Elevate Your Landscape: The Groundbreaking Guide To Retaining Wall Designs

Beautiful light stone retaining wall around a patio area

Ever looked at your sloping backyard and thought, “What a waste of potential living space?” Or maybe you’ve been concerned about soil erosion affecting the foundation of your Kansas City home?

This blog post will walk you through the ins and outs of retaining wall design techniques.

By the end, you’ll not only be an informed homeowner but also know how to elevate your outdoor space—literally and figuratively—with a retaining wall installation project.

Retaining Wall Design Vocabulary

Active Earth Pressure: The pressure exerted by the soil when it is allowed to move or deform.

Bearing Pressure: The distribution of force per unit area that is larger than the soil’s shear strength.

Passive Pressure: The resistance exerted by the soil when a wall tries to move through it.

Sliding Force: The force that tries to make a wall slide along its base.

Vertical Forces: Forces acting perpendicular to the horizontal surface of the wall.

Lever Arm: The distance from the pivot point to the point where force is applied.

Lateral Pressure: The sideways pressure that soil exerts on a wall.

Resisting Force: The force that counteracts the sliding force in a wall.

Passive Resistance: The resistance offered by soil to the movement of a wall.

Shear Key: A construction feature that provides additional sliding resistance to a retaining wall.

Wall Batter: The intentional tilt or lean of a wall for stability.

Overturning Moment: The rotational force that could cause a wall to tip over.

Surcharge Loads: Additional vertical loads that are applied to the soil behind the wall.

Earth Pressure: The force exerted by the soil on a retaining wall.

Lateral Forces: Forces that act parallel to the ground.

Hydrostatic Pressure: The pressure exerted by a fluid at equilibrium due to gravity.

Surcharge Load: Extra weight or force applied to the soil behind a retaining wall.

Footing: The foundation on which a wall or structure is built.

Toe: The front part of the base of a wall.

Importance Of Retaining Wall Design

A retaining wall design for preventing erosion in front of a driveway

When it comes to retaining wall design, you can’t just wing it. A poorly designed wall can lead to all sorts of problems, like instability and even collapse. That’s why it’s crucial to consider factors like soil properties, wall thickness and height, and surcharge loads. You also want to make sure you have the best retaining wall for your project in Kansas City, MO.

Retaining Wall Design Techniques

Limit Equilibrium Method

Think of the Limit Equilibrium Method as the reliable family minivan of retaining wall design. It’s not flashy, but it gets the job done, making it a popular choice for those in Kansas City looking to tackle soil erosion or build terraced gardens.

Best For: Straightforward projects, like simple garden walls or slope stabilization in your Kansas City backyard.


  • Easy to understand and implement
  • Requires fewer resources and less time
  • Well-suited for most soil types


  • Not ideal for complex geometries or unique soil conditions
  • May require more frequent maintenance

Finite Element Method

The Finite Element Method (FEM) is like the luxury SUV of retaining wall design—packed with features and tailored for those who want the best of the best. It uses computer simulations to get into the nitty-gritty details of how the wall interacts with the surrounding soil, making it a top choice for complex projects in Kansas City.

Best For: Complex projects involving irregular geometries or unique soil conditions.


  • Highly accurate
  • Allows for complex simulations
  • Ideal for large-scale or intricate projects


  • Requires specialized software and expertise
  • Can be time-consuming and costly

Find out how much retaining walls cost to install per square foot.

Numerical Modeling Method

The Numerical Modeling Method is the Tesla of retaining wall design—innovative, high-tech, and perfect for those who love to push boundaries. This method is for the big thinkers, the ones who have large-scale or highly complex projects that require a deep dive into multiple variables.

Best For: Large-scale projects or those involving multiple variables like different soil layers or variable water levels.


  • Allows for the most complex simulations
  • Can model real-world conditions very closely
  • Useful for research and development projects


  • Requires the most specialized software and expertise
  • Often the most time-consuming and expensive method

Rankine’s Method

Rankine’s Method is like the trusty pickup truck of retaining wall design. It’s not too fancy, but it gets the job done. This method is based on the theory of earth pressure and is often used for designing retaining walls in Kansas City, especially when you’re dealing with different types of soil. It’s a bit of an old-school approach but still widely used because of its moderate accuracy.

Understand how soil type affects retaining wall design.

Best For: Projects that require a balance between accuracy and simplicity, like residential retaining walls or small commercial projects.


  • Moderately accurate
  • Easier to implement than the Finite Element Method
  • Suitable for a variety of soil types


  • Not as precise as some other methods
  • Assumes failure will occur and designs accordingly, which might lead to overdesign

Coulomb’s Method

If Rankine’s Method is a pickup truck, then Coulomb’s Method is the SUV—bigger, better, and capable of handling more complex terrains. This method takes into account not just the soil and the wall but also the friction between them. It’s like the multitasker of retaining wall design methods, perfect for those complicated projects.

