Retaining Walls 101 – An Introduction to Choosing the Right Wall

For many, retaining walls are an attractive option of hardscaping because of their natural beauty and useful functionality. 

If you’re looking for a beautiful landscaping feature that will make your property stand out from the rest or if safety is important to you – retaining wall collapses can be disastrous!) then consider building one today!

When designing and constructing a retaining wall, there are plenty of factors to keep in mind- no matter what kind it’s intended as long as its purpose aligns with residential or commercial use. The same level care should be applied when considering how deep footing needs to go into the ground; whether reinforcement is needed at all times based on experience and application specifics; even which material works best depending upon location type/region.

This article will give you the information on how to choose and build a retaining wall. A successful project starts with careful planning that takes into account environmental factors like slope, soil type, drainage patterns, plant life in proximity to your site boundary line or slopes: all of which can make building an effective albeit attractive barrier much easier.

Design Guidance

The purpose of a retaining wall is to hold soil behind it. There are many different types and sizes, but the most important thing to consider when building one for your project will be what you need from it. Here we look at four factors that affect this decision:

Location: Large projects might require an enormous structure built along highways or alongside cliffs while smaller jobs like landscaping stone walls can often just surround a garden with no extra considerations needed for size.

Some homeowners may want their new construction to improve erosion control by directing water on sloping property away from higher elevation areas such as walkways and patios; others may simply wish make terraced yards more manageable in terms of maintenance.

Individual needs vary depending on how they plan maintain their yard over

When selecting a location for your wall, it’s important to understand property lines and underground utilities so that you don’t build on top of water or sewer pipes. Do not forget other factors like landscaping, structures within the view-shed, zoning issues with potential neighbors – these are all things which should be considered before construction begins!

It is vital to consider both above ground and below ground infrastructure when choosing a site for your new wall; make sure there isn’t any irrigation system near where you want the foundation laid out because if they get mixed up in one another then everything could potentially end up getting clogged. You also need to keep an eye out while planning what might happen from obstacles such as trees or buildings located within sight range.

Is your home near a fence or driveway? If so, you could be putting undue pressure on the wall. Surcharge loads can cause significant damage to walls and are often overlooked when determining load capacity of concrete slabs.

Soil: The soil is the foundation for a wall. But, you need to make sure it’s strong enough to support whatever weight will be put on top of it. The type and strength of the soil can change depending on where in earth from which we are building our walls – a sandy beach might not have as much bearing capacity or friction angle than say, clay-based soils found in wetlands near creeks and rivers that experience flooding regularly would likely perform better under stress parameters because they’re more dense due to their higher moisture content. 

Soil types like sandstone rocks may also mean trouble since there’ll be greater risk for fractures over time while other soils with lower water contents could indicate potential sinkholes if excavated too deep down below surface level without appropriate drainage. 

You might think that a solid, firm base is all you need for your backyard wall to stand strong. However, the type of soil beneath it can also make or break its integrity over time due to moisture-related problems like erosion and freezing expansion from wet soils which cause structural damage. Consult with geotechnical engineers before deciding on any one particular site because they will be able to tell you about potential threats such as expansive clay soils in areas where there are freeze/thaw cycles.

Design: Designing a retaining wall is tricky. First, you have to calculate the size and slope of your site’s ground in order to determine how tall your walls need to be. Once that has been determined, it’s important not only for the design but also for safety purposes that gravity isn’t allowed take its toll on these structures by making them too steep or short because this can cause significant amounts of lateral pressure behind them which can eventually bring down even sturdier looking designs altogether!

Wall Reinforcement: Have you ever seen a building that’s leaning? That’s because the foundation underneath it can’t support all of its weight. The same thing applies to your retaining wall, and if gravity alone won’t do the job there are reinforcement methods available for construction jobs depending on what type is being used, height, design (e.g., friction), angle (in degrees) soil material etc… Mechanically stabilized earth includes soil with some means artificial reinforcement such as steel or geosynthetics like rock bolts which work by attaching a rod through concrete blocks in order to create tension thus supporting them from behind; other reinforcing techniques include using MegaWall™ MSE fabric instead of just dirt between layers where necessary – of course these also depend on how much dirt needs to be retained. 

Wall reinforcement can be included as part of a wall system. For instance, Oldcastle Infrastructure manufactures MegaWall MSE which is a mechanically stabilized earth system meant to retain soil on one side. Individual precast concrete block units are connected to Tensar uniaxial geogrids or welded wire mesh for reinforcement that makes them nearly 14 times bigger than the standard 1 square foot blocks (the largest MegaWall block being 66″ x 30″ x 16″).

Drainage: Many people don’t realize that the most common reason for a retaining wall to fail is water. To make sure your walls stay up, it’s important that they have good drainage and are well-drained at the bottom. Take time in designing your site so there is no buildup of surface runoff near or behind your wall: this will only create more hydrostatic pressure on top of the groundwater which could cause problems with stability over time!

Choosing the right wall

Retaining walls can be made from many materials, but the most common are concrete and earth. Earth is popular because it’s cheaper than poured cement or stone blocks; however, it requires more maintenance as plants will grow up over time if they’re not cut back regularly.

