Retaining Walls

Today’s design ideas show there are ‘no barriers’ to creative opportunities Retaining walls stabilize a slope and protect planted areas from erosion, but they can be used to do much more. Walls can create pathways, group plants and gardens, add depth and texture to completely change the shape and feel of an environment, even create outdoor "rooms." Your landscape architect can help you use walls to create aesthetic themes and spaces. You can choose from many types of retaining walls, including poured concrete, conventional stacked blocks, and stackable decorative blocks that need no mortar. Manufactured blocks and glass/concrete façade elements are now available in a growing array of colors and textures made to resemble just about anything, from wood to stacked slate.


A retaining wall is a structure that holds back soil or rock from a building, structure or area. Retaining walls prevent downslope movement or erosion and provide support for vertical or near-vertical grade changes. Cofferdams and bulkheads, structures that hold back water, are sometimes also considered retaining walls. Retaining walls are generally made of masonry, stone, brick, concrete, vinyl, steel or timber. Once popular as an inexpensive retaining material, railroad ties have fallen out of favor due to environmental concerns.Segmental retaining walls have gained favor over pouredin-place concrete walls or treated-timber walls. They are more economical, easier to install and more environmentally sound. The most important consideration in proper design and installation of retaining walls is that the retained material is attempting to move forward and downslope due to gravity. This creates lateral earth pressure behind the wall which depends on the angle of internal friction (phi) and the cohesive strength (c) of the retained material, as well as the direction and magnitude of movement the retaining structure undergoes. Lateral earth pressures are typically smallest at the top of the wall and increase toward the bottom. Earth pressures will push the wall forward or overturn it if not properly addressed. Also, any groundwater behind the wall that is not dissipated by a drainage system causes an additional horizontal hydrostatic pressure on the wall.

As an example, the International Building Code requires retaining walls to be designed to ensure stability against overturning, sliding, excessive foundation pressure and water uplift; and that they be designed for a safety factor of 1.5 against lateral sliding and overturning.

Types of retaining walls
There have a several type of retaining walls that existing in difference shape and and with the difference method of installition. There have various type of retaining walls that functional according to the type of soil or erosion.     Gravity wall Piling wall Cantilever wall Anchored wall

Carefully consider the location of retaining walls. The location of a wall can affect the wall quantity significantly.

Gravity wall
Gravity walls depend on the weight of their mass (stone, concrete or other heavy material) to resist pressures from behind and will often have a slight 'batter' setback, to improve stability by leaning back into the retained soil. For short landscaping walls, they are often made from mortarless stone or segmental concrete units (masonry units). Dry-stacked gravity walls are somewhat flexible and do not require a rigid footing in frost areas. Earlier in the 20th century, taller retaining walls were often gravity walls made from large masses of concrete or stone. Today, taller retaining walls are increasingly built as composite gravity walls such as: geosynthetic or with precast facing; gabions (stacked steel wire baskets filled with rocks); crib walls (cells built up log cabin style from precast concrete or timber and filled with soil); or soil-nailed walls (soil reinforced in place with steel and concrete rods).

Sheet piling
Sheet pile walls are often used in soft soils and tight spaces. Sheet pile walls are made out of steel, fiberglass or plastic sheet piles or wood planks driven into the ground. Taller sheet pile walls usually require a tie-back anchor.Anchors must be placed behind the potential failure plane in the soil.Proper drainage behind the wall is critical to the performance of retaining walls. Drainage materials will reduce or eliminate the hydrostatic pressure and increase the stability of the fill material behind the wall, assuming that this is not a retaining wall for water.

Prior to the introduction of modern reinforced-soil gravity walls, cantilevered walls were the most common type of taller retaining wall. Cantilevered walls are made from a relatively thin stem of steel-reinforced, cast-in-place concrete or else. These walls cantilever loads to a large, structural footing, converting horizontal pressures from behind the wall to vertical pressures on the ground below. Sometimes cantilevered walls are butressed on the front, or include a counterfort on the back, to improve their stability against high loads. Buttresses are short wing walls at right angles to the main trend of the wall. These walls require rigid concrete footings below seasonal frost depth. This type of wall uses much less material than a traditional gravity wall.

This version of wall uses cables or other stays anchored in the rock or soil behind it. Usually driven into the material with boring, anchors are then expanded at the end of the cable, either by mechanical means or often by injecting pressurized concrete, which expands to form a bulb in the soil. Technically complex, this method is very useful where high loads are expected, or where the wall itself has to be slender and would otherwise be too weak.

Retaining Wall Design Considerations
Embankment Side Slopes Consider a typical grade separation where inadequate right of way requires retaining walls to be placed along the approach embankment. In these situations, the walls can be placed at the edge of the upper roadway with the top of wall coincident with the top of the embankment or at some distance from the edge of pavement with the slope extending from the edge of pavement to the top of wall. Placing the wall coincident with the edge of pavement requires an expensive concrete rail on top of the wall and eliminates any possibility for a future widening of the upper roadway; however, it improves the long-term serviceability of the wall.  Depressed Sections – In depressed sections, consider additional width for the lower roadway to allow for future lane additions. Once retaining walls are in place, they cannot be moved to accommodate future width requirements.  Structures behind Walls –

Consider the proximity of a retaining wall to structures behind the wall. MSE walls are usually placed at least 1-3 ft. in front of foundation to allow space for attachment of the reinforcements to the facing panels and skewing of the reinforcements.  Stability Unlike foundation failures, which can occur slowly over a period of years, retaining walls can fail rapidly in stability with catastrophic results. The failure of retaining walls can close a transportation facility just as quickly as a bridge failure. As a result, thoroughly investigate retaining wall stability. Stability analysis should be conducted for both shortand long-term conditions.  Design Procedures The design of retaining walls requires a thorough knowledge of structural and geotechnical engineering. This does not mean that one person has to design every aspect of a retaining wall. Design loads and allowable pressures recommended by a geotechnical engineer are often later used by a structural engineer to design the wall. The following design procedures convey general methods and do not address every design situation.  Earth Pressure Distribution – Determine the pressure applied by soil on a retaining structure by different methods depending upon the wall type. The soil behind walls, which are free to deflect or move in response to the applied loads, is considered to achieve the active state. For this condition, calculate the earth pressure based on Rankine’s or Coulomb’s methods. The pressure distribution is triangular in shape with the maximum pressure occurring at the bottom of the wall.  Internal Analysis – Internal analysis refers to the design of the wall structure to resist the stresses induced by the earth pressure applied to the wall. This aspect of design comprises mostly structural engineering. The various elements of the wall must be designed to carry the stresses generated so that an adequate factor of safety is attained.

Mechanically Stabilized Earth (MSE) Walls.

The internal design of MSE walls involves checking the earth reinforcements for allowable stresses and anchorage into the mass of select fill behind the face. Make allowances for metal section loss on the reinforcements when computing tensile stresses. Alter the reinforcement density and size to attain proper stresses and anchorage. The overall dimension of the reinforced mass is governed by external stability. External Analysis

The external analysis of walls examines whether walls stay where built. A number of failures of walls and embankments prove that external stability is just as important as internal design. External stability is routinely evaluated for fill-type walls. Cut-type walls are not routinely checked for external stability due to the different approaches to their design. However, if exceptionally soft soil is present, check the various aspects of external stability for cut-type walls. As always, sound engineering judgment should prevail.