What Is the Best Way to Construct a Retaining Wall?
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Landscaping is a fantastic way to achieve the “welcome home” feeling you have always dreamed of when returning after a long day. Beyond that, it can often serve as a crucial way to protect and preserve your biggest investment!
Often overlooked, proper drainage and retaining walls can be one of the most important projects on your property. Like many DIY projects, doing it right the first time is the only real way you are going to save money, which is why we’re going to talk you through one of the most labor-intensive landscaping jobs you’re likely to come up against – building a retaining wall. As always, it is important to research your local building codes and understand your own abilities. Otherwise, we suggest that you consult your local supplier, such as Central Home Supply, for referrals to licensed professional installers.
Retaining walls are strong walls that retain soil and divert water. They can be used for both practical and aesthetic purposes, and are a fantastic landscaping addition to any garden. If you’ve never built one, there are many options, so you may be at a loss as to where to start.
From small and decorative planter walls to heavy-duty blocks that can hold back even the steepest hillside, there is a block just right for the job. Having someone come to assess your site can cost time and money, and it isn’t always necessary. It is possible to do retaining walls yourself, especially if they are under 4 feet tall from footing to the cap. All you need to do is consider the best match of look and function for your project. Some basic steps to help get the right solution for your next project include:
- Prepping and planning – taking careful measurements
- Selecting the right material – getting the right size for the scope of the job
- The installation itself – compacting base, accounting for drainage
- Reinforcement – does your wall need geogrid?
- Finishing with caps, corners or steps
Which Is the Best Retaining Wall Material?
It won’t take you long to realize that there is a wide variety of retaining wall materials out there. Each of these can have a very different impact on results. As such, the best way to a retaining wall which lasts is to consider each option. For the most part, retaining walls are available in three main materials – wood, concrete, and stone. To help you decide which would be best, we’re going to look at each in a little more detail –
Often, first-time wall builders lean towards timber walls because of the illusion of lower cost and supposedly easy installation. Wood can be a more familiar product for cutting and design for many people, although with any material there are pros and cons. One of the real pros of a post and beam wall is that they can be built in areas that are very difficult to access. From the builder’s perspective, they know that they can charge a premium price and yet still build a wooden wall with lower labor costs, which is a “pro” for profit margin. The con here is that although the walls go up fast, they also typically come down fast too. Between termites, water damage, and dry-rot, the main issue is that wood only has a lifespan of approximately ten years. Often posts are not dug to an adequate depth for the height of the wall resulting in an early lean. Another con is the chemicals used to preserve pressure-treated wood have a habit of leaching into your soil. That means many of the benefits you could find from using wood in the first place will come crashing down when you have to invest in a replacement. As a general rule, unless access is a limiting factor, wood walls are best avoided due to their short life span.
Investing in a concrete block retaining wall is sure to serve better than wooden counterparts. That’s because concrete block walls like gravity walls make for sophisticated retaining systems that are both secure and easy to install. Gravity walls in particular consist of concrete blocks that interlock and stack, all without any need for mortar. There is a large variety of styles and colors available in pre-engineered designs for walls up to 4 feet (and higher but requires a permit). This means that you can have a wall that will last a lifetime, often without a permit, that you can customize to match the look of your home!
When you buy gravity block systems from a retaining wall supplier like Central Home Supply, they can help make your entire project easier to manage with expert advice and referrals to qualified installers. You also guarantee a long-lasting retaining wall which will require minimal maintenance and maximum durability.
Stone retaining walls are a top choice for many, and it’s easy to see why. As well as being a natural and timeless choice from an appearance perspective, stones are the most practical retaining option. With these, you can provide both the drainage and support necessary.
For the most part, there are three types of stone walls to choose from –
- Fieldstone or Rubble Walls
- Cut Stone Retaining Walls – Full ledgers or Thin Veneer Stone over a block
- Boulder Walls
Which of these you choose depends entirely upon the size and scope of your project.
