Retaining walls are not built the same

Offering reliable landscaping services to homeowners in British Columbia since 2013

Picture of Natasha Maerz

Natasha Maerz

Owner/Office Manager

For homeowners looking to have a retaining wall built, trying to decide what type of retaining wall you want is hard enough, let alone trying to find a contractor that you trust to do the job. 

The endless options of colors, blocks and finishes for a retaining wall can be immensely overwhelming, and can feel so time consuming that you might not have the energy to vanguard your contractor, let alone make sure that you are getting the wall you want or need.

When it comes to any type of project at our homes, we can be naive to think that projects can be compared apples to apples.

What does it mean to compare something apples to apples?

The definition of apples to apples is, “Having a fair comparison between  two things” and “Comparing the things which can be compared with each other, not the ones which don’t fit the specific criteria of each other.”

So, why can’t two different contractors build a retaining wall the same, or why can’t a homeowner compare a contractor retaining wall build apples to apples?

No two retaining walls will ever be made the same.  Even if you have two contractors build a retaining wall in the same spot, with the same materials your wall is going to be different.

 

Why two walls cannot be made the same

The retaining wall builder

Who is the person who is building your retaining wall? As consumers, homeowners tend to think that if a company is offering a service they are skilled to actually do the service they are offering.

Unfortunately this is not always the case. Anyone can come build you a retaining wall, especially if they are not using the proper tools and machines to do so (More on that later).

There are plenty of guys who can throw together a retaining wall, but without the proper training and skill, your wall will fail.

We can say this with certainty due to the fact that most retaining walls end up failing.

Don’t believe this? Go drive around any neighborhood and you will find  both wood and allan block retaining walls that are failing. Wood doesn’t last, but allan block walls will if they are build up to Allan Block specs.

Finding a wall builder that is trained and certified  in Allan Block is the key to a correctly built wall that not only will stand the test time, but look amazing too.

What if my retaining wall builder is not Allan block certified but they have experience using allan block?

Many retainig wall builders have been building allan block walls for years without having any actual certification or training in it. These builders may build great walls, but their walls are still going to be different than a contractor that is certified.

Building a great retaining wall requires skill and knowledge. The more walls that a contractor builds, and the more support they have behind them, the better their projects will turn out.

Certified Allan block retaining wall builders have to provide Allan block with pictures of their walls, and are constantly being held to a certain standard when they are building.

Because they are building their walls exactly like Allan block says to your wall will last 100’s of years and each step will be done to the highest standard.

Steps cannot be missed because these contractors need to show that their walls are built to last and look good.

Contractors that are Allan block certified also have the support from Allan block themselves. Allan block reps are able to answer any question contractors have, and if there is a job that is tricky can even come out to the job site to brainstorm with the contractor and tell them tips on how to do things.

Allan Block also comes up with new ways to build their walls so that they are made stronger and look even better.

If your contractor is not AB certified they will not have access to these things.

Attention to detail

Retaining walls look fairly simple to build (This is far from the truth!).

Basing the retaining wall

Many walls start off looking pretty good when they are built but with a little bit of time and change in the weather will start to deteriorate. Walls that look wavy are due to the retaining wall builder not basing the wall correctly.

Basing a wall ( laying the first blocks) is a hard still to master, and cannot be done by eyeballing the blocks. The only true way to guarantee that a wall is not going to be wavy is basing the wall using a string line, and a laser level. These two things ensure that each block is placed straight and level, and every block that is laid after will follow the same pattern.

Basing a retaining wall with a laser level and a string line takes time, and this is where that attention to detail comes in.

Some contractors want to build their walls quick and will not take the time to ensure the blocks are level and straight, and this is where you get a wavy wall.

allan-block-retaining-wall-gravel

Retaining wall caps

When a retaining wall has a curve in it, the Allan block caps must be cut. Again, this is where attention to detail is so important.

Some wall builders will cut the caps (and blocks) free hand to save time and money. labor is cut down when contractors can free hand a cut, instead of measuring and marking it.

Unfortunately, this looks very obvious when looking at a finished retaining wall. No matter how skilled someone is at free cutting, it will never be perfect.

Redoing certain parts of your retaining wall

Even experts can sometimes make a mistake, and a contractor that has integrity and attention to detail will not move on until their wall looks perfect. This sometimes means that the blocks need to come out and be redone.

A lot of contractors do not want to fix their work because they get paid to complete a project as quickly as possible. This means that they will avoid looking over their work carefully and think that a couple mistakes here and there are okay.

