How do you build a natural stone retaining wall?

Stone retaining wall

Separating areas of your property

Stone walls have been around for 5,000 years or more, some say since 3700 BC. They were the way landowners fenced off their property.  Today, a stone retaining wall in front of house may be for keeping the landscaping in place or keeping a house from sliding off into a valley. A stone retaining wall may be for just decorative landscaping. 

There are many stone retaining walls from those early years that still stand today. Then there are only remains and remnants of stone retaining walls that have been constructed in the past 100 years. What did they do back in 3700 BC differently than we have done in the past century to not experience stone retaining wall failure? 

Why do retaining walls fail?

The term ‘retaining wall failure’ in general does refer to a collapse and total failure of a stone retaining wall. Rather, this is the description of indicators and sign that failure is possible if the proper actions aren’t taken to save the wall. There are situations where a stone retaining wall may overturn, slide, or topple into a total collapse and cannot be recovered and repaired. However, the term retaining stone wall failure cannot be assumed as such, as inspection may deem that it is repairable. 

So, what can cause a stone retaining wall to fail? Some common causes found for a  retaining stone wall to fail: 

  • Reinforcement placement incorrect
  • Backfill saturated
  • Clogged weep holes, shoddy construction
  • Error in calculation, details, and design
  • Heavy loads unanticipated, i.e. inadequate specifications and notes 
  • Software mistakes
  • Foundation issues
  • Stone retaining wall age

How long do stone retaining walls last?

When you think about stone retaining walls, think about The Great Wall of China, part of that wall are more than 500 years old and is said to be over 13,000 miles long.  So, the average residential stone retaining wall can have a lifespan up to 100 years, depending upon a few conditions.  

Proper Design: There are six basic components of a stone retaining wall: 

  • Drainage
  • Filter 
  • Batter
  • Weep hole
  • Footing

The design of these components should be constructed so they work together with the conditions of the site.  For instance, if the batter or the backward lean isn’t sufficient for the height, the stone retaining wall will not last long. The calculations in the design have a big impact.

  • Durable materials: The materials used to construct a retaining wall will have an influence on longevity, which is why between a wood retaining wall versus a stone retaining wall, the stone has a longer lifespan than wood. 
  • Maintenance: A stone retaining wall is low-maintenance overall, but some upkeep will ensure a long lifespan. Regular inspections that the groundwater is draining from the footing drain and the weep holes are not clogged. Regardless how well a stone retaining wall is constructed, there are some factors that can compromise the construction like environmental conditions like seismic activity, soil erosion, or weather events. 

Do I need drainage behind retaining wall?

Yes, because a stone retaining wall will be impervious and water will not be able to pass through the wall, it is crucial to have efficient drainage. When drainage isn’t addressed and included in the construction,  hydrostatic pressure builds up behind the wall, then bulging or cracking will begin, damaging the stone retaining wall.

How high can you build a stone retaining wall?

A stone retaining wall uses its own weight to keep the soil on the back side. The wall will lean back into the soil and with interlocking edges, the mass resists the pressure from behind. A gravity walls are typically four to ten feet with no reinforcement. A building permit is required by most municipalities for a stone retaining wall over four feet. 

flowers on retaining wall

What is the easiest retaining wall to build?

An experienced amateur DIY homeowner should be capable of completing a more complex stone retaining wall installation or using other various materials, even building one retaining wall with steps, and sitting areas.  However, for a first time DIY job with an average do-it-yourself attempt, using masonry blocks stacked three feet high and without using any mortar to mind the stones is the simplest of all retaining walls.

When a retaining wall is necessary, for example, keeping your yard in your property line and not sliding over into your neighbor’s yard, a stone retaining wall is ideal.  It will have a longer lifespan and blend with the aesthetics of the architecture. 

A stone retaining wall can have flowers and plants added to it with a layered installation of the stones, using cylinder blocks sporadically to give the wall more appeal and color. The internet is plentiful with videos on designing and building a stone retaining wall of different heights and lengths, that will serve the purpose intended as well as complement your landscaping. Call 817-948-4503 today!