Types of Retaining Walls: A Comprehensive Guide

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Retaining walls stand tall, either straight up or at a slight tilt, bravely holding back soil that’s eager to move, keeping flat areas safe or hills in their place, and guarding against the loss or wear of earth. From making gardens look sharp to helping big construction projects stand strong, these walls are real heroes. They’re the backbone for beautiful landscapes, tough roads, and solid buildings.

Selecting an appropriate retaining wall type depends on various considerations, such as its height, type of soil, surrounding structures, and intended purpose. Here, we explore some of the more popular varieties of retaining walls that I am aware of.

  1. Gravity Retaining Walls

Gravity retaining walls are among the most traditional and straightforward types of retaining walls. These walls rely on their weight and mass to counteract the lateral pressure from the retained soil. They are typically made from concrete, stone, or brick and are well-suited for shorter retaining walls.

Key Features of Gravity Retaining Walls

  • Simple Design: Gravity retaining walls are known for their simplicity in design and construction.
  • Durable Materials: These walls are often constructed using robust materials such as concrete blocks or stone.
  • Cost-Effective: Gravity retaining walls are generally cost-effective for low to medium-height retaining walls.
  1. Crib Retaining Wall

Crib retaining walls, or bin retaining walls, are constructed using rectangular wire mesh boxes filled with stone or concrete. These boxes are stacked to create the desired wall height and structure. Crib or retaining wall blocks and walls are well-suited for various applications, including landscaping and infrastructure projects.

Key Features of Crib Retaining Walls

  • Versatility: Crib retaining walls are versatile and can be used in both small garden projects and large-scale construction.
  • Quick Installation: The assembly of crib retaining walls is relatively fast, making them an attractive choice for projects with tight schedules.
  1. Cantilever Retaining Walls

Cantilever retaining walls are designed with a horizontal base slab that provides stability and support. They rely on the leverage principle, with most of the cantilever retaining wall’s mass concentrated on the side opposite the retained soil. This design allows them to handle greater heights compared to gravity retaining walls.

Key Features of Cantilever Retaining Walls

  • Greater Height: Cantilever retaining walls are suitable for taller retaining walls due to their design.
  • Effective for Residential Use: They are commonly used in residential projects for their cost-effectiveness and versatility.
  1. Anchored Retaining Walls

Anchored retaining walls are reinforced retaining walls that incorporate anchors or tiebacks to provide additional support. These anchors extend into the soil behind the wall, effectively counteracting the lateral earth pressure. Anchored retaining walls are often used in situations where greater stability is required.

Key Features of Anchored Retaining Walls

  • High Stability: Anchored retaining walls offer exceptional stability, making them suitable for challenging conditions.
  • Versatile Design: Their design allows use in various scenarios, from highway construction to residential landscaping.
  1. Sheet Pile Retaining Walls

Sheet pile retaining walls are a popular choice for projects that require retaining structures in areas with limited space. They are typically made of steel sheets or reinforced concrete piles driven into the ground. Sheet pile walls are known for their efficient use of space and are commonly used in waterfront applications and foundation support.

Key Features of Sheet Pile Retaining Walls

  • Space-Efficient: Sheet pile retaining walls are perfect for projects with space constraints.
  • Waterfront Applications: They are often used in areas prone to erosion and water pressure.
  1. Gabion Retaining Walls

Gabion retaining walls are constructed using wire mesh boxes filled with various materials such as stone, concrete, or crushed stone. The gabion baskets are stacked to form a full gabion retaining wall that is not only functional but also aesthetically pleasing. Gabion walls are often used in landscaping and erosion control projects.

Key Features of Gabion Retaining Walls

  • Aesthetically Pleasing: Gabion walls can blend seamlessly with the natural environment, making them suitable for landscaping and environmentally sensitive areas.
  • Flexibility: The choice of fill material provides flexibility in design and appearance.
  1. Mechanically Stabilized Earth (MSE) Retaining Wall

Mechanically Stabilized Earth (MSE) retaining walls are a unique type of retaining wall that combines soil reinforcement with modular facing elements. These walls use layers of granular material and metallic strips or geogrids to stabilize the soil and create a solid retaining structure.

Key Features of MSE Retaining Walls

  • Soil Reinforcement: MSE retaining walls are designed to stabilize steep slopes and resist lateral earth pressure.
  • Versatile Design: They can be customized to match the surrounding landscape and structural requirements.

Selecting the Right Retaining Wall Type

The choice of retaining wall type depends on several factors, including the height of the wall, soil conditions, and the intended use. Here are some key considerations when selecting the right retaining wall type:

  1. Height of the Wall: For shorter walls, gravity retaining walls or crib retaining walls may suffice, while taller retaining walls may require anchored retaining walls or MSE retaining walls.
  2. Soil Type: The type and characteristics of the soil play a crucial role in determining the suitable retaining wall. Cohesive soils may require different design considerations than granular soils.
  3. Surrounding Structures: Consider the proximity of other structures, as well as any potential impact on the retaining wall’s design and stability.
  4. Aesthetic Preferences: If the retaining wall is part of a landscaping project, consider the desired appearance and how well the wall can blend with the environment.
  5. Budget and Schedule: The retaining wall type should align with the project’s budget and timeline.

Materials Used in Retaining Walls

The choice of materials for retaining walls is a critical factor influencing their design, appearance, and longevity. 


Concrete is an extremely popular material for creating cost-effective and visually appealing retaining walls due to its durability and versatility. Reinforced concrete walls can withstand various heights and loads, making them suitable for various applications. Precast concrete blocks are another effective means of creating cost-efficient yet visually appealing retaining walls.


Brick retaining walls are known for their classic and timeless appearance. They are often used in residential landscaping and provide an attractive solution for shorter retaining walls.


Natural stone or stone veneers are popular for retaining walls, especially in projects where aesthetics play a significant role. Stone walls can blend seamlessly with the natural landscape, creating a visually appealing solution.


Wooden retaining walls are an attractive option for landscaping and garden projects. They are suitable for smaller retaining walls and can create a rustic or contemporary look, depending on the choice of wood and design.

Factors Affecting Retaining Wall Design

Designing a retaining wall requires careful consideration of various factors to ensure its stability and functionality. Here are some key factors that influence retaining wall design:

Lateral Earth Pressure

Lateral earth pressure is the force exerted by the soil against the retaining wall. The design of the wall must account for this pressure to prevent wall failure or structural damage.

Slope Stability

The stability of the retained soil slope is crucial. Retaining walls are often used to stabilize steep slopes and prevent erosion.

Water Pressure

For retaining walls in areas with high water tables or near bodies of water, hydrostatic pressure can be a significant consideration in design.

Bearing Pressure

The bearing pressure is the force exerted by the wall’s foundation on the underlying soil. Ensuring this pressure is within safe limits is essential for the wall’s stability.

Material Selection

The choice of materials, as discussed earlier, plays a vital role in the design and appearance of the retaining wall.

Choose SMB Retaining Walls for Expert Solutions!

Retaining walls play a vital role in many applications, from landscaping and residential projects to major infrastructure development. Their selection, materials, and design considerations depend on your specific needs and site conditions; by understanding all their types, influences, and design considerations – you can make informed decisions that result in stable yet aesthetically pleasing walls for your projects – be they small garden walls or massive highway retaining structures – that will result in success! Having this knowledge and choosing the best choice are key components for ensuring success!

Are you in Tacoma, WA, and searching for experienced hardscapers to meet all of your retaining wall needs? Look no further! At SMB Retaining Walls, we offer a comprehensive selection of options when it comes to the design and installation of retaining walls. Call us now at 253-544-3066 so we can get going on your project together.