A retaining wall builder that has pride in their craft will go out of their way to find something to fix, and look over each block to ensure that their work is perfect.

Materials and cutting costs

The materials used for your build can make or break your retaining wall project. Is your builder using seconds ( these are concrete blocks that have flaws and imperfections) or are they using a quality block? Do they bring in an extra pallet of block in case some blocks have chips on them, or are they okay with using whatever is delivered to them?

One of the most common ways a retaining wall builder can cut costs on a project is using the soil that is excavated for the wall as backfill. 

Many homeowners have been convinced that this is okay and makes sense. I mean, who wouldn’t want to save money by using the material that is already in your backyard? You save money by not having to haul that soil away, and not having to buy gravel to backfill the wall.

When soil (dirt) is used to backfill a wall the soil will get heavy when it rains and will constantly be pushing up agains the retaining wall.

This is why you see walls that are falling over. Those walls do not have gravel behind them ( gravel acts as drainage behind your wall) and the soil is what wrecks your wall. Cutting these costs can cause huge damage to your wall and oyur property, and it is not worth the risk.

Machines/Tools

One of the most expensive parts of having your own business is buying machines and tools. Many contractors will say that they can build you a retaining wall without machines, and technically can, but it will not be a retaining wall that will last and stand the test of time(or even 6 months-a year).

Retaining walls need to a proper base to start with ( remember how a good base prevents your retaining wall from being wavy) and this is done by having enough gravel put down in the trench.

To be able to put enough gravel down, you need to excavate the proper amount of soil. This cannot be done with a shovel. If a wall builder is saying that they are going to dig down the required  inches then it would take them days to do this.

Most contractors cheat the trench depth because of how strenuous digging that deep is.  To dig a proper trench your wall builder should have a excavator.

 

All of the material that are being taken out of your yard needs to be replaced with rock. That is a lot of material coming in and out of a yard and would be 1000s of wheelbarrows.

Is it possible to wheelbarrow this much material In and out without using a machine? Again, it is, but this is most likely getting cheated due to how hard the labor of doing so would be, and the strength and stamina of a crew.

Bringing in gravel and bringing dirt out with a wheelbarrow would also add significant time that most contractors would not have. We are talking about adding weeks to a project to properly do this amount of materials without a machine.

To be able to remove soil and bring in the proper amount of gravel, your wall builder should have a track dumper.

Track dumpers are also going to be able to get a retaining wall builder into tight spaces that other contractors do not want to to entertain.

A tool that most retaining wall builders do not own is a laser level. Laser levels are used on the base of the project and nothing else, so its an expensive tool that is not utilized throughout the project.

We know we are repeating ourselves, but this information is this important. No one can get a perfect base down eye balling it and the base is what makes or breaks your wall.

 

Concrete saw

Cutting the Allan block and caps to make sure that they are straight and true needs to be done when it comes to building a retaining wall. Cuts that are not straight stick out like a sore thumb on a wall, and will make a wall look old and cheap, regardless of how well the other parts of the wall look.

Its not common for contractors to have a concrete saw as it takes effort to get the saw to the site ( hand saws are light and less expensive) and its quicker to eyeball a cut than take the time to measure, mark out and then cut. As well, a generator is needed to power a concrete saw which again costs more money and effort.

 

 

Compactor

Each row of a retaining wall needs to be compacted. This seems extremely weird and daunting, but compacting the retaining wall allows the gravel behind the wall and inside the block to lock together, creating a wall that is indestructible.

Compactors are not cheap, and this extra time of compacting each row of the wall prevents most contractors from doing so.

 

Company backing/Warranties

Something else that varies between contractors is who they work for and if they will be in business long enough to provide you with proper service.

Is this retaining wall company that you have hired charging enough to provide you with a great service, and can come warranty any issues you have in a year or are they a guy in a truck who will be out of business? If a problem arises during your build is your retaining wall builder able to fix it by hiring someone to help ( for instance if a water maine breaks) or will they leave you high and dry?

 

Many homeowners have a distaste for contractors because they have heard a story once or twice from friends and family about being taken advantage of by a contractor. If your contractor does not have the company resources to properly build your wall do you want them in your yard?

Skill, attention to detail, machines, company backing, and certification are all things that make it impossible for two retaining walls and wall builders to be alike. As a homeowner focus on comparing contractors on they are building the wall, , what qualifications the wall builder has, their reputation ( google reviews) and skill level instead of just what the project costs.