The Different Types of Retaining Walls

Short front yard retaining wall

Retaining walls help in so many ways. Functionally, they hold soil and mulch in place, helping to prevent erosion and damage to surrounding property. You can also use them to create more flat, usable spaces for gardens, outdoor living spaces, and more.

One of the first things you will notice about retaining walls is that they come in different styles.

The various types of retaining walls all serve the same purposes. However, specific types may be better in certain applications, such as if you need really tall retaining walls. The different types of retaining walls include the following.

Cantilever Retaining Wall

Drawing of a cantilever wall

These reinforced walls rely on leverage to withstand the soil’s lateral pressure. Cantilevered retaining walls feature large slabs of concrete with steel reinforcement. Contractors either precast them at the factory or form them on site.

These walls have a T or L shape, showing a base slab and a slender stem. The heel digs into the soil held back by the wall while the toe points out in the other direction. Due to the unique design of these walls, they can transfer the horizontal pressure on the wall to the ground as vertical pressure. The wide footer in cantilever walls prevents tipping, so the footer must be wide enough.

High-quality cantilever walls will hold back a lot of soil. The single-layer walls are one of the taller types of retaining walls.

*A cantilever retaining wall is not a DIY construction. The design and installation are jobs for qualified structural engineers.

Gravity Retaining Wall

Drawing of a gravity wall

A gravity retaining wall resists the lateral pressure from the soil using its weight. The walls often consist of bricks, stone, and concrete. They are the thickest retaining walls, making them a good option for high-pressure applications.

Gravity retaining walls tilt slightly back into the soil, giving them more stability and support. Contractors push the wall toward the retained soil using a process known as battering. The process increases the longevity of the wall.

The walls are generally around three to four feet in height. The contractors stack the wall materials together tightly to create a force of friction greater than that from the soil.

The walls are thicker at the base compared to the top. Quality gravity retaining walls require several building materials, which drives up their total cost.

Anchored Retaining Wall

Drawing of an anchored retaining wall

Anchored retaining walls can match other styles described here. However, the main distinguishing factor is the extra tie-back in the soil held back on the other side of the wall. 

During construction, the anchor goes inside the wall before mechanical expansion. Alternatively, the contractor can inject pressurized concrete into the soil. When settled, the concrete will form a bulb that acts as an anchor.

This technically complex wall option is useful in places where the wall has to carry a heavy load.

Sheet Piling Walls

Drawing of piling wall

A sheet piling retaining wall works best in closed spaces and soft soil. The walls consist of wood planks, vinyl, or steel.

Contractors drive the materials a third above and two-thirds below the ground. The exact dimensions will differ from one environment to the other. During the installation, cables or rods serve as tie-back wall anchors.

However, hydrostatic pressure makes these walls unstable, so you should ensure your walls have proper drainage if you go with this option. 

Rock Retaining Wall

Short rock retaining wall

As the name implies, rock retaining walls feature selected rocks. You must stack the rocks together as tightly as possible, plugging the remaining gaps with some of the soil. The pieces you choose during the construction should also match your landscape for the best appearance.

Rock retaining walls are best for growing plants around the wall. The spreading roots will make the soil more compact, preventing erosion.

Concrete Retaining Wall

These walls are tall, but the soil below them is heavier and deeper, making them more resilient and solid. Its higher base depth helps to give the soil a strong foundation.

Quality concrete retaining wall constructions will not bowl, tilt, or crack. There’s also no risk of climate-related degradation if the concrete piles feature the right material mix.

Counterfort Retaining Walls

Drawing of counterfort wall

A counterfort retaining wall is not very different from a cantilever wall. The only difference is that they have thin, perpendicular concrete webs along the wall’s backside. The webs are the counterforts—hence the name.

The counterforts join the base and slab. The primary purpose is to minimize the force of the soil on the wall. However, they also increase the wall’s weight due to the additional concrete. 

Contractors build counterfort retaining walls on-site or install precast walls. They are a better choice economically compared to cantilever walls if you need retaining walls higher than 25 feet.

Buttressed Retaining Walls

A buttressed retaining wall is a modified version of the counterfort option. These contain counterforts on the opposite side of the backfill. However, they are not a good option in tight spaces as the buttresses reduce the clearance in front of the wall.

Semi-Gravity Retaining Walls

Semi-gravity retaining walls are a special variant of gravity walls. They feature tension-reinforcing steel to keep the walls thin but strong. These walls are a hybrid of the cantilever and gravity wall designs.

However, there is no real benefit to choosing this wall type instead of an adequately sized gravity retaining wall.

Find the Right Types of Retaining Walls for You

Are you considering installing a retaining wall? Do you want to change the existing retaining wall in your landscape? CPL Concrete Design can help. We’ll provide guidance on the right option to go with.

We’ll analyze the unique characteristics of your landscaping, paying attention to details like the soil type and the amount of weight you intend to put on the wall. Then, we will get back together with you, share our findings, and figure out where to go from there.

Fill out our contact form today to discuss which of the types of retaining walls you want and which best fits your needs. You’ll have a better-looking, more secure landscape in no time!