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Retaining Walls Serve Many Purposes

Compiled by Larry Shield, regional editor

The Irish house on Emerald Point used retaining walls, freestanding walls and caps. The end result increased the patio area and created a seat wall all with the essence of natural rock.

The use of the retaining wall system has allowed landscape contractors to virtually build sites that were basically unbuildable in the past. It has allowed them to shape the landscape and to beautify hardscape projects in the commercial and residential markets. It also, gives landscape architects creative lines and options in which to design award winning projects!

Aesthetics to Traffic Projects

Keystone Retaining Wall Systems from CONTECH Construction Products Inc. have helped Landscape Architect design for soil retention, erosion control and landscape system performance. Available in a wide variety of decorative concrete sizes, shapes, face textures, and colors, these products help architects and developers create beautiful retaining walls for residential and commercial projects that fit specific engineering needs, especially for traffic projects. The systems also are used in shore protection. Typical applications for these segmented concrete block walls include ponds, creeks, lakes, rivers, sea walls or run-off channels.

The Essence of Natural Rock

Redi-Rock products have been specified by Landscape Architects nationwide. Two projects to note are the Irish residence and the Manthei residence, both of which are in scenic northern Michigan.

The Irish residence is located on East Bluff Drive, a beautiful drive overlooking Little Traverse Bay (Lake Michigan) in Harbor Springs, Mich. The Owners of the Irish residence were faced with a problem in their landscape design. Sheridan Jones, a local Harbor Springs Landscape Architect, was designing the site. Her goal was to use a retaining wall to reclaim some patio space on the edge of the bluff. MDC Contracting, a local dealer, was called in to access the situation. The solution was utilizing retaining walls, freestanding walls and caps. The end result increased the patio area and created a seat wall all with the essence of natural rock.

The Manthei Residence, is located on Nine Mile Point Drive, on the coast of Little Traverse Bay in Charlevoix, Mich. The home was constructed in the summer of 2004. The owners of the residence contracted with North Star Landscape and Design for Landscaping and landscape architecture. The challenge was that of a walkout basement with a driveway on top of the wall. In a matter of a couple hours, a non-reinforced wall was constructed with a drive way on top.

The height-to-depth ratios of the Standard Unit style Keystone Retaining Wall components pictured here deliver a structurally sound and quality engineered wall system with superior construction stability, durability and strength. Each component is 8 inches high and 18 inches wide, and can be either 18 or 21 and 1/2 inches deep. These components have an exposed face area of 8 x 18 inches, or 1 foot square, at a weight of 105 pounds each.

Built on a Slope

MBO Precast of Plymouth, Mass. provided Stone Strong Systems retaining wall blocks to create a buildable space on a small 6,931 square foot sloping lot located in an old established neighborhood on Malden Street in Quincy, Mass. The home owner's selection of this sloped lot and the possibility of building a 2,200 plus square foot house was almost unheard of. In working with local architects and contractor Lee Pasqualucci of American Excavation who's first thought of building on this lot was unthinkable discovered a modular retaining wall product. MBO Precast was instrumental in presenting the advantages and benefits of this product which was selected for this project.

The large scale retaining wall units were ideal to contain the slope and hold the load of the proposed two story home. The 10-foot tall wall was constructed in short order. It then became clearly evident that this home could actually fit on this lot. The home owner was extremely pleased with the architects choice of the split faced granite appearance of the blocks which blended into the region and neighborhood almost seamlessly.

Making the Unusable Usable

There's probably nothing more frustrating for a family that likes to garden and entertain than to have a nearly unusable yard. But that was the case with an Oakdale, Minn. family until Villa Landscapes' Andy Lofboom came along. Lofboom designed a stunning multilevel cooking and entertainment space tied together with tiered gardens. The project featured Versa-Lok retaining walls and Willow Creek concrete paving stones.

Lofboom started with a walkout basement into a back yard that was at the bottom of a significant slope that was starting to erode. At the top of the slope was a deck that came off an entryway on the first floor, but access between the two areas was difficult. The upper deck was torn out and replaced with a paver patio. Freestanding walls were installed to define the space, which also features a built-in barbecue and food preparation area.

To connect the upper patio with the backyard, a series of four stair landings were required. These were flanked on either side by tiered garden boxes and accented with columns. The stairs connect the upper entertainment area with another paver patio in the lower level of the yard, which also is bordered with freestanding walls and columns. A two-way, indoor-outdoor gas fireplace adds a touch of warmth on cool evenings. The entire project was constructed with Weathered Standard in a chestnut blend color and matching Willow Creek paving stones.

