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Chapter 6 Retaining Walls

The main function of retaining walls is to stabilize hillsides and control erosion. When
roadway construction is necessary over rugged terrain with steep slopes, retaining walls
can help to reduce the grades of roads and the land alongside the road. Some road
projects lack available land beside the travelway, requiring construction right along the
toe of a slope. In these cases extensive grading may not be possible and retaining
walls become necessary to allow for safe construction and acceptable slope conditions
for adjacent land uses.

Where soils are unstable, slopes are quite steep, or heavy runoff is present, retaining
walls help to stem erosion. Excessive runoff can undermine roadways and structures,
and controlling sediment runoff is a major environmental and water quality consideration
in road and bridge projects. In these situations, building retaining walls, rather than
grading excessively, reduces vegetation removal and reduces erosion caused by runoff.
In turn, the vegetation serves to stabilize the soil and filter out sediments and pollutants
before they enter the water source, thus improving water quality.

There are three kinds of retaining walls: gravity walls, cantilevered walls, and soil-
bioengineering walls. The specifics of each will be discussed later in this chapter. Each
type has numerous design variations. Regardless of the type of wall, however, all
retaining walls should be backfilled with granular materials that permit sufficient
drainage to keep water pressure from pushing the structure outward. Some also use
drainage devices, such as weep holes, to prevent water from getting trapped behind the
structure. It is important to note that these walls generally require structural design
unless they are of minor height (3 feet or less).

To enhance their stability many retaining walls are constructed with what is called
batter. This is where the base of the wall is wider than the top (see Figure 1), and a
slight slope of about 1-2 per foot of wall height results in the wall leaning into the
hillside. Batter serves to enhance the gravitational stability of the wall and to provide
resilience against misalignment.

Gravity Walls
Gravity walls are stabilized by
their mass. They are constructed
of dense, heavy materials such
as concrete and stone masonry
and are usually reinforced. Some
gravity walls douse mortar,
relying solely on their weight to
stay in place, as in the case of
dry stone walls (See figure 1).
Figure 1: Example of a dry stone retaining wall and batter,
Greenfield, MA
Gravity walls are considered flexible walls, because some normal shifting and movement of
the structure will not affect its integrity.

In addition to dry-laid stone walls, other kinds of gravity walls use open, stacked cellular
elements that are filled with granular materials, such as gravel, that hold them in place
while providing good drainage. These include bin walls and crib walls. Bin walls (or
cellular walls) are generally made of metal and consist of stringers, stiffeners, spacers,
and vertical connectors that are bolted together to form bins of various sizes (See Zoar
Road in Charlemont case study in this chapter).

Crib walls (see Figure 2) are similar to
bin walls in their modular structure,
and have been made of various
materials including wood, concrete
and even plastic. The cribs are made
of interlocking headers and stretchers
that are stacked like the walls of a log
cabin. Bin and crib walls are usually
quite large and can be out of scale and
character with the surrounding
landscape. In addition, heavy
construction equipment is required to
lay the courses, possibly impacting
sensitive areas. The past popularity of
bin walls, in particular, lies in the fact
that they are both relatively
inexpensive and quick to install.

Gabion walls (Figure 3) are
constructed by stacking and tying wire
cages filled with trap rock or native
stone on top of one another. They can
have a continuous batter (gently
sloping) or be stepped back (terraced)
with each successively higher course.
This is a good application where the
retaining wall needs to allow high
amounts of water to pass through it, as
in the case of riverbank stabilization. It
is important to use a filter fabric with
the gabion to keep adjacent soil from
flowing into or through the cages along
with the water. As relatively flexible
structures, they are useful in
Figure 2: Example of a Crib retaining wall
Figure 3: Example of a Gabion retaining wall
Figure 4: Section view of a Green Wall
situations where movement might be anticipated. Vegetation can be re-established around the
gabions and can soften the visible edges allowing them to blend into the surrounding
landscape. For local roads, they are a preferred low-cost retaining structure. They can also
sometimes be found along higher classifications of roads in rural areas, as is the case along
state highway Route 9 in Goshen and Williamsburg, MA.

Green Walls
Green walls, essentially a design
variation on bin walls, are composed of
stacked interconnected precast concrete
units. Each unit has an open element
that is filled with soil to serve as a planter
for vegetation (Figure 4). The individual
units are stacked in staggered courses
like concrete blocks. Some types are
shaped to follow curves, giving the wall a
more natural flow and allowing it to
follow irregular topographic contours.
The surfaces may also be textured and
colored to simulate natural stone.
Live gabion walls, vegetated crib walls,
and vegetated rock walls are other
variations of the green wall concept.
The structures initially stabilize the slope,
but over time the vegetation binds the
slope together and covers the face of the
structure. Some critics contend that
green walls do not perform well visually
because spotty vegetation growth does
not hide the underlying structure

Cantilevered Walls
Cantilevered walls are sometimes referred to as rigid walls because the retaining
structure is intended to remain absolutely stationary. In cross section most cantilevered
walls look like Ls or inverted Ts. To ensure stability, they are built on solid
foundations with the base tied to the vertical portion of the wall with reinforcement rods.
The base is then backfilled to counteract forward pressure on the vertical portion of the
wall. The cantilevered base is reinforced and is designed to prevent uplifting at the heel
of the base, making the wall strong and stable. Local building codes, frost penetration
levels and soil qualities determine the foundation and structural requirements of taller
cantilevered walls.

