Size is the first thing that you will have to consider, if you are thinking about building a retaining wall on your property. Constructing a 3 to 4 foot barrier as a landscaping feature is something that can be done by any ambitious do-it-yourselfer. However, larger projects that will require your barricade to withstand immense amounts of pressure will require the assistance of a masonry contractor – and, in some cases, an engineer.
Residential retaining walls are intended to hold back embankments of earth that are uneven with the planed surfaces of a yard or to prevent the erosion of steeply mounded masses of land that contain the foundations of homes built into hillsides or on top of plateaus. Essentially, these barricades are meant to provide support and protection between soil surfaces of differing elevations. Imagine standing in your backyard and facing a 10-foot wedge of soil that, without any support, could come crumbling down and destroy your property. Retaining walls were designed to prevent just such catastrophes.
The easiest retaining wall to build for motivated homeowners is the gravity wall. This style of barricade is no more than 3 to 4 feet high, and functions, as the name suggests, by the force of gravity pulling down on the mass of the stones, pavers or bricks that the wall is made of. Dry-stacked gravity barriers provide a level of flexibility that mortared designs do not. This means that the masonry units will give way to the natural expansion and contraction of the earth as it freezes and dries out with the weather. Shorter gravity retention barricades do not always require a dugout footing for reinforcement. However, a stable footing is always a good idea, if you want to create a wall that will endure the tests of time.
- Contact your local zoning committee and find out if you need any special permits to begin your project.
- Call your utility companies to find out if there are any buried power lines or pipes that you need to be aware of. Most companies will send a surveyor to your property to map out the underground power and water sources for free.
- Mark out the area where you will be constructing your barrier with stakes and string or a garden hose, and begin your excavation. You will want to dig your trench about 6 inches deep, and you will want it to be just a bit wider than the masonry materials that you will be using.
- Make sure that the soil in the trench is compacted. You do not want your stones or blocks sitting in a bed that will settle unevenly or cause the wall to shift as you build it higher.
- Be sure that as you are offsetting the seams of your pavers, bricks and stones as you begin to lay them. You do not want your materials to be stacked uniformly (one on top of the other like a tower), because they will be more prone to toppling.
- Using a level or your stakes and string, check the level of your foundation. Tamp down any uneven portions or add a bit more dirt wherever necessary.
- Backfill the base layer of masonry units with a bit of the excavated dirt and tamp it down to be sure that the footing is solid.
- Continue adding layers of stones, bricks and pavers, until the wall has reached the desired height.
Gravity retaining walls will always have a “batter setback,” or a slight leaning, because they are built to contour with the hillsides into which they are built.
More Sophisticated Designs
Cantilevered and anchored retaining wall designs are much more complicated and require the assistance of professional contractors and engineers. This is because these barricades are designed to hold back much larger masses of earth. Cantilevered designs are constructed by inserting a stem of reinforced concrete into the base of the hill or wedge of land that is going to be contained. Anchored designs are created by driving cables through a completed wall, deep into the mounds of earth that the structure will be retaining and then expanding the ends with mechanical holds or by injecting pressurized concrete to create anchors.
If you would like to learn more about how to build retaining walls, contact a local masonry contractor. They will be able to discuss your options and help you determine which type of retention barrier is right for you.