Best For: Projects where the retaining wall will be subjected to different types of loads and pressures, such as industrial sites or large-scale residential developments.


  • Takes into account the friction angle between the retaining wall and the soil
  • More comprehensive in terms of the forces acting on the wall
  • Adaptable to different wall materials (discover which retaining wall material is best)


  • Requires more detailed information about soil properties and wall geometry
  • Can be complex to implement

Log Spiral Method

The Log Spiral Method is the luxury sports car of retaining wall design methods. It’s sleek, it’s sophisticated, and it’s incredibly accurate. This method uses complex calculations to consider the interactions between the wall and the soil, making it the go-to for high-stakes projects where failure is not an option.

Best For: Specialized projects that require the highest level of accuracy, like critical infrastructure or walls that will hold back significant loads.


  • Extremely accurate
  • Takes into account complex interactions between soil and wall
  • Ideal for high-risk projects where failure is not an option


  • Requires specialized software for calculations
  • Not suitable for smaller, simpler projects due to its complexity

Terzaghi-Wegmann Method

The Terzaghi-Wegmann Method is like the hybrid car of retaining wall design—efficient and environmentally friendly. This method is particularly useful when you’re dealing with layered soil conditions. It’s a favorite among Kansas City engineers who are looking to optimize their retaining wall designs for both stability and cost-effectiveness.

Best For: Projects that involve layered soil conditions, such as multi-level developments or terraced gardens.


  • Efficient for layered soil conditions
  • Cost-effective
  • Allows for optimization of wall components


  • Requires detailed soil analysis
  • Not suitable for all types of retaining walls

Bishop’s Simplified Method

Think of Bishop’s Simplified Method as the minivan of retaining wall design—reliable and family-friendly. It’s a simplified version of the more complex Bishop’s Method and is perfect for smaller projects where you don’t need all the bells and whistles.

Best For: Smaller projects like garden walls or low-rise retaining walls in residential areas.


  • Simplified calculations
  • Quick to implement
  • Ideal for smaller projects


  • Not as accurate as other methods
  • Limited to certain types of soil and wall materials

Janbu’s Simplified Method

Janbu’s Simplified Method is the electric scooter of the retaining wall world—quick, easy, and perfect for short distances. This method is great for quick calculations and preliminary designs, making it a go-to for many Kansas City DIYers and professionals alike.

Best For: Quick and preliminary calculations for smaller projects or for initial project assessments.


  • Quick and easy to use
  • Ideal for initial assessments
  • Suitable for DIY projects


  • Not recommended for complex or high-risk projects
  • Limited in terms of the types of soil and loads it can handle

Basic Principles For Designing Retaining Walls

Concrete stone retaining wall blocks opening up the space

There are some foundational principles that you’ve got to get right to ensure your wall stands tall and proud (as well as some retaining wall design tips). Let’s break it down.

Wall Stem Design

Think of the wall stem as the backbone of your retaining wall. It’s like the chassis of a car; it’s got to be strong and well-designed to handle all the stresses and strains.

Specifically, you need to consider the full lateral pressure or earth pressure that will be exerted on the wall. This is the force that the soil behind the wall will apply. To counteract this, the wall stem should be designed with adequate thickness and reinforcement.

  • Materials: Choose materials that can withstand the lateral earth pressure. Concrete is often a good choice.
  • Reinforcement: Steel bars may be used within the concrete to provide additional strength.
  • Height: The taller the wall, the stronger the wall stem needs to be.

Cantilever Fixed At The Footing

If you’re going for a cantilever retaining wall, this part is your wall’s anchor. The cantilever should be securely fixed at the footing to ensure the wall doesn’t tip over. This is where the lever arm concept comes into play.

The cantilever uses the weight of the foundation soil to counterbalance the weight of the soil it’s retaining.

  • Secure Fixing: Use strong bolts and anchors to secure the cantilever to the footing.
  • Material Compatibility: Make sure the materials used for the cantilever and the footing are compatible for a secure fit.
  • Engineering Calculations: Consult with an engineer to calculate the required length and dimensions of the cantilever for maximum stability.

Wall Base Design

Last but not least, let’s talk about the wall base, specifically the heel and toe sections. These are like the front and rear axles of a car. They distribute the load of the wall and the soil it’s retaining.

A well-designed base ensures that the wall remains stable and the forces are evenly distributed.

  • Heel: This is the part of the base located under the retained soil. It should be designed to handle the vertical forces exerted by the soil.
  • Toe: This is the part of the base that extends in front of the wall. It helps in resisting the sliding force.
  • Load Distribution: The base should be designed in a way that it distributes the loads evenly across the foundation soil, reducing the risk of bearing failure.

More To Know About Retaining Wall Design

Retaining wall that creates space and prevents erosion

When it comes to retaining wall design, you’ve got to consider various factors to ensure your wall not only looks good but also stands strong for years to come.

