especially important that you are aware of the type of wood that you’re selecting as well as the treatment it has so that it will provide you with the longest lifespan possible. 

You don’t have to be totally sure about the implications of your climate or the native soil on your property— your retaining wall professional will help you understand the needs of the job so you can make the right choices. 

DO Ensure Your Foundation Is Solid

As with anything in life, your retaining wall needs a good, strong base— without it, it will be bound to fail. The wall foundation may need to be built or adjusted, or you may already have a solid base, but in any case, preparation and assessment is necessary. 

The amount of preparation will vary depending on the size of your retaining wall, but for a small retaining wall with a height of less than four feet, you’ll need a trench with 3 inches of retaining wall base material, which is typically crushed rock or gravel poured into the trench in order to set the wall and avoid shifting. 

Any hardscape company understands the importance of foundation, so they’ll be able to let you know exactly what is needed to get your retaining wall set up with the proper base and foundation. 

The trench measurements must be calculated according to the height of the wall, so when building a retaining wall, it will need to be an eighth of the wall with an additional three inches. 

For example: you want a retaining wall of 2 feet (24 inches), so you’ll need to start with 3 feet (⅛ of the wall size) and add an additional 3 inches, giving you enough room for the retaining wall base material and to begin the wall below the grade. 

The ground should be level and the fill should be solid. Always start with a strong base— it may be tempting to skip this step if you’re working on a DIY retaining wall but put in the effort and you’ll thank yourself in the long run. 

The best thing about working with a retaining wall contractor is that they have all the technical knowledge to ensure that your wall is set properly, and you won’t have to worry about doing all of those calculations and digging yourself. 

DON’T Underestimate Retaining Wall Construction

There are a lot of technical elements that go into building a successful retaining wall, and while you’ll find many DIY retaining wall tutorials on YouTube, it’s always a better investment to work with a hardscape contractor. 

It’s really important for all types of retaining walls, and even more so when you are building a retaining wall on a slope because you have to have accurate calculations and if they are not exactly right, the wall will fail, causing costly reparations and also putting your property in danger. 

You can also hire a landscape company for retaining wall landscaping, patio retaining walls, garden retaining walls, and much more. There are so many amazing possibilities for retaining wall construction, so talking to someone with the experience and technical know-how can give you a world of new ideas. 

Not only that, a professional retaining wall company will be able to provide all of the necessary tools for the job, which helps you to minimize costs on any rentals you otherwise would have needed. 

Retaining wall companies are completely prepared to provide you with the best retaining wall and have all the experience, skills, and problem-solving skills to do so. On the surface, retaining walls look simple, but they are quite complex. 

A retaining wall is truly an investment for your property, so it’s much better to go with the pros and have them execute it to the highest quality possible. 

DO Check Local Regulations And Guidelines

Installing a retaining wall may have some requirements or guidelines from your local district, so you’ll need to confirm those in advance, or you may find yourself in trouble later. 

Your hardscape company will help you to resolve all of these issues, so you can rest assured that your retaining wall will be completely permitted and approved. 

Some Common Restrictions And Permits May Be Required If The Following Is True Of Your Retaining Wall Construction: 

  • Exceeds 4 feet in wall height
  • Requires back slope
  • Surcharge loads exist (driveway, freeway, buildings, etc.)
  • Close to property line
  • Flow of water affects neighbors or area

These are just some of the possibilities. When you build a retaining wall, you may have to have your plans submitted and your property inspected. This is typically handled or arranged by your hardscape company, and they may be present to offer inspectors any clarification.

Another thing you should absolutely do is call DigSafe, which will inform utility companies of your plans and advise you if your retaining wall construction will obstruct or contact any of the buried lines. 

DON’T Try To Take Shortcuts

While it can be time-consuming to ensure that you have the proper stone retaining wall drainage, or to construct a retaining wall and patio, or to build a retaining wall with pavers, or to use proper retaining wall base material, all of these things ensure the success of your retaining wall construction. 

It’s really a bad idea to try and cut corners and do things as quickly or as cheap as possible; ultimately this will cause not only wall failure but can devastate your property and rack up costly reparations. 

For this reason, you’ll want to choose a hardscape company that has a lot of experience and works effectively but also by the book. It’s much better to have someone do your work correctly the first time than to have to go back and fix it later. 

