My Retaining Wall Failed! Now What?


Retaining walls in residential landscapes are specifically designed hardscape structures intended to retain soil with a multitude of applicable material choices. Usually, it’s a solution for elevation changes in an outdoor space and creates more usable space in the landscape. But what happens if a retaining wall fails?

Common Causes of Failed Retaining Walls

Identifying the cause of your retaining wall’s failure is a key first step. Usually, you can trace it back to one of four issues:

    • Poor workmanship. When the primary goal is saving money, you may be tempted to work with the contractor or company who offers you the best price. But working with someone who doesn’t have direct retaining wall experience is risky. Poor workmanship tends to reveal itself early, and you may be stuck back at square one with a complete rebuild if you took the path of least expense in the first place.
    • Insufficient drainage. A build-up of water behind a retaining wall is guaranteed to cause problems in the future. Whether those issues present themselves as cracks or bulges, or the entire wall collapses is the only question.  Saturation in the soil that creates pressure, straining walls beyond their capacity. Bottom line, proper drainage needs to be considered in the original retaining wall design.
    • Inferior foundation. Just like a home is only as solid as its foundation, so too is a retaining wall. That means quality materials and appropriate foundation prep.
    • Unanticipated load. The engineering and construction of a retaining wall must account for its specific intended purpose. Is this wall merely holding back soil, or is holding back soil to create a new space that will be used for more than aesthetics? Make sure to explain to your contractors the intended use of the space for which the retaining wall is being built. Otherwise, they won’t factor for additional weight, which means failure isn’t far off.

Failed Retaining Wall — Repair or Replace?

Once you’ve identified the culprit, you can determine the best way to address it. In some cases, repairs will do the trick. But most of the time, the best solution involves rebuilding the retain wall. While drainage issues may able to be fixed after the fact, foundation issues will clearly require a rebuild. Otherwise, you’re only address a symptom of the problem, and not the problem itself.

As you consider your options, be clear about what any contractor should be bringing up in your discussions. First, they should be asking about your plans for the wall and the space it’s creating to avoid unanticipated weight issues down the road. Proper excavation and grading should also be discussed. Keep in mind that pricing isn’t always an indication of quality, but the cheapest price around may tell you something about a particular company—and it’s not necessarily good. If you’re getting a few quotes and one is noticeably lower than the rest, see where those savings are coming from. If it’s from inferior products or skipped steps, it’s probably best to keep shopping.

In Reno and Sparks, Harris Landscape Construction has the licenses, experience, and team to engineer, design, and install your retaining wall the right way. Contact us today for a free estimate.


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