Retaining Walls are 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. A basement wall is thus one kind of retaining wall.
Shawn Chesney Home Inspections recommends when and if possible, Retaining Walls and all their components including weep holes and related drains should be assessed following a heavy rain to make sure they are working properly. If they are not discharging water, the drains should be cleaned out and observed again in the next rain. Retaining walls more than 2 feet high should be backed with drainage material, such as gravel. There should be drains at the bottom of the drainage material that should discharge the water either at the end of the wall or through pipes. These drains and the drainage material behind the wall relieve the pressure of groundwater on the wall. Failure to drain could be remedied by excavating behind the wall, replacing the drainage material and damaged drainage piping, and back filling. In all but the driest climates, improper drainage of water from behind a retaining wall can cause the wall to fail.
Types of retaining walls include the following:
Gravity walls depend on their mass (stone, concrete or other heavy material) to resist pressure from behind and may have a ‘batter’ setback to improve stability by leaning back toward 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.
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: geosynthetics such as geocell cellular confinement earth retention 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 granular material); or soil-nailed walls (soil reinforced in place with steel and concrete rods).
Cantilevered retaining walls are made from an internal 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 buttressed on the front, or include a counterfort on the back, to improve their strength resisting 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.
Sheet pile retaining 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 then placed behind the potential failure plane in the soil.
Bored pile retaining walls are built by assembling a sequence of bored piles, proceeded by excavating away the excess soil. Depending on the project, the bored pile retaining wall may include a series of earth anchors, reinforcing beams, soil improvement operations and shotcrete reinforcement layer. This construction technique tends to be employed in scenarios where sheet piling is a valid construction solution, but where the vibration or noise levels generated by a pile driver are not acceptable.
An anchored retaining wall can be constructed in any of the aforementioned styles but also includes additional strength using 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.