A retaining wall is a structure that holds back soil or rock from a building, structure or area. Retaining walls prevent down slope 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.
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.
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). 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).
Sheet pile walls are usually used in soft soils and tight spaces. Sheet pile walls are made out of steel, vinyl or wood planks which are driven into the ground. For a quick estimate the material is usually driven 1/3 above ground, 2/3 below ground, but this may be altered depending on the environment. Taller sheet pile walls will need a tie-back anchor, or “dead-man” placed in the soil a distance behind the face of the wall, that is tied to the wall, usually by a cable or a rod. Anchors are placed behind the potential failure plane in the soil.
It is very important to have proper drainage behind the wall as it is critical to the performance of retaining walls. Drainage materials will reduce or eliminate the hydrostatic pressure and will therefore greatly improve the stability of the 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.
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).
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.
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.