Reinforced concrete cantilevered walls sometimes have a batter. They can be faced
with stone, brick, or simulated veneers. Their front faces can also be surfaced with a
variety of textures. Reinforced Concrete Cantilevered Walls are built using forms.
When the use of forms is not desired, Reinforced Concrete Block Cantilevered Walls
are another option. Where foundation soils are poor, Earth Tieback Retaining Walls are
another choice. These walls are counterbalanced not only by a large base but also by a
series of horizontal bars or strips extending out perpendicularly from the vertical surface
into the slope. The bars or strips, sometimes called deadmen are made of wood,
metal, or synthetic materials such as geotextiles. Once an earth tieback retaining wall is
backfilled, the weight and friction of the fill against the horizontal members anchors the

Soil Bioengineering Walls
Soil bioengineering combines mechanical, biological, and ecological features to stabilize
slopes and to control erosion, both on upland slopes and along banks associated with
water bodies. The natural components of these types of walls often achieve a more
visually appealing look, sometimes being virtually invisible as a retaining structure.
Soil bioengineering technology utilizes living materials (i.e. cut branches) as its main
structural component, however different soil bioengineering systems may also combine
the use of inert and/or synthetic materials (e.g. rocks or geosynthetics) to solve a site-
specific problem with severe seepage or excessively steep slopes. The cut branches,
collected from a local area, provide immediate mechanical support and subsequently
begin rooting in the soil, further stabilizing the slope. In addition, the portions of the
branches, which are exposed to light, will produce leaves, and provide an aesthetically
pleasing vegetative cover on the slope without the added cost of nursery-grown plants.

There are numerous types of soil bioengineering systems. The USDA Soil
Conservation Service includes a chapter in their Engineering Field Manual devoted
entirely to soil bioengineering technology. Issued in 1992, Chapter 18, Soil
Bioengineering for Upland Slope Protection and Erosion Control, discusses systems
appropriate for cut and fill slopes, and repair of gully erosion.

In addition there is increasing use of soil bioengineering in conjunction with
geosynthetics. Geosynthetics are synthetic filtering and stabilizing structures usually
made of plastic in some form and includes geotextiles, geocells, geogrids, sheet drains
and silt fences. Constructed of flexible materials, they have considerable strength and
conform to the land's natural contours. They come in mat, matrix, and cell
configurations. Laid on steep slopes subject to erosion, they are interspersed with
plantings. The interwoven structure allows the vegetation to become established. On
particularly unstable slopes geocells are good for reducing erosion. Their three-
dimensional honeycomb structures confine the soil while decreasing the velocity of
runoff on the slope (see the Shelburne Falls case study later in this chapter for an
example of a local project that used geocell technology). One particularly attractive
feature of geocell stabilization construction is the ability to do all work by hand, thereby
avoiding the complication, expense, and potential damage caused by using heavy
machinery. While geosynthetics can be used on their own to address drainage and
erosion problems, greater environmental benefit results when they are used in
combination with soil bioengineering.

Because the soil-bioengineering techniques use live plant materials in the construction
of the retaining structure, these walls blend easily into the surrounding landscape
limiting, if not eliminating, adverse visual impacts.

Summary and Conclusion
Retaining walls are a necessary component of roadway design in many instances. How
retaining walls are constructed, however, can have a significant impact on the character
of the roadway and the drivers experience. Retaining walls vary enormously in
appearance. Dry stone walls blend harmoniously into the landscape because they use
native materials, are historic to many areas, and can easily follow the lands natural
contours. Crib, bin, and reinforced concrete walls may all be conspicuous elements in
the landscape when they are built of metal, concrete or synthetic materials. Although
the colors and surface textures of these materials often blend with those of the
landscape, their straight horizontal and vertical lines may interrupt the visual flow of the
surrounding natural features. These lines may be softened however, if vegetation re-
colonizes the area and parts of the retaining wall itself.

There are numerous options available today for constructing retaining walls that
minimize the impact on the rural or scenic character of the road. As with other elements
of roadway design, public input during the early stages can be critical in determining the
look and feel of a roads retaining structures. The following case studies show
examples of several retaining wall structures constructed in Franklin and Hampshire

Case Study:
Route 66, Huntington, Massachusetts

Retaining wall along Route 66 in Huntington is concrete with a stone facade.

Type of Project: Retaining wall construction as part of a road reconstruction

Location: Route 66 in Hampshire County, Massachusetts

Year: 2000-2002

Special Circumstance: Road reconstruction in a scenic rural area.

Description: This retaining wall has been constructed along a National Highway System road
as part of a road reconstruction project. The retaining wall itself is concrete,
however a stone facade has been applied to reflect and compliment the look of
the many historic stone walls common around New England. The wall was
designed and constructed by MassHighway, and was negotiated as a standard
feature in the reconstruction design. I t is a good example of new construction
incorporating context sensitive features.

