Retaining wall

Retaining wall

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 poured-in-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. Citation| last = Terzaghi| first = K.| author-link = Karl von Terzaghi| title = Large Retaining Wall Tests| publisher = Engineering News Record Feb. 1, March 8, April 19 | year = 1934]

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. [2006 International Building Code Section 1806.1.]

Types of retaining walls


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)cite web| title = Segmental Retaining Walls| publisher = National Concrete Masonry Association| url =| accessdate = 2008-03-24] . 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).Citation| last = Terzaghi| first = K.| author-link = Karl von Terzaghi| title = Theoretical Soil Mechanics| place = New York| publisher = John Wiley and Sons| year=1943]

heet piling

Sheet pile walls are often used in soft soils and tight spaces. Sheet pile walls are made out of steel, vinyl, fiberglass or plastic sheet piles or wood planks driven into the ground. Structural design methods for this type of wall exist but these methods are more complex than for a gravity wall. As a rule of thumb: 1/3 third above ground, 2/3 below ground. Taller sheet pile walls usually require a tie-back anchor, or "dead-man" placed in the soil some distance behind the wall face, that is tied to the wall face, usually by a cable or a rod. 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 mortared masonry (often in the shape of an inverted T). These walls cantilever loads (like a beam) 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.

oil nailing

Soil nailing is a technique in which soil slopes, excavations or retaining walls are reinforced by the insertion of relatively slender elements - normally steel reinforcing bars. The bars are usually installed into a pre-drilled hole and then grouted into place or drilled and grouted simultaneously. They are usually installed untensioned at a slight downward inclination. A rigid or flexible facing (often sprayed concrete) or isolated soil nail heads may be used at the surface.


A number of systems exist that do not simply consist of the wall itself, but reduce the earth pressure acting on the wall itself. These are usually used in combination with one of the other wall types, though some may only use it as facing (i.e. for visual purposes).

Gabion meshes

This type of soil strengthening, often also used without an outside wall, consists of wire mesh 'boxes' into which roughly cut stone or other material is filled. The mesh cages reduce some internal movement/forces, and also reduce erosive forces.

Mechanical stabilization

Mechanically stabilized earth, also called MSE, is soil constructed with artificial reinforcing via layered horizontal mats (geosynthetics) fixed at their ends. These mats provide added internal shear resistance beyond that of simple gravity wall structures. Other options include steel straps, also layered. This type of soil strengthening usually needs outer facing walls (S.R.W.'s - Segmental Retaining Walls) to affix the layers to and vice versa.

The wall face is often of precast concrete units that can tolerate some differential movement. The reinforced soil's mass, along with the facing, then acts as an improved gravity wall. The reinforced mass must be built large enough to retain the pressures from the soil behind it. Gravity walls usually must be a minimum of 50 to 60 percent as deep or thick as the height of the wall, and may have to be larger if there is a slope or surcharge on the wall.

ee also

mud box retaining wall built to keep out flood waters. Note the buildings on the right-hand side are half-submerged in this May 1973 Mississippi River, USA photo.]

*Civil engineering
*Trench shoring
*Trench shield
*Geotechnical engineering
*Structural engineering


*2002, Design Manual for Segmental Retaining Walls, National Concrete Masonry Association, Herndon, VA
*Joseph E. Bowles, 1968, Foundation Analysis and Design, McGraw-Hill Book Company, New York

External links

* [ Pictures of Gravity Walls]
* [ Information on the design of retaining walls]

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • retaining wall — retaining walls N COUNT A retaining wall is a wall that is built to prevent the earth behind it from moving …   English dictionary

  • retaining wall — ► NOUN ▪ a wall that holds back earth or water on one side of it …   English terms dictionary

  • retaining wall — n. a wall built to keep a bank of earth from sliding or water from flooding …   English World dictionary

  • retaining wall — a wall for holding in place a mass of earth or the like, as at the edge of a terrace or excavation. Also called breast wall. [1830 40] * * * or revetment Wall constructed to hold in place a mass of earth or prevent the erosion of an embankment.… …   Universalium

  • retaining wall — UK [rɪˈteɪnɪŋ ˌwɔːl] / US [rɪˈteɪnɪŋ ˌwɔl] noun [countable] Word forms retaining wall : singular retaining wall plural retaining walls a wall that is built to prevent earth or water from moving forwards …   English dictionary

  • Retaining wall — Retain Re*tain (r[ e]*t[=a]n ), v. t. [imp. & p. p. {Retained} (r[ e]*t[=a]nd ); p. pr. & vb. n. {Retaining}.] [F. retainir, L. retinere; pref. re re + tenere to hold, keep. See {Tenable}, and cf. {Rein} of a bridle, {Retention}, {Retinue}.] 1.… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • retaining wall — noun a wall that is built to resist lateral pressure (especially a wall built to prevent the advance of a mass of earth) • Hypernyms: ↑wall * * * noun, pl ⋯ walls [count] : a wall that is built to keep the land behind it from sliding …   Useful english dictionary

  • retaining wall — re taining .wall n a wall that is built to prevent land from slipping or moving …   Dictionary of contemporary English

  • retaining wall — re|tain|ing wall [ rı teınıŋ ,wɔl ] noun count TECHNICAL a wall built to prevent earth or water from moving forward …   Usage of the words and phrases in modern English

  • retaining wall — noun a wall that holds back earth or water on one side of it …   English new terms dictionary