Walls can have a bad reputation. The Berlin Wall, the Great Wall of China, even Robert Frost wrote a poem condemning¬†walls. But these are all walls of a different kind. A retaining wall is not meant to keep others out, but rather to hold ground up. As “Building Codes Illustrated” described it, a retaining wall is a structure designed and constructed to resist the lateral pressure of soil when there is a desired change in ground elevation that exceeds the angle of repose of the soil. This is a fairly broad definition which means that retaining walls come in several different forms all with the basic function of holding back the ground. 

A gravity wall is a type of retaining wall that holds back the earth primarily using its own weight. A piling wall is fixed by soil on both sides of the bottom of a long pile. There are also cantilever walls which use a more intuitive design to support the earth and anchored walls which utilize cables and anchors to stabilize the wall itself. Of course there are more designs available, but these three methods are the most popular and well-tested forms of civil engineering that have been applied to retaining walls themselves.

These may seem like relatively simple techniques, but retaining walls have seen a marked evolution throughout their history. Masonry, humans’ ability to work with brick or stone, has been around for quite some time, and it seems as though it is a pretty straightforward field. Actually though, new techniques, methods, and technologies develop in the field of masonry just like any other industry. The retaining wall is one such example of this ever-changing field. The retaining wall as it is known today was completely unheard of in the late 60’s, but again, the masonry field is ever-changing and an early version of the retaining wall was developed and patented. At first, it was referred to by the “inventor” of the modern retaining wall Angelo Risi as Pisa Stone. It was named after the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy because of the way that the bricks supported each other by leaning into one another and supporting the ground around them using that support. Risi was able to obtain a patent on this in the 1960’s. By the mid-80’s the concept was licensed and in full use, mostly in Canada and the United States. Of course by that point, and even into the present time, the original concept had changed and morphed, adapting to each individual circumstance where a retaining wall could be needed. Now a days, walls can be built taller, wider, and with more artistic creativity than ever before, and just like the retaining wall went through an evolution since its conception, new ways to do the walls job are being researched now. Methods such as soil nailing, soil-strengthening, gabion meshes, and mechanical stabilization are beginning to see more popularity as the world moves further into the 21st century. As of now though, the retaining wall is still the tried and true method of soil retention.

What makes the retaining wall special in comparison to some of the newer methods used for soil retention is its versatility, the fact that it can be used strictly for function or it can be an aesthetic piece just as much as a practical one. For example, they can add a serene-looking effect to a private garden, or can be a very basic piece simply used to hold background. They can be curvy or straight, or made out of a variety of materials such as any number of types of brick or stone, or even something as basic as concrete or cinder block.

Retaining walls, in their many different verities, are important in that the stabilize ground that would otherwise move downward. Essentially, this provides an opportunity to use different areas of elevation for different purposes, agricultural terracing for example. Mainly when it comes to retaining walls in residential areas, they provide support for spaces such as gardens, allowing them to be stabilized if the land is on a slope.

In addition to all of the practical and aesthetic features that come with a modern retaining wall, it is also the best choice environmentally speaking. Sometimes environmental conditions, even in residential areas, can be hazardous to a homeowner’s investment. A retaining wall is a great idea to prevent any sort of unstable soil from causing a mini-landslide. In fact, some cities, Seattle for example, simply couldn’t exist without retaining walls due to certain environmental factors. That ranks Seattle as the best U.S. city for retaining walls, but they are would not be out of place literally anywhere. In the same ranking, the next cities that were rated as being best for retaining walls are Cincinnati, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C. This wide geographic distribution proves that a retaining wall is at home in any part of the United States be it the Midwest or the West Coast.

A retaining wall is the best choice for any time that soil needs to be held up, and gravity wants to pull it down. Although it was a testament to innovation about 30 years ago, it is now a staple in civil engineering, especially in the home and while there are newly developed methods seeking to replace the retaining wall, none of them can match the all around effect that a nice retaining wall can have on a home. New methods may be able to strengthen the soil underneath the ground, but that does not take into account the fact that sometimes a physical wall can just be a pleasure to look at. Almost nothing adds just a little bit of class while performing an essential function quite like a retaining wall.