Boulder and rubble walls are some of the oldest retaining structures used by mankind. They are easy to achieve without any expensive equipment, just a bit of teamwork can make a small budget go a long way! All you would need is some reliable natural stone-like Sonoma Fieldstone to achieve a beautiful moss-covered finish. Fieldstone is available in 4-6” diameter up to large boulders and covers about 30-35 square feet per ton for “head size” stones. Ledgers, or rectangular blocks of stone, are a fantastic and easy natural stone selection that can boost your home’s curb appeal no end. Either of these choices would be perfect for terraces, edging gravel pathways and more.
For a high-end look to cover a cinder block wall, try Thin Veneer Stone or stones that have been cut to a thickness of about 1.5” so that they can be applied like tile, but provide the look of a wall or chimney built entirely of stone. These are available in a huge variety of colors and styles all of which are on display at your local masonry supply such as Central Home Supply. There are both real and manufactured types such as Cultured Stone, El Dorado Stone, and Coronado Stone to name a few. Some even come in pre-made panels that fit together like a puzzle for fast installation. In this manner, some real stone is actually very inexpensive but provides the long term durability and ROI associated with real stone construction. It is a good idea to look at options like Stone Universe, MSI, and Glacier Stone Supply online, but take actual samples home to see how the colors look with the other features of your home before making a purchase.
Gabion walls are also worth a mention. These involve a rectangular-shaped wire basket which is then filled with a stone of your liking. Gabion walls are great options for difficult to access areas or areas along waterways where there is a constant erosion of the footing. They allow water to pass through and can shift to fit the changing contour of the earth without losing stability. Lately, they have also seen the benefit of many new size options, making them ideal for stylish partition walls or seating areas in modern garden designs.
Constructing Your Retaining Wall
Once you’ve decided which material you’re going to work with, it’s time to start constructing your retaining wall. In many ways, this process depends on which material you’ve settled on, but there are some basic points you’ll need to follow, especially when working with gravity wall materials like those mentioned above. First, you must think about your soil type and where the water will go during heavy rains, this will help to determine what size of drainage pipe and whether or not geogrid will be necessary. Second, you will need to create a footing by cutting a trench for the first row of blocks or stones to nestle down into. Placing some base rock or gravel and compacting it will give the wall a level starting point and prevent it from settling over time.
Dig this trench at least 1.5-2X wider than the block or stones you will be using and deep enough that you can bury the first course at least halfway (ex. 4” of an 8” block). Placing the first row of material is the most important step, take your time to make sure they are level and stable. Place a drainage pipe and filter-cloth behind the wall to carry away excess water from storms, this can add an incredible amount of weight if not addressed! From there, simply stacking the interlocking gravity wall block such as Allan Block, Keystone, Geo Pro, Estate Wall, and filling behind the wall with drain gravel will go incredibly fast and easy. As simple as stacking Lego block as a child, these systems are designed with DIY construction in mind!
Some tips to increase the strength of a retaining wall are:
- Curved Walls: A simple way to add to both appearance and stability, many of these systems will not require cutting to build a curved wall (except on some types of cap pieces)
- Geo Grid or Stabilization Fabrics: Another simple technique which involves rolling out a fabric between layers of the block to tie it back further into the hillside and increase stability. Examples include Mirafi and Tencate products such as 3XT or 5XT.
- Pedestals or Columns: Adding columns or pedestals to a traditional cinderblock wall with Thin Veneer stone or stucco will add both stability and elegance to your construction.
Even if you have no knowledge of retaining walls, there’s nothing to stop you from giving this a go. Keep these pointers in mind, and you should find that you’re able to construct a durable wall that costs much less in time and labor than you may have believed possible. Call Central Home Supply at 831-440-0763 for friendly advice or referral to a local trusted professional… We are here to help you go DIY and build a burly wall with your bare (gloved) hands!
Disclaimer: Side effects of extra muscle tone, pride, and sense of accomplishment at your own risk 😉