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Retaining Walls: Are They Always Necessary?

It seems that at least a quarter of the time I visit a home to help a customer design their new pool, I run into a need for a retaining wall. Retaining walls can range in size from just a foot or so high, to as high as ten feet or more. As you can see in the photo above, the ground drops off quickly and significantly. There is no other way to complete this project except by using a retaining wall to hold things back once we have excavated for the pool.

Small walls are simple usually, but when we get above two feet we need to involve engineers and proper planning to ensure the wall stays in place, and to meet the requirements of the County. Once the retaining wall is in place, however, the pool will fit right in, and the end result for this customer was beautiful.

If your yard drops off significantly, at about where you want to put your pool you may have some choices to avoid installing a wall. One easy way to accomplish this is to use the dirt excavated from the pool site, to build a berm, or grassy area, to gradually slope away from the pool. San Juan fiberglass swimming pools are built with enough strength to easily sit elevated above the ground 18 to 24 inches, without causing stress on the pool’s structure.

By raising the pool a little to meet the grade on the upslope of the yard, and building a sloping berm on the opposite side, a retaining wall will become unnecessary. If the slope is steep this method will not work and a retaining wall will have to be built. In the photo above, even though there was a significant drop off, it was over enough distance that the excavated dirt was perfect for a berm, and the customer planted shrubs to stabilize the slope.

To find how much the yard slopes, take a line level, readily available at any hardware store, and place it on a length of string, and extend along the yard as it falls away. Hold the line level using the leveling tool and then measure the height of the line above the grade. That will be the amount of the drop off. Anything more than two feet will probably need a retaining wall.

Often retaining walls can be incorporated into the landscape plan, especially when they are used to hold back the dirt along the high side of the yard. In this case, a retaining wall will keep the grade held back, and there will be a step down to the pool decking area. This creates a perfect opportunity to build an elevated yard area overlooking the pool.

When the wall is complete, you can clear an area behind the wall that can be as large or small as you like, and plant decorative trees or shrubs. These landscaping beds become like an oasis of greenery around the pool deck.

Retaining walls are not always the solution if your yard has a slope. Your pool builder or landscaper should be able to tell immediately if you will need a retaining wall or whether the drop off is controllable using a berm. If a retaining wall is necessary expect additional cost for your project.

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