Retaining walls are structures that hold soil or other materials in place. They can be constructed out of many different materials, including both natural ones like treated timbers or boulders and man-made alternatives like concrete blocks. Some retaining walls are reinforced, while others are held in place exclusively by gravity and their own weight.
A well-designed retaining wall will do more than just hold soil in place on a steep slope. When constructed by experienced retaining wall builders, these structures can also provide unique aesthetic appeal to otherwise boring landscapes, improve a property’s safety profile, and serve a multitude of practical uses. Read on to find out about a few of the most common applications for retaining walls that take advantage of these unique structures’ versatility and durability.
Holding Back Soil
The most obvious application for retaining walls is to hold back soil in areas of a yard that are elevated or steeply sloped. Installing a retaining wall can prevent soil runoff during storms, help to ensure proper drainage, and offer a greater level of flexibility when it comes to landscape design.
When retaining walls are used to hold back large amounts of soil, they must be properly engineered to hold the weight. Retaining walls must be set on a base with proper drainage and waterproofing to ensure stability over the years. If they must hold back large amounts of soil, retaining walls should be reinforced.
Even skilled landscape designers often have a hard time figuring out what to do with steeply sloped yards. Creating terraces using retaining walls allows them to employ traditional landscaping and hardscaping techniques that wouldn’t be possible on a slope.
Originally used as a means of expanding agriculture into hilly or mountainous areas, terraces are now commonly seen in both residential and commercial landscape designs. The same features that initially benefited farmers are just as helpful in the context of landscaping, which also requires flat areas for planting and the prevention of soil erosion.
Constructing Freestanding Container Gardens
Not all retaining walls are installed on slopes. Some skilled landscape designers incorporate them into flat yards, as well, often in the form of built-up freestanding container gardens. To accomplish this goal, a landscaper will work with a retaining wall contractor to create a circular wall on flat land. This area can then be filled with soil and compost to accommodate plants that would not be able to thrive in the native soil.
While circular retaining wall container gardens are the most popular, there’s no reason landscape designers need to restrict themselves to this shape. Skilled builders can construct retaining walls that follow many unique designs. They can even work with landscape designers to create decorative planters that complement different types of flowers such as roses, clematis, or morning glory.
Making Full Use of Multi-Level Houses
Many homes are built on multiple levels, with main entryways on the second floor and back doors exiting out the first. This building technique is most common in areas that experience temperature extremes. While building below grade creates some complications for contractors, it also generates unique opportunities for adding aesthetic beauty to the landscape.
One good example can be seen in below-grade backyard patios. Retaining walls can be used to hold the soil in place around the backdoor to create a space large enough to use not just as an entryway but also as a patio for entertaining. Just keep in mind that this kind of unique landscaping strategy requires careful attention to drainage.
When used in this way to create outdoor kitchens, retaining walls can double as countertops, seating areas, or other practical spaces. Building these features into the landscape creates a seamless transition from the natural world into the man-made space and makes full use of an area that would otherwise contribute little to the yard.
Adding Visual Interest
Retaining walls aren’t just useful. If properly constructed using high-quality materials, they can also add unique visual interest to a yard. Retaining walls work well in all kinds of different landscapes. From formal gardens to rural pastures, they have something to offer to every property.
For those whose primary intention is to add visual interest to their landscapes, choosing the right material is essential. More modern yards and gardens are typically better suited for concrete or block retaining walls rather than natural stone, which is typically associated with rural pastures.
Extending a Driveway
Not all retaining walls are found in backyards. In some cases, moving the earth and holding it in place can also create extra space for entryway features such as driveways that extend up to the garage or front door. One of the best parts about this application is that it also adds curb appeal and creates a unique welcome for anyone coming to visit the home.
In areas where drainage is a problem, retaining walls may be more useful for the opposite purpose. They can be used to raise a driveway above the surrounding landscape to ensure that flooding won’t become a problem during seasonal storms. Adding one retaining wall on the side of the driveway farthest from the house and directing stormwater to a dry well may be all it takes to extend the driveway up to the home while simultaneously preventing storm damage to concrete, asphalt, or bricks.
Creating Access Points
Homeowners with properties on lakes, rivers, or the sea often worry about washouts, particularly when the homes rest on bluffs above the water. Retaining walls are an obvious option for reducing storm damage and preventing erosion, but in these cases, they serve double duty by also providing a space for staircases that allow access to the beach below.
This technique for installing outdoor staircases in small spaces can be used in a variety of applications, not just on beachside properties. If there are steep hills, cliffs, or bluffs, retaining walls may be the best solution for creating safe access points to all parts of the property.
Constructing Fire Features
These days, many homeowners are looking for even more creative ways to spruce up their landscapes, and fire features can add both visual interest and practical appeal. Using a circular or rectangular retaining wall to build up an area for a fire feature can be a good way to extend the use of a yard further into the fall season or even the winter depending on the climate.
Homeowners need to be careful about how they design fire features and where they are placed. Otherwise, they could create unnecessary risks or even drive up property insurance rates. Using retaining walls to contain fire features, whether in the form of practical fire pits used to keep people warm or purely aesthetic columns topped by gas fires, keeps everyone safe.
Sloped Retaining Walls
Most people think of retaining walls as being more or less vertical. In some cases, though, block retaining walls can add extra visual appeal when sloped. Elevated in-ground pools with decks are a good example. Constructing a retaining wall that angles up to the pool deck can create a truly unique visual experience in addition to elevating the pool partially or entirely above the ground level.
Pools are just one example of when sloped retaining walls can be applied to great effect. Elevated patios can also benefit from this unique design feature, which can also be applied to raised gardens to great effect. Using sloped retaining walls to create tree rings or raised gardens for perennials allows homeowners to grow specimens that wouldn’t thrive in the native soil without having to worry about digging up their yards, and the sloped design will be better able to withstand pressure from shifting soil as the roots grow.
Tips for Designing the Perfect Retaining Wall
The applications described above are just a few examples of how property owners can put retaining walls to good use. There are plenty of others, each of which requires a different set of considerations. When designing a retaining wall, be sure to keep both practical and aesthetic concerns in mind. These tips could help:
- Opt for reinforced retaining walls for any application that requires significant load-bearing capabilities.
Make sure the area above the retaining wall will drain properly to avoid adding extra pressure in the form of saturated soil.
Choose materials that are durable and long-lasting such as stones or masonry blocks rather than wood or other options that could rot over time.
Take the time to explain the exact application to the contractor so they will be able to guarantee safe construction.
Choose a Skilled Masonry Contractor
Building any kind of masonry wall requires a good deal of specialized skill. Retaining walls are no exception, and can even pose extra challenges not seen with freestanding block walls. Property owners need to take the time to find contractors with extensive experience working on masonry walls, in general, and retaining walls, in particular, if they want to guarantee that the project will look good not just immediately after it’s finished but for decades to come.