Lofboom won the Merit Award from the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association for his design and an Honorable Mention in the Residential Precast category of the 2004 Interlocking Concrete Pavement Institute Concrete Pavement Awards.

The series of tiered gardens where there once was an unusable slope is a constant source of enjoyment for the homeowners. The series of stair landings flanked by tiered gardens provides an attractive walkway between the upper and lower areas.


Since their introduction in the mid-1980's, segmental retaining wall systems (SRW) have made many advancements, acquiring wide variation across products and specialized uses.

SRW buyers now have at their disposal a wide selection of unit sizes, face types, colors and textures. In addition, a new generation of SRW has three finished faces, making possible freestanding walls and other above-grade landscaping accents. Retaining walls aren't just for holding back earth any more!

Add to the mix that they are often more cost competitive than comparable retention methods such as cast-in-place concrete walls, and SRWs emerge as a strong product for the future.

The parts of the HartmanEW system, made of low density polyethylene, include the base wall, the pipe adaptor, lid, and the one-foot sectional riser (clockwise). Able to withstand freezing temperatures to -40 degrees, the system has lots of strength for its light weight, and is resistant to ultra violet rays. The retaining walls system can go up as high as six feet for a gravity wall.

Design Capabilities

At 5.75 square feet of face on each block, Redi-Rock is one of the largest retaining wall blocks available today. These massive concrete blocks, averaging between 1,500 and 2,500 lbs., can achieve heights up to 75 percent higher than other retaining wall systems without using expensive geo-grid or tie back systems. The utilization of equipment for installing these massive blocks replaces the need for an army of manual labor. This fact reduces installation time and labor expense. Size is not the only advantage: the natural rock appearance, nearly indistinguishable from quarried stone, makes structural retaining walls (SRWs) a favorite among landscape architects, engineers and landscape contractors.

These large wet-cast retaining wall blocks are ideal for residential or commercial retaining walls, seawalls, golf courses and more. A versatile system allows for an innumerable number of combinations for which to design walls. Look for systems that have the capacity to build straight walls, curved walls, planter walls, and much more. In addition, SRWs offer limitless color applications, design capabilities and creative opportunities.

Vegetated Retaining Walls

In addition to economic and aesthetic advantages, Geoweb walls provide a superior system for earth retention structures located in an area noted for seismic concerns. Presto Products confinement systems provide flexible retention structures, capable of tolerating large deformation without loss of structural integrity or adversely affecting the aesthetics, especially with vegetated facing treatment.

The cellular confinement system provides a superb environment for natural vegetation. The exposed outer cells form horizontal terraces where vegetation can flourish and the open-celled system captures rainwater and controls groundwater evaporation, creating a more natural environment for vegetation. Vegetated earth retention systems can be designed to provide land forms that blend in with the natural landscape.

Still in the conceptual level, this rendering by Hefferlin + Kronenberg Architects, shows how the project designer was able to meet his goal of using a retaining wall to reclaim some patio space on the edge of the bluff.

A complex business

Soil Retention Systems has as its goal, the perfection of SRW systems, producing blocks that go into the system and installing the blocks to create grade-transitioning structures. This seemingly straight-forward business requires almost daily contacts with potential customers, landscape architects, civil engineers, soils engineers, wall designers, material suppliers, general contractors, grading contractors, landscape contractors, other site-development related subcontractors, operating engineers, labor crews, unions, special inspectors, soil technicians, plan checkers, building inspectors, developers, homeowners and other end users. Any and all of which make the business far from straight forward. Producing blocks and buying geosynthetics are among the easier tasks.

In this business, the material suppliers drive the SRW business; a young, isolated and small segment of the construction industry. At its current level of industry maturity, those driving the SRW business focus on square meters of wall facing and geosynthetics sold.

Often, the recommendations of the system provider conflict with those that appear in national peer reviewed articles and documents. Woefully lacking in this scenario is the offering of professionally engineered walls installed by experienced, can't-be-manipulated, professional landscape contractors under the care and control of SRW-familiar regulatory/inspection representatives. Simply stated; there is no broad competence in block and wall design. Neither is there comprehensive installation or broad design review/inspection competence. A SRW structure is as critical as a frame for a house and should be treated with the same level of respect and competence.

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June 18, 2019, 6:42 pm PDT

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