Some retaining walls, once they fail, cannot be repaired, and then you’ll have to deal with demolition and re-installation. Go with a pro the first time around so you don’t have any headaches later on. 

DO Plan For Proper Drainage

Drainage is a big reason why retaining walls fail; if you notice leaning, bulging, or cracking, you may have some issues caused by drainage. The most common you’ll see is drainage or decaying areas. 

You should always ensure that you take drainage into consideration before and while building your retaining wall. There are a few options for drainage, including: 

Perforated drainpipe (drain tile): this will be installed behind the wall; first a backfill will be used to pack in the space behind the blocks and then the drainpipe will go in, allowing a water escape. Soil compaction: makes the soil less permeable Weep holes: these are holes at the front of the retaining wall that let out water and moisture. These are a few options for retaining wall drainage. Your hardscape contractor will work with you to choose the optimal solution for your particular wall type and project. 

Image courtesy of https://cornerstonewallsolutions.com/

DON’T Go With A Completely Vertical Retaining Wall

A good retaining wall is never 100% vertical if it is going to serve its purpose. Retaining walls must slant slightly back in order to help offset the weight and pressure of the load. This will help it to remain strong and not get pushed out by the soil. 

The retaining wall should be set back at least one inch for every 12 inches of height (1 foot). So, if you’re building a 2-foot retaining wall, it should be going back roughly 2 inches. 

Even interlocking concrete block walls have this capability, so your retaining wall contractor will be able to do this no matter what material you end up going with. 

DO Use Correct Retaining Wall Backfill

Retaining walls require backfill, and if your retaining wall will have a drainpipe, it will be used to install it. Once that pipe is in place the remainder of the blocks will need to be filled. Common materials for this include sand or pea gravel, or you can use compacted native soil as well. 

The key to this is that you ensure the backfill is packed as tightly as possible; this will help to prevent issues with moisture as well as to support the wall and minimize pressure. 

It’s common for hardscape companies to use a compactor but there are some other alternatives as well for compacting the backfill. 

DON’T Limit Your Design Creativity

The best thing about building retaining walls is that the sky’s the limit— you have ultimate freedom with your retaining wall landscape. If you are building a retaining wall on slope it is probably a necessary addition to your property, but many property owners install retaining walls simply for the aesthetic and space expansion that they can bring. 

Your landscaping company can offer you so many different design options and provide you with possibilities that you couldn’t have even imagined!

You can implement a terraced retaining wall to give your space more depth and levels, adding a natural flow and much more focal points for your outdoor design. These are great to use as garden retaining walls as well since the plants add even more to look at, creating a nice and relaxing space. 

Patio retaining walls are also popular because they can add a lot of value to your outdoor space and give your property built-in areas for entertaining and enjoying free time. 

You can use curves in your design for any type of wall, and it’s especially useful for both patios and terraced retaining walls. 

Garden retaining walls are also a great way to make your functional retaining wall aesthetically pleasing; just make sure you choose the right kind of plant so that the roots don’t interfere with your retaining wall. 

When you play with different layers, you can also have a stepped retaining wall— you can implement these along your gardens, alongside your patio, and even your driveway. You have so many incredible options to give your property a facelift with retaining wall landscaping. 

Be creative and explore all the potential your land has! If you have a specific design in mind, discuss it with your landscape company and 

Final Thoughts: Retaining Wall Construction Dos And Don’ts

A DIY retaining wall project may seem attractive at first, but it’s much better to work with an experienced hardscape company so that you can get a strong, durable, high-quality retaining wall that will last over time. 

There would be nothing worse than forking over your hard-earned money and trying to do it yourself only to have it fail after a while. You can accomplish amazing things with the right landscaping company and there is so much potential that retaining walls hold for your property.

Retaining walls are a welcome insertion into any property and they can completely transform your home’s safety, functionality, and appearance. 

Whether your retaining wall project is a necessity or a desired addition to your land, hiring the right hardscape company will get you the optimal product for your investment.

Jordan Stambaugh is a main contributor to USA Retaining Walls. He runs Green Fox, a digital marketing company for outdoor contractors. From the Pacific Northwest and an Eagle Scout, Jordan has great appreciation for the outdoors and natural spaces. He believes in sustainability through design and choices in the building process.

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