Case Study:
Route 2, Erving, Massachusetts

A new section of dry-laid stone wall was built along Route 2 in Erving to connect two older
sections of stone wall. The result is aesthetic as well as functional.

Type of Project: Stone wall

Location: Route 2 in Erving Center, Erving, Massachusetts

Year: 1997-1998

Special Circumstance: National Highway System road doubles as Ervings Main Street through the
village center.

Description: As part of a Streetscape project to improve both pedestrian safety and the visual
aesthetics along Main Street in Erving Center, a new dry-laid stone retaining wall
was approved for construction. The new wall actually connects with an existing
wall along Main Street, and creates continuity through the area. The retaining
wall is an excellent example of using an historic technique to provide a functional
retaining structure in a manner that respects the village character of Erving
Center. The design of the retaining wall is also significant in that it was
approved and constructed along a National Highway System road, typically a
classification that requires the closest adherence to traditional design standard.

Case Study:
Zoar Road, Charlemont, Massachusetts

This massive retaining structure succeeds in containing the hillside, but its presence is radically
out of character with the surroundings of this rural road leading to the Zoar Gap. Soil-
bioengineering is an alternative option that could have stabilized the area without such a harsh
visual impact.

Type of Project: Bin-Type Retaining wall

Location: Zoar Road, Charlemont, Massachusetts.

Year: 1970s

Special Circumstance: Low volume rural road in a scenic area.

Description: Retaining walls such as this were much more common in years past thanks to
their ability to stabilize hillsides in a fairly quick and affordable manner. As
towns have become more vocal about preserving the rural character of their
roadways, and as innovative techniques such as soil-bioengineering have been
developed, the use of intrusive bin walls has dramatically decreased. Aesthetic
options are being used on a more routine basis due, in part, to the consistent
support of local officials and residents for techniques that blend with the existing

Fr ank l i n Regi onal Counc i l of Gov er nment s
Engi neer i ng Pr ogr am
Sl ope Pr ot ect i on
Geocel l
Exi st i ng gr ound
Ret ai ni ng St r uc t ur e #1
Shel bur ne: Br i dge St r eet
Pr oj ec t 30- 0001
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Veget at i on ( post const r uct i on)
Gr anul ar
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Topsoi l
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Sl ope Pr ot ect i on
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Case Study:
Bridge Street, Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts

Crews install the honeycomb geocells to stabilize the
Bridge Street/Deerfield River Stream bank in Shelburne
Falls, MA.
Schematic of the Geocell retaining structure used in Shelburne

Type of Project: Soil-bioengineering Retaining Wall

Location: Along the banks of the Deerfield River and Bridge Street, Shelburne Falls, MA.

Year: 1999-2000

Special Circumstance: Historic Village and sensitive environmental area.

Description: Geocells were used to stabilize an 80-foot high slope that supports Bridge Street
at its intersection with Mechanic Street. The slope had been standing at 37
degrees (1.5:1) at its base and was steeper towards its top. Runoff from a
culvert that discharged onto the slope had eroded a significant gully into the
upper portion of the slope that was continuing to worsen with each storm.
Recommendations by the USDA Soil Conservation Service for large-scale rip-rap,
a metal bin-type retaining wall, or relocating the street were all in excess of $1
million. As the road and sidewalk began to give way, an affordable solution was
sought. This solution was found in Geocells. Three small earth retention walls
were designed and constructed by placing consecutive layers of the soil-filled
honeycomb-like cells on top of each other to form walls approximately 6 to 8 feet
high. The outer cells of the wall were filled with topsoil and seeded. The entire
slope was then covered with erosion-control matting. Vegetation masks the
construction and the slope has a natural look.


Case Study:
Greenfield Road, Colrain, Massachusetts

Soil Bioengineerig stabilized this slope along Greenfield Road in Colrain. This design replaced two other
suggestions: rigid concrete or crushed stone.

Type of Project: Soil-bioengineering Retaining structure

Location: Greenfield Road, Colrain, Massachusetts.

Year: 1988-1989

Special Circumstance: Rural road in a scenic area

Description: In Colrain, the need for a retaining wall along Greenfield Road was determined to
be necessary as part of a road restoration project. Originally proposed to be a
30 ft. high, 1,000 ft. long concrete wall, the discovery of ledge in the proposed
location forced reconsideration due to the extensive blasting that would have
been required. A proposal to cover the slope with crushed stone was rejected by
the town because it did not fit in with the rural landscape. Ultimately soil-
bioengineering was proposed by the town to MassHighway, and approved. A
geotextile and crushed stone layer was incorporated into the design, and a
system known as live brushlayers (in which soil and live branches are placed in
alternating layers) was used to stabilize the slope. At the slope top a system
known as live fascines was used. Live facines are bundles of live cut branches
with their growing tips oriented in the same direction. They are placed in
shallow trenches and partially covered with a layer of soil. The branches then
form roots and leaves, stabilizing the soil.