Climbing the Walls

4 Jul

I have to be honest and say I know nothing about retaining walls. I had never even heard the term retaining wall until I moved to the Northwest. My first home here had a multitude of retaining walls of various heights made from huge rocks and boulder. The backyard terrain was composed of many different levels and that meant hours of play for the girls as they climbed what they perceived to be mountains.

Growing up in Texas and spending over a decade in Chicago, I had grown accustomed to flat. Landscaping had never included the words ‘retaining wall’ and my notion of mid-century wall blocks referred more to partitions or outdoor walls than blocks that had to hold anything up. They looked something like these beautiful walls I found at Modern, an awesome blog that focuses primarily on international modern architecture.

But what we need is a strong wall. A muscle wall. A wall to hold up these trees with exposed roots that threaten daily to topple onto Brett’s man-cave, God forbid! (We need to keep Brett’s man-cave in tact as explained here.) Now in my DIY- naiveté, I simply assumed we could stack up some cool-looking blocks, put some dirt behind it and call it a day. Sure it would be hard back-breaking work for Brett, but at the end of the day, nothing too complicated. Right? Wrong.  So very very wrong. Apparently there is a lot of engineering that can go into these four different types of retaining wall: Gravity, Semigravity, Cantilever and Counterfort. (Anyone speak Greek?)

As we have been driving around to work and to school and to summer stock rehearsals for the girls (Shameless plug: go see Alice in Wonderland at the Mercer Island YTN starting Friday), I have been considering all the retaining walls around the Island. Many are the interlocking DIY kind. I am realizing we could easily have a wall up in a week if we chose this route. And while I appreciate them, they don’t seem to fit the MCM vibe. Trading style for expediency is something that I have done with many of my homes in the past. Don’t get me wrong; we need a retaining wall and we need it soon, before a strong wind comes and knocks over those trees.

But this house is different for many reasons. For one, it’s strongly mid-century modern. It screams it from every post, beam, ceiling panel and window. For me, it would feel like a travesty to go against that. And two, it’s our final home. We hope. This is the home we want our grandchildren to visit us in and to watch them run down and play in the ravine like their mothers did. So doing it once and doing it the way we want is important to us, even if it doesn’t get done as quickly and as cheaply as we would like. Better than waking up, realizing we don’t really care for it and doing it again.

After searching for inspiration, I am attracted to two kinds of walls: concrete and cinderblock. I am not sure whether or not we can do both or either on our own. Obviously, doing it ourselves is our first choice and we will continue investigating our options to get the right mid-century look. One surprising source of inspiration for these walls are mid-century copies of Sunset Magazine landscaping books, which one can buy easily on the internet, like here or here or here. I find them fun and fascinating and decidedly Western and mid-century, both appropriate to our home here on Mercer Island.

Have you had any experience with building either concrete or cinderblock retaining walls yourself? Please share your story if you have. We need all the help we can get on this one. We will keep you posted on our progress.


4 Responses to “Climbing the Walls”

  1. Trish July 4, 2011 at 6:06 pm #

    We just had our sidewalk replaced by a stamped and dyed concrete sidewalk. It turned out very nice. The guys who did the work seemed to know what they were doing. If you want their name, I’ll be glad to send it your way.
    Check out the photo on FB or WP blog (it’s a good day)

  2. Ida July 4, 2011 at 12:32 pm #

    Andy certainly has an idea. Mine was somewhat like his. I thought about doing the wall that gets the job done and then as time and money permits putting in front of it the cinderblock, etc wall in front of it because it would have no purpose except to be decorative.

    • Brandy July 6, 2011 at 4:17 pm #

      The only issue with that is the do-over later and what kind of do-over we want to do. I spoke with a colleague at work and they did a concrete block wall that didn’t need all that much engineering. We are also have a landscaper come out (we won two hours of her time at the silent auction for the Mercer Island Farmer’s Market) and get her advice on what is the best approach. We’ll keep you all posted!

  3. Andy July 4, 2011 at 11:42 am #

    Not me, but my dad was a brick mason for 30 years. I’ve helped him build many a wall, in many different styles.

    He’s the guy you want to come in and draw you up some plans that allow for some flexibility in leaving the wall in a blank canvas state. Strong wall with the ability to style it later. Form follows function and all that.


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