How To Shape The Land With Retaining Walls – A Quick Guide

As you may or may not know, retaining walls are highly versatile and customizable and they help shape incredibly beautiful landscapes. They’re used for various different purposes and they’re of several different types. A retaining wall can protect a property from sliding soil or can hold the foundation of a structure in place. It can also add surface area to the boundaries or a site or help preserve the existing ground.

What is a retaining wall?

Before we get into details we should first define the concept. A retaining wall is a structure that holds soil behind it. The role of the retaining wall and the reasons for building it differ from case to case. In order to be successful in building a retaining wall, you must make the right choices throughout the entire process.

A retaining wall's function is not just to stop soil but also to shape the landView in gallery
A retaining wall’s function is not just to stop soil but also to shape the land

Types of retaining walls and influencing design factors

A retaining wall can be of various different types and each type has its own special characteristics. A gravity retaining wall, for example, depends on its own weight and is usually shorter in height than other types. It’s easy to build and it suits most soil types. A cantilevered retaining wall is usually T-shaped and uses steel-reinforced concrete which is cast in place. This type of wall converts the horizontal pressures exerted on it to vertical pressures on the ground below. Another type is the anchored retaining wall which gains additional strength from cables that are anchored to the rocks or the soil behind the wall.

The factors that can influence the the decision when choosing a type are quite numerous. For instance, the type of soil present on the site can tell you whether a gravity wall can do the job or if it needs to be reinforced in some way. A piling retaining wall is good for soft soil and for tight spaces in general. A slope can also be a factor and then there’s also the height of the wall which definitely matters.

Of course, there’s also the choice of materials which has a big impact on everything. Wood is probably the least expensive option. However, it’s also a material with a short lifespan. As is starts to decompose, the integrity of the retaining wall fades. Other materials such as rocks/ bounders, concrete blocks or poured concrete are more resilient and can last for decades. They’re rigid a d generally not affected by climate change, floods or natural disasters. However, they can be quite expensive.

Keep in mind that a proper drainage system is usually mandatory when building a retaining wallView in gallery
Keep in mind that a proper drainage system is usually mandatory when building a retaining wall

The cost of building a retaining wall

You can’t really determine how much building a retaining wall will cost until you know all the details. The choice of materials, the type of wall, the size, depth, height and other similar factors can directly influence the final cost. As a general rule, you can calculate the total retaining wall costs by adding up the materials, the labor and the miscellaneous expenses which can refer to things like specific tools required for the job or additional materials needed to strengthen the wall.

How to build a retaining wall

If you decide to do this yourself, we suggest finding someone to help along, preferably someone with some sort of knowledge in the domain or at least willing to offer suggestions and ideas. After all, two minds are better than one (usually). DIY retaining walls can turn out to be pretty fun projects.

  1. The planning. Start by creating a general plan. At this point you should have the final design or at least a good idea or how you want the wall to look like at the end. Now you can choose the location and locate all the utilities on the site and, if required, contact the companies before you start digging.
  2. The excavation. Once you’ve marked the location and checked everything else on the list, including the materials required for the steps to follow, you can start digging a trench. How deep, wide and long it should be is up to you to decide based on the type of retaining that you want to build.
  3. Checking the soil. After you’ve excavated the trench for the wall to follow, it’s important to check the soil. This will help you determine whether it has the required allowable bearing capacity specified in the design. Make modifications  to the design and reinforce the wall if necessary.
  4. Prepping the base. For this part you can use gravel or some other material. If you’re not sure about this, check with a professional or have a look at some tutorials that match the type of wall that you want to build.
  5. Placing the drain. Unless the wall is built to retain water, it needs to have proper drainage and you need to plan for that from the start.
  6. Setting the layers. This part may differ according to the materials and the type of wall you’ve chosen. This is when you should frame and set the wall or start to form layers using the bricks or blocks that you’ve selected.
  7. Finishing touches. Once everything is in place, you can fill the space behind the wall with soil and then finish the front or cover the top of the wall with moss for example.

Did you know?

Despite their reputation as utilitarian structures, retaining walls can also be used to create beautiful and diverse landscape designs. You can use them to create a terraced garden, to frame a yard or to add some dimension to a flat and boring site.

Retaining walls don’t have to be straight and linear. In fact, they can take any shape you want. It’s actually quite easy to build a curved retaining wall that follows the shape of a site or that simply looks more organic and in sync with nature and the surrounding landscape.

Larger walls need the help of an engineer. You might be able to plan and build a small retaining wall by yourself but as it grows in size it becomes a more difficult and challenging project. In addition, you may have to check with local building codes if the wall is more than 4 feet tall.

If you plan on building a terraced garden or if the site is sloped, you should start low and then gradually move up, adjusting the techniques and proportions as you go.

Manufactured blocks and stones are better if you want to obtain an even-looking base and a retaining wall with a consistent look and matching colors. On the other hand, if you’re aiming at a natural and organic look, imperfections are your best friend.