After evaluating your project needs for location, drainage conditions in soil and design considerations you’ll need to think about what type of retaining wall would best suit your situation- there are a multitude of options! One option worth considering would be an earthen one which has several benefits including that being affordable yet requiring less care when compared with other types like cement block or limestone stones (both require regular upkeep).

Gravity Walls

Gravity walls are a type of wall that rely on their weight to hold soil in place. They can be made out heavy materials, such as stone, concrete blocks or cast-in-place concrete and they lean back towards the ground with interlocking edges. Gravity walls do not need any external reinforcing because they use pressure from behind to resist against it – this is where gravity comes into play! Make sure your construction meets municipal building requirements for height (4 ft).

For those who want to stay within their budget, yet still have a quality looking wall that is sturdy and safe – the Mega-Tandem™ Mass Segmental Retaining Wall System by Belgard may be worth considering. With 12 textures available in various colors for face units of this system you can tailor it to your personal taste or preference. The jigs included with this package offer easy construction without compromising safety while providing structural integrity due its curved as well as straight walls up 4 feet tall and below 10 feet high (or at 15 foot height with reinforcement).

Revolution® R-Board features a new and innovative design that conforms to any shape in order to optimize usable space. These boards are specially designed for high or sloped terrain, so they can be used on both commercial and residential projects alike!

Segmental retaining walls (SRWs)

are typically used for gravity purposes, but can also be reinforced to act as a wall. SRW’s come in colors and textures to suit your project aesthetic needs. They require minimal labor when installing, so they save you time on site!

One of the largest and tallest retaining walls in North America is nearing completion at a FedEx Ground Distribution Hub in Middletown, Connecticut. With heights of 60 feet and over 310,000 square yards or blocks provided by Anchor Block (part of Oldcastle APG,) construction also called for more than 630 thousand sqaure yard geogrid soil reinforcement to ensure that wall stays safe from future weather disasters like Hurricane Sandy.

fed ex retaining wall
tallest retaining walls in North America is nearing completion at a FedEx Ground Distribution Hub 

The Anchorplex™ retaining wall system is a cost-effective solution for when excavation space is limited. It eliminates the need to excavate and construct an MSE zone behind the wall, while also requiring less excavation than most other types of segmental walls due to its innovative design.

Cantilevered Walls

A cantilever retaining wall uses the principles of leverage and is often constructed in the shape of an inverted T with reinforced concrete or mortared masonry. This type of construction requires less building material than a gravity wall and can be poured on site, at a precast facility, or manufactured. The base slab for this type will consist two parts: heel – where backfill rests; toe – other part that does not have backfill resting against it because there’s no need to hold up anything else but itself when supported by its own height as well as top soil support below footings/braces which are rigid concrete footing 25′ high.

Cantilevered Walls
Uses: Deep excavations with heights up to 18 feet.

Counterfort Walls

The counterfort wall is a superior construction choice for taller walls. It requires less support along the backside of the wall and incorporates concrete webs, also known as counterforts, that are angled so they strengthen stability on all sides. These come in regularly spaced intervals to decrease pressure from soil while increasing weight capacity during earthquakes or other natural disasters such as storms which have high winds with them. They’re greatly preferred over cantilever walls when it comes to heights higher than 25′.

Counterfort Walls
Uses: Tall walls of 20 to 40 feet.

Sheet or Bored Pile Walls

Sheet pile retaining walls are a good option for those with tight spaces and soft soil, but they need to be anchored properly. They can also serve as barriers against erosion along waterfronts or other water sources such as cofferdams.

Panel Wall

Panel walls are often used to create a safe passage way for pedestrians in the form of ramps. They’re also great at absorbing heavy loads like unzipped backpacks or valuable packages that need extra protection while traveling down stairs and escalators! Panel walls can be made out of precast concrete reinforced with steel, but we’ll always work closely with you before creating your custom panels so they match other architecture around them perfectly.

Gabion mesh walls

The wire mesh is an inexpensive and reliable solution to erosion. It can be mounted on a stream or river bank in order to protect it from damage by the water, such as when there’s too much material being washed away due to high levels of precipitation. Wire meshes are also used in military applications for protection against artillery fire because they allow only small pieces of shrapnel through while still providing enough stopping power that projectiles cannot pass through entirely unimpeded; this means fewer lives lost during conflict time periods since dangers can be better anticipated and avoided with these protections up front. They’re also commonly utilized for residential purposes where large quantities need protecting at once – like around trees outside residences so intruders aren’t able-bodied just yet again break down doors or windows

Gabion walls are a warm, natural approach to design. The boxes of stone and rocks allow for some give in the structure while still providing support with its wire ties and angled back slope.

Gabion-style retaining wall features an open box style that can offer flexibility over time as degradation occurs on certain parts or all parts of the wire mesh cages holding your stones together.


There are many factors to consider when choosing a wall system for your project. Consider the location, soil type and drainage requirements of your property before making any decisions about what materials you will use. Consulting with an engineer from one of the manufacturers may be helpful in determining which products best suit your needs or using online tools such as Belgard SRW Design Software 1.0 can help increase efficiency and turn concepts into comprehensive designs quickly!


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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