Types of Retaining Walls
A retaining wall can be a great way to add both style and function to your yard. Having leveled portions on a property can help create more usable space while also increasing curb appeal. Retaining walls come in many different flavors, all of which have their own pros, cons, and unique features. In a previous blog, we walked you through how to build a retaining wall. That post focused primarily on rock and block walls which, along with poured-in concrete walls, are overarching categories that we might use to describe other retaining walls.
Rockery walls are made by stacking boulders and rocks on top of each other. Every rock is typically a different shape and size, so a rockery wall is perfect if your goal is to retain a more natural aesthetic for your residential or commercial project.
Concrete block walls are constructed from individual blocks. These blocks are consistent in their shape and size, giving you a wall that has a clean, uniform look. Concrete block walls work great for just about any residential or commercial property.
Poured-in concrete walls are best suited for commercial applications. Rather than being made from individual pieces, concrete is poured to create one single unit that functions as your wall. Having a single unified structure makes poured-in concrete walls much stronger than other walls, and they can withstand much more soil pressure. These walls are best suited for commercial applications, but there are things you can do to make them work for residential property (more on that later).
Within these three main categories, there are several sub-types of retaining walls. We assembled this guide with the hope that it will help you make an informed decision on the type of wall that will best meet the needs of your property.
If you think one of these retaining walls might be right for your home, feel free to contact us for a quote!
Table of Contents:
- Does not require mortar
- Relatively cost-effective
- Good for DIY projects
- Lengthy building process (compared to other types of rock walls)
- Only good for walls that are 4 feet or less in height
Dry-stack rock walls are unique in that they are built without the use of mortar, which typically serves as the “glue” that keeps your retaining wall materials together. As such, a dry-stack wall is ideal for residential walls that are 3 feet or less in height (perfect for DIY projects). The absence of mortar makes dry-stack walls cheaper than other types of retaining walls. However, this also means you must be highly selective and careful when placing your stone, lengthening the building process. A dry-stack rock wall can be somewhat more uniform than a standard rockery wall. However, you can still expect slight variances in the look of each stone.
Stone & Mortar
- Mortar adds increased strength
- Heavier than other dry-stack walls
As the name suggests, this type of retaining wall uses mortar to hold together the stone material. This addition makes stone & mortar walls heavier than dry-stack walls. The added weight results in a wall that is stronger and has better soil resistance than a dry-stack wall. However, the weight also means that your local building codes may contain specifications that dictate the size and scope of a stone & mortar wall. A stone & mortar wall provides a timeless, casual aesthetic that is perfect for older homes.
Average Price: High
- Superior strength over other rock walls
- Looks less natural than other rock walls
A gabion wall consists of small rocks stacked on top of each other inside of a wireframe cage (which are referred to as gabion baskets). The wireframe cage gives off an industrial feel, taking away from the all-natural look that other types of rock walls provide. There are two types of wireframes that can be used: a welded frame or a twist-on frame.
A welded frame is a pre-welded wire cage with specific dimensions. On the flip side, a twist-on frame is made up of a flexible material that can be bent and twisted into the desired shape. The wire holding the rocks together makes gabion walls much stronger than other types of rock walls. Apart from soil retention, you may see gabion walls being used for preventing landslides on roadways and for flood protection alongside riverbanks.
Average price: Low
- Suitable for any sized project
- Lighter in weight than other block walls
- Great for creating curves
- Installation is more laborious compared to other materials
Cornerstone is a great material for any size project. If you plan to have walls of various heights around your property but want to maintain a consistent look, cornerstone may be a great option. In addition to the standard rectangular shape, cornerstone blocks also come in a hexagonal variety for use on walls that utilize curves. The blocks also boast removable wedges, meaning those curves can be as gradual or as sharp as needed. Additionally, their hollow center makes cornerstone lighter than other types of block walls.
Average price: Low
- Cheap & readily available
- Good for DIY projects
- Not ideal for walls with a fence placed directly on top of the wall
Manorstone is larger in size than cornerstone, but still manages to be lightweight. This type of retaining wall provides uniformity while still achieving a natural look. Additionally, manorstone tends to be the cheapest block wall material and is readily available in most regions. Unlike cornerstone, which can be used for walls of any size, manorstone is best used for walls that are 4 feet or less in height. This makes it perfect for DIY projects!
Average price: Medium
- Good for commercial projects
- Extremely heavy
- Not good for residential retaining walls
Most types of block walls can have residential and commercial applications, but ecology blocks are the exception. These blocks are typically reserved for larger commercial and industrial retaining walls, like the walls you might see on the side of a major highway. Each block weighs about 4,400 lbs, and that much weight is not ideal for a residential project. When that much pressure is put on a small slope, you run the risk of having the wall fail and slide. When the goal of a wall is retention, the use of these blocks can be quite counter-intuitive.
Stamped Concrete Wall
- Superior strength and stability
- Still able to achieve a natural aesthetic
- Difficult to repair/replace
While a poured-in concrete wall provides greater strength and stability over other types of walls, the flat and industrial look might not be what you are looking for. With a stamped concrete wall, a mold is pressed against the top layer of the wet cement. This mold enables you to imprint the design and color of your choice onto the wall. As a result, you can achieve something that looks like either a rockery or block retaining wall but has the retention strength of a concrete wall. The downside to any concrete wall is that because the wall is one unit rather than the culmination of many blocks/rocks, repairs can be extremely difficult and costly.
Average price: High
- Good for commercial and residential projects
- Multiple applications (outside of retaining walls)
- Longer installation process compared to other wall designs. Additional veneer is only for aesthetics and does not provide much functionality
Stone veneer isn’t exactly a type of retaining wall, but rather an outside layer that can be placed on the outside of a poured-in concrete wall. The veneer itself is purely there to provide an extra aesthetic touch to your wall, adding a premium look to your end product. Stone veneer material can be either artificial or natural. Artificial stone veneer is made from a mixture of cement, aggregate, and iron oxide. Natural stone veneer is made from thin slices of stone that would typically be used for dry-stack rock walls. Other than retaining walls, you can use this material for stone veneer siding, fireplace mantles, and just about any commercial or residential hardscaping project! Stone veneer is far more expensive than other retaining wall materials, but it is maintenance-free and long-lasting.
As you can probably tell, retaining walls come in all sorts of varieties. Deciding what type of wall is right for your property can be a daunting task but understanding what each wall has to offer can help point you in the right direction.
If you know what kind of retaining wall you want for your property and want help with the planning, designing, and building, feel free to contact us for a quote! We are also happy to answer any questions you might have.
If you want to try your hand at DIYing a rockery or block wall, check out our last blog: How to Build a Retaining Wall.
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