A retaining wall can also have a double function and serve as a bench that lines the gardenView in gallery
A retaining wall can also have a double function and serve as a bench that lines the garden
This is not only a practical design but also one that's aesthetically pleasing and sophisticated-lookingView in gallery
This is not only a practical design but also one that’s aesthetically pleasing and sophisticated-looking
The wall retains the soil behind it, creating a raised garden that frames the outdoor living areasView in gallery
The wall retains the soil behind it, creating a raised garden that frames the outdoor living areas
Use retaining walls to shape a sloped site and to turn it into a beautiful gardenView in gallery
Use retaining walls to shape a sloped site and to turn it into a beautiful garden
You can also use retaining walls to create layers and to organize a piece of land in a neat and elegant wayView in gallery
You can also use retaining walls to create layers and to organize a piece of land in a neat and elegant way
Not all retaining walls are the same. Their shape, size and structure can differ in a lot of waysView in gallery
Not all retaining walls are the same. Their shape, size and structure can differ in a lot of ways
The geometry of these retaining walls is very beautiful, especially when the contrasts come into playView in gallery
The geometry of these retaining walls is very beautiful, especially when the contrasts come into play
Some materials are definitely better than others when it comes to retaining walls so pick the one that best suits your requirementsView in gallery
Some materials are better than others when it comes to retaining walls so pick the one that best suits your requirements
Gabion walls can be used as retaining walls is certain cases and they too can be multifunctionalView in gallery
Gabion walls can be used as retaining walls is certain cases and they too can be multifunctional
Retaining walls can mark the boundaries around a property and can act as delineators View in gallery
Retaining walls can mark the boundaries around a property and can act as delineators
Natural stones and bounders make retaining walls look like they belong in the landscapeView in gallery
Natural stones and bounders make retaining walls look like they belong in the landscape
This more of a decorative design rather than a functional landscape structureView in gallery
This more of a decorative design rather than a functional landscape structure
Retaining walls are used here to create a sunken seating area around a fire pitView in gallery
Retaining walls are used here to create a sunken seating area around a fire pit
The walls double as benches and are built of stones, just like the fire pit at the centerView in gallery
The walls double as benches and are built of stones, just like the fire pit at the center
Use artificial bricks and blocks if you want the retaining walls to be neat and minimalist-lookingView in gallery
Use artificial bricks and blocks if you want the retaining walls to be neat and minimalist-looking
There are many different uses for retaining walls and often they blend looks and functionalityView in gallery
There are many different uses for retaining walls and often they blend looks and functionality
This is an adaptation of the concept, used to create raised planters out of cast concreteView in gallery
This is an adaptation of the concept, used to create raised planters out of cast concrete
This type of landscaping makes the most of steep slopes and adds a nice dynamic to the yardView in gallery
This type of landscaping makes the most of steep slopes and adds a nice dynamic to the yar
The materials which can be used for retaining walls range from wood to metal sheets and concrete View in gallery
The materials which can be used for retaining walls range from wood to metal sheets and concrete
You can be creative with your retaining walls and give any shape and form you wantView in gallery
You can be creative with your retaining walls and give any shape and form you want
The visual impact of this retaining wall is dramatic but at the same time artistic and obviously eye-cachingView in gallery
The visual impact of this retaining wall is dramatic but at the same time artistic and obviously eye-caching
Here's an interesting idea: using retaining walls to create a raised yard with sunken pathwaysView in gallery
Here’s an interesting idea: using retaining walls to create a raised yard with sunken pathways
We like the fluidity of the walls and the way they curve and complement the architecture of the houseView in gallery
We like the fluidity of the walls and the way they curve and complement the architecture of the house
Retaining walls can be paired with staircases for a beautiful design and a balanced visual effectView in gallery
Retaining walls can be paired with staircases for a beautiful design and a balanced visual effect
A retaining wall that's high enough also ensures privacy from neighboring properties View in gallery
A retaining wall that’s high enough also ensures privacy from neighboring properties
Retaining walls offer us a way to stay connected to nature while maintaining certain spatial boundariesView in gallery
Retaining walls offer us a way to stay connected to nature while maintaining certain spatial boundaries
This house uses retaining walls to delineate the parking area which is beneath ground levelView in gallery
This house uses retaining walls to delineate the parking area which is beneath ground level
Speaking of underground parking spaces, here's another very interesting exampleView in gallery
Speaking of underground parking spaces, here’s another very interesting example
Wood is not a great material for retaining walls due to its short lifespan and durabilityView in gallery
Wood is not a great material for retaining walls due to its short lifespan and durability
Retaining walls can be used to shape the land and even to transform a flat and boring surfaceView in gallery
Retaining walls can be used to shape the land and even to transform a flat and boring surface
The wall curves gently and forms and protective shell around the house for increased privacyView in gallery
The wall curves gently and forms and protective shell around the house for increased privacy
When slopes are as steep as this one, the result is even more impressive and extraordinaryView in gallery
When slopes are as steep as this one, the result is even more impressive and extraordinary
This looks like a design taken from fantasy novels and is in fact real and very impressiveView in gallery
This looks like a design taken from fantasy novels and is in fact real and very impressive
This amazing dream home is raised on a series of layers that look like suspended gardensView in gallery
This amazing dream home is raised on a series of layers that look like suspended gardens
The layers are giant steps which shape this small courtyard and give it a rather unusual and interesting lookView in gallery
The layers are giant steps which shape this small courtyard and give it a rather unusual and interesting look
This is a pretty impressive retaining wall system which curves to form organic lines View in gallery
This is a pretty impressive retaining wall system which curves to form organic lines
The contrast of colors, textures and materials is huge and the aesthetic appeal is mesmerizing View in gallery
The contrast of colors, textures and materials is huge and the aesthetic appeal is mesmerizing