Retaining Walls

4 Mar

I don’t know if we’ve ever shared one of the things about this house (or property) which disturbs us the most.  I think we have simply pretended it doesn’t exist.  You know, one of those things that you just look the other way because taking it on will be so massive and such a headache and you have fantasies about wiggling your nose and it’s all taken care of?  For free?

We have a swath of land to the south of our house that looks like it has been carved out of the earth.  Some efforts have been made at reinforcing the base of the huge evergreens, but the row of cypress have roots that are still exposed.




We have been pretty lucky this winter in that we have had no real storms or snow.  This gave us the opportunity to final tackle putting in a much needed retaining wall before we lost some lovely trees.

The big question was materials.  Now we probably could have gone and used interlocking bricks that are common around here.  And done it ourselves for about half the price.  Our issue was that we didn’t think they really fit with the mid-century feel of the house.  Plus, they have to be placed at an angle and wouldn’t have the nice lines of a straight wall.  (Our other issue was did Brett we really want to take on such a back-breaking project?  Really?)

Inspired by a few photos I found on this website Eichler for Sale, the vision began to come together.  (This site has some wonderfully inspiring photos for all mid-century home remodel needs.)



Our contractor brought out two samples for us:  a traditional cinderblock and a more textured block of the interlocking kind.  Guess which I chose?



Of course, neither match the stone retaining wall at the front of the house.  Pesky little detail.  But I think we will solve that by building a gate between the two, marking a separation between the front and the back of the house.

The project will start in about two weeks and I cannot wait!  Stay tuned for updates and let us know if you have any experience with retaining walls that would help us.


5 Responses to “Retaining Walls”

  1. Rebecca@MidCenturyModernRemodel March 6, 2013 at 7:28 pm #

    Great project and I really like your wall choice. I have admired these at some mid-century properties myself!

  2. KMP Modern March 5, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    It’s great you are so up to the challenge of building your own wall! Yes I agree that you should stick to the style of your home. It makes sense in the long run, even if it is a pain now. Our last house we had built a retaining wall with the interlocking blocks you find at Home Depot. There was a lot of digging of dirt in preparation, and it was a hillside. I think the main thing is to plan, plan and plan! Then, prepare to rethink halfway! Good luck!

  3. Ted March 5, 2013 at 8:32 am #

    Hi Brandy,

    I read this post about your wall project with great interest! Good luck with how it turns out. I agree it’ll be a challenge to make the new blend with the old. Separating them completely with a gate (and maybe some evergreen plantings too?), to take the approach of isolating them from each other sounds like one great solution; a different approach is there might be creative ways to “weave together” the new-whatever with the existing fieldstone, like interlacing fingers, by overlapping them in some fashion. In any case I’d urge ya to look for some subtle design aspect in the exist. stone wall (such as the cold-grey color) to bring into the new, so they’re sympathetic to each other in some way.

    What really prompted my comment was your rejection (THANK YOU) of the “more textured block of the interlocking kind” (people usually refer to ’em generically by the company names of the two or three biggest suppliers, but I won’t slur any by naming names). In the trade they’re called SRW, or segmental retaining wall…..those engineered concrete blocks that stack up without any mortar, by engineered-in lips and/or pins…..from a civil engineer’s perspective, a wonderful solution (ditto for contractors who don’t need to hire skilled masons); from the perspective of anybody with design taste, not so much. They hit the market around the 1980s, I think, and are great (functionally, at least) for economically holding up hugely-tall grade changes, like you see at a loading dock carved into a hillside of a big-box shopping center. At first they only offered that round-y kind that were I GUESS supposed to look like real rock?….ugh! In recent years they’ve come up with a number of more-palatable styles designed to look either more like ashlar- (rectilinear-) cut stone, or rustic stuff (by being tumbled). But no matter what, they STILL look like a loading dock carved into a hillside of a big-box shopping center. You’d be surprised how often even my deepest-pocketed clients, with landscape budgets of like, $300 or 500K, ask if we should use it, as well as the (just as bad, IMO) unit-concrete-pavers…..i think it’s b/c they’re marketed like crazy to every homeowner out there. If I want something to look like brick, or bluestone, or fieldstone….then I’ll USE genuine clay-brick pavers, or real bluestone, or real rock! Or sometimes (partic. w/ MCM) concrete is the most appropriate choice, in which case I’ll form it to LOOK like concrete.

    When people ask me to define just what IS “midcentury modern garden design”, I often say that just as important is what it ISN’t: things that weren’t around ‘back in the day’ like vinyl fencing or those SRW blocks. Now, as you know, mortared “cinder blocks” (CMUs, or concrete masonry units) WERE, and the endless ways they were assembled with patterns to create texture & rhythms of shadows is SO midcentury modern, including simply laying them up in a stacked-bond rather than the more-classical & common running bond pattern (just like those two great pics you posted). If you can find the non-conventional sizes of brick, say similar to Roman brick used a lot then, affordably, then of course that’ll help give an MCM flavor, but it works well too even with your standard 4 x 8 x 2-2/3″ bricks.

    Very interesting how those trees have (seemingly) survived the former grading! You live in a horticultural paradise, there in the PNW. (I don’t but am familiar w/ it from visiting family in Seattle & Mercer Island.) You might want to jog this new ret’g wall out for a couple of reasons: (1) to simply make it more engaging than a straight-bowling-alley look; in fact it could be partly a seatwalI (at 18″-22″ ht.), wrapping around some patio space? although I dunno anything about your present yard layout; and (2) to give soil-room for the roots to spread out. Rather than backfilling with native soil (although your local landscaper is the best authority, since, granted you DO seem to have great soil out there), I’d strongly recommend backfilling with “Sta-lite” or similar (known generally as stabilized soil); it’s an expanded-shale product that’s lightweight, and most importantly has great drainage & air transfer so the roots won’t be suffocated; finish top 4-5″ w/ regular soil. (If not the Sta-lite-type stuff, then use older technique of aeration pipes of drilled PVC, or corrugated HDPE French drainpipe, laid in root zone, daylighting just above-grade.) And unless it’s a wall of some really porous design don’t forget to include drainpipe at bottom inside to prevent hydrostatic pressure eventually pushing it over.

    Would love to read how your project turns out! I wrote a guest-blog here on MCM fencing and need to do one on MCM wall design. Good luck & sorry for the long comment.

  4. Dana@Mid2Mod March 4, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    I think putting in the gate is the perfect solution and will look fine. I can’t wait to see the design you’ve come up with, because I know it will be fantastic.

  5. Jason March 4, 2013 at 6:01 pm #

    Looking forward to seeing what you come up with! That existing stone wall looks great, but it would be very expensive to replicate. It is a good idea to create a visual barrier between the two walls so they read as two separate features of your garden. Keep up the great work!

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