Backyard Designs The retaining wall

The phrase “retaining wall” speaks to the utilitarian purpose of these structures, which hold back soil where there’s a steep change in elevation. But a professionally designed retaining wall can also be a beautiful feature in the landscape, and even serve double duty as part of other landscape elements, such as an outdoor fireplace or outdoor kitchen. Use this quick guide to retaining wall design to learn the basics.

Reclaim your backyard with a retaining wall

Retaining walls are problem solvers. They’re used to create level spaces for pools, patios and walkouts, which is particularly important in small yards where it can be difficult to find flat ground for the backyard activities you dream of. In larger yards, retaining walls are often used to terrace steep slopes that are vulnerable to erosion and to create sunken spaces that feel cozy and separate from other uses of the yard.

The importance of proper design

Proper design is critical to ensure a retaining wall can handle the tons of earth that will press up against it, as well as rainwater and groundwater. Retaining wall failure is usually gradual, and often results from improper drainage, a poorly constructed or damaged foundation, and a design that doesn’t consider loads, soil composition, and climate. If you add to or change the landscaping or building near a retaining wall, you may need to redesign the wall to handle additional loads or drainage changes.

Do you need a retaining wall?

Landscaping clients fall into two groups: those who are convinced they need a retaining wall (and maybe don’t need one) and those who haven’t even considered including one in their backyard design (and may require one).

What might seem like an insignificant grade change may require a retaining wall in a small yard, which can be a surprise to the homeowner. In fact, the smaller your yard, the more likely you’ll need a retaining wall. Larger yards, on the other hand, may not need a retaining wall if the slope can be properly graded and planted to reduce erosion.

How can a landscape architect help?

A landscape architect can help you determine whether a retaining wall is needed to achieve your landscape project goals. If it is, they’ll ensure it’s built properly—bringing in engineering expertise if needed—and fits with the overall design. If budget is a concern, a landscape architect can come up with creative cost-saving suggestions that won’t compromise the integrity of the wall.

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