Preliminary Dimensioning

Before you even think about breaking ground, you need to set some baseline dimensions for your retaining wall.

  • Setting Baseline Dimensions: Start by measuring the area where your wall will go. This will help you determine the required length and height of the wall.
  • ACI Recommendations: The American Concrete Institute has some guidelines that can help you get started.
  • Proportionate Dimensions: Just like a well-designed car is balanced in terms of weight and dimensions, your retaining wall should have proportionate dimensions to ensure stability.

Design Considerations

Soil Properties

Soil is the foundation soil of any retaining wall project. In Kansas City, we’ve got everything from clay to sandy loam. Always get a soil test done to know what you’re working with.

Wall Height

The height of your retaining wall can make or break your project. A taller wall will require more robust materials and possibly even engineering consultation.

Surcharge Load

Surcharge load refers to the extra weight that will be added to the soil behind the wall, like buildings or parked cars. Always account for this to ensure your wall can handle the pressure.

Groundwater Level

Keep an eye on the groundwater level in your area. Too much water can exert hydrostatic pressure on your wall, causing it to fail.

Seismic Activity

In Kansas City, seismic activity is generally low, but it’s still something to consider. Your retaining wall should be able to withstand minor shakes and jolts.

Stability Of Adjacent Structures

Your retaining wall shouldn’t compromise the stability of nearby structures. Think of it as sharing the road; you’ve got to coexist without causing problems for your neighbors.

Stability Checks

Before you finalize your retaining wall design, you’ve got to run some stability checks.

  • Overturning Failure & Recommended Factor of Safety: Make sure your wall is designed to resist overturning forces. A factor of safety of at least 2.0 is generally recommended.
  • Sliding Failure & Recommended Factor of Safety: Your wall should also be designed to resist sliding forces. A factor of safety of 1.5 is a good rule of thumb here.
  • Bearing Failure & Recommended Factor of Safety: Your wall should be able to handle the maximum soil bearing pressure without failing. A factor of safety of 2.0 is generally recommended.

Types Of Retaining Walls

Stone block retaining wall creating a natural area and more open space

Gravity Walls: These walls rely on their own weight to hold back the soil. They’re the sedans of the retaining wall world—reliable but not suited for heavy-duty work.

Cantilever Walls: Cantilever walls are like the SUVs of retaining walls. They’re built for tougher jobs and can handle larger loads thanks to the leverage provided by the cantilever.

Sheet Pile Walls: Think of these as the convertibles of retaining walls. They’re best for softer soils and smaller spaces.

Anchored Walls: These are like heavy-duty trucks, designed for the most challenging conditions. They use anchors to provide additional strength.

Discover all 10 types of retaining walls.


Gradex employee leveling a stone retaining wall

This is only a brief overview of how to build a stone retaining wall, but it should give you the main idea:

Excavation: Before you can build your wall, you’ll need to excavate the area. This is like clearing out your garage before bringing in a new car.

Foundation Preparation: A solid foundation is crucial for the overall stability of your retaining wall. Make sure the foundation soil is compacted and level.

Wall Installation: This is the point where the rubber meets the road. Follow the design plans closely during installation to ensure your wall is built to last.

Backfilling: Once the wall is up, it’s time to backfill. Use retained soil that’s free of organic material to ensure stability.

Drainage: Good drainage is crucial to the longevity of your retaining wall. Make sure to install proper drainage systems to deal with groundwater and surface water.

Innovations And Trends

Hey, Kansas City! The retaining wall industry is also shifting gears and speeding into the future. Let’s take a pit stop and check out some of the latest innovations and trends that are revving up the world of retaining walls.

Using Recycled Materials

Gone are the days when construction was all about new, shiny materials. Nowadays, it’s all about sustainability. Recycled materials like rubber, plastic, and even glass are making their way into retaining wall construction. It’s like turning an old clunker into a sleek, eco-friendly ride.

Smart Walls

Imagine a wall that tells you when it’s feeling a bit shaky. No, it’s not science fiction; it’s a smart wall. Equipped with sensors that can monitor stability, soil pressure, and even weather conditions, these walls are the Teslas of the retaining wall world.

Green Walls

If you’re all about that green life, then green walls are for you. These are retaining walls that incorporate vegetation, turning a functional structure into a living, breathing garden. It’s like having a hybrid car that’s also a mobile greenhouse.

Modular Walls

Think of modular walls as the LEGO sets of retaining walls. These walls come in pre-fabricated sections that you can easily assemble and disassemble (part of the pros and cons of modular retaining walls). Perfect for those who like to tinker and tweak their designs.

Why Choose Gradex Co. For Your Retaining Wall Needs?

You’ve just taken a deep dive into the world of retaining walls, and we hope you’ve found this guide useful. At Gradex Co., we have the expertise to handle all your retaining wall needs in Kansas City. From the initial design process to the final construction, we’ve got you covered.

Ready to get your retaining wall project underway? Fill out our contact form today, or give us a call.