The Importance of Understanding Retaining Wall Construction


We’ve all seen beautiful stone walls dotting the landscape throughout the greater San Francisco Bay area. These retaining walls add an element of luxury and beauty to the scene, but they also serve an essential function in supporting the land behind them and providing safety to their owners.

Let’s take a look at the function a retaining wall plays, how it’s constructed, and the safety it can provide to you, your family, and your home.


So what does a retaining wall do? Actually, they have a wide variety of functions in a landscape. Still, predominantly, their purpose is to keep the earth from spilling off of a steep slope or eroding during heavy rain.

They are used functionally around the home to create sunken patios, walkout basements, or any other hardscape where you need to account for different ground elevations. Retaining walls can also be found in parks and public gardens where they function as retainers for plants, and decorative landscaping elements like statues or fountains.

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While retaining walls are primarily used to hold back soil, they can also be engineered to create tiered gardens on a sloped area of your yard. They also work to control erosion or creating large flat expanses that can be used for pools, patios, and other outdoor entertaining areas.


When constructing a retaining wall, a hardscape contractor considers factors like support, foundation, drainage, and backfill.


When constructing a retaining wall, landscapers will often slope them slightly toward the earth they are to contain. This design is called “step-back” construction, and it creates a sturdy wall that “pushes back” against the pressure of the soil behind it.

Some types of retaining walls require additional structural support. These include vertical walls that do not slope toward the dirt behind them, as well as most walls over three feet in height. Depending on the height of the wall and the pressure behind it, extra support may be needed. It can be buried footings, steel rebar, cantilevered design, or tie-backs extending deep behind the wall and connecting to buried anchors called “dead men.” Another technique is to create a “gravity wall,” which is so wide that it holds back the soil behind it. This is not an ordinary wall type, however, because it requires a large amount of material for construction.


A trench filled with compacted gravel is typically is used as the foundation base for a short step back retaining wall with 3 to 5 courses, or layers of blocks. For a larger wall, a buried structural footing is required. To create a buried structural footing, the contractor pours concrete below the frost level. A foundation that is poured too shallow can shift or move if the moisture in the soil freezes and heaves. Frost levels vary regionally, so your local building department is an excellent place to start your research before beginning your project.


Stackable retaining block walls that are backfilled with sand or gravel typically do not have drainage issues as the water seeps through the full and drains between the individual blocks. However, if you have a substantial retaining, you must make provisions to allow drainage, or the water will collect behind the wall and cause cracking. Many landscape contractors choose to install drainage tile, which carries the groundwater to outlets where it can drain away.


The space directly behind the wall should be filled with gravel or sand, not soil. Soil absorbs water and swells when saturated, putting increased pressure on the back of the wall. Gravel and sand do not retain water, so the wall is subject to less stress, and this decreases the risks of cracks, damage, or failure.


When properly constructed, a brick, stone, or concrete retaining wall can provide the maximum protection for your home and family. It’s a great way to support the land, engineer additional usable yard space, and add an elegant visual focal point, and aesthetic beauty to your home.

To make the most of your retaining wall, it must be properly engineered, have a solid foundation, and be constructed of materials that will last over the long-term. When designing your wall, examine your existing landscape and hardscaping. Choose a material that is not only functional but will compliment and work well with other hardscaping and landscaping surrounding your new wall.

At Bayside Pavers, our team of professionals can offer you custom paving solutions for a wide range of hardscaping projects, including retaining walls. Since 2009 we’ve built a solid reputation for providing the highest quality craftsmanship by using only top quality materials and completing projects on time and on budget! We offer a 5-year warranty on all of our work.

If you live in the greater San Francisco Bay area, give the experts at Bayside Paving a call at 1-(866) 287-2837. Our knowledgeable team members are ready to answer your questions and help you create the outdoor living space you’ve been dreaming about!

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East Bay and South Bay homeowners visit our location in Concord, CA, at 2455 Bates Ave, Ste K.

Our Santa Rosa, CA location at 1619 4th Street, Ste 12 can help you with your North Bay hardscaping projects.


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