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Collapsing Retaining Wall

A collapsing retaining wall can be incredibly dangerous to your Huntsville, AL, home and even your health. Acting quickly is key to preventing avoidable damage.

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Building a home is a long, lengthy, and complex process that requires the architects to think of all possible factors and pressures. This includes everything from the size and layout of the home to the climate in the surrounding area and the soil it is built on. Building a home at the very top of a slope is an innovative idea for many reasons. For example, this placement will seriously reduce the likelihood of perimeter saturation and flooding, especially in Birmingham, AL

The downside is that it can be hard to build at the top of a slope. Finding enough flat ground for a home can be hard enough and making space for a usable yard can be harder still. Landscaping can help a huge amount to create the necessary space, of course, but this relies on the effective use of retaining walls. If you experience a collapsing retaining wall on your property, then the consequences could be dire. 

Helical anchors installed on retaining wall

What You Need to Know About Retaining Walls 

A retainer wall is a landscaping tool that is used to create structured layers in a property that is placed on uneven or sloping land. Building a retaining wall is no easy feat, because while it may seem the same as building any wall in principle, retaining walls are subject to high levels of pressure without the support that a wall has when it is a part of a full structure. 

Likewise, because retaining walls are subject to enormous amounts of lateral pressure, they must be carefully designed to make the most of gravity and minimize the amount of weight that the earth behind the wall is able to exert. In this endeavor, professionals must consider:  

  • Soil type (e.g., clay-based, and expansive or loose and light) 
  • Drainage capabilities 
  • Location 
  • Height 
  • Surcharge loads 

If any of these factors are not properly accounted for, then your property’s retaining walls will be weak and susceptible to damage. Unfortunately, any kind of damage to your property’s retaining walls can be severe overall. Like all kinds of structural damage, this is an issue that will get worse over time and eventually cause collapse. The problem is that if a retaining wall near your property collapses, the amount of soil that moves could damage your home. 

Collapsing Retaining Wall


A number of factors could be at work when it comes to a collapsing retaining wall. However, generally speaking, it will be an issue with the soil and climate or the design and materials of the wall itself. Whichever issue is at work, damage is likely to follow. 

Soil and Climate 

As is often the case with other structural issues like foundation damage and bowing basement walls, the most common cause of retaining wall damage and collapse tends to be an excess of hydrostatic pressure. This lateral pressure is created by the weight of the soil and the water that it holds, and, as such, it can fluctuate wildly depending on a number of factors. The first, and perhaps most influential, is the kind of soil that your home rests on. 

Expansive soils, for example, are those that are made up of very absorbent types of earth. For example, many expansive soils in the south of the U.S. are heavily clay-based. As well as being heavy, cohesive, and prone to absorbing water, these soils also swell when saturated, meaning that they exert more pressure on walls and property foundations. In a humid and wet climate like those found in Tennessee and Alabama, this kind of soil can increase in size dramatically and become heavy, causing walls to crack, buckle, and collapse. 

Design and Materials 

Retaining walls, just like basement walls, foundation walls, and external structures, require careful planning and good quality materials in order to fulfill their intended purpose. If either of these things are not quite up to standard, then there will be trouble ahead. In fact, if the wall is poorly designed or the materials used are sub-standard, the wall will begin to fail almost immediately. 

In terms of design failure, the most common issues are miscalculations regarding the likely levels of hydrostatic pressure in the area, the necessary height and thickness of the wall, or the amount of drainage points needed. When it comes to materials, defects can mean flawed bricks, warped or rotting wood, or flawed concrete that has been poorly mixed or improperly cured. Either way, the wall that is made will start to crack and buckle within a year or two. 

There may be a few, extreme cases in which replacing a retaining wall, or sections of a retaining wall, will be the best or only option. However, repair is far more viable and cost-effective in most cases, and these days there are many different options. 

Acting Quickly Prevents the Need for Replacement 

In most cases, acting quickly will make repairing a collapsing retaining wall far easier because you will be dealing with the issue in its infancy. In theory, this should make it easy and relatively straightforward to repair because it will not have had time to snowball and cause secondary issues like separating, fragmentation, or advanced bowing and buckling. 

Of course, there are some cases in which repair will always be a complex issue, no matter how quickly you act. For example, tree root invasion and damage caused by defects in the materials or design of the wall will always be hard to deal with. If the defects are serious enough or the tree roots have spread across the length of the wall, then replacement may be the only option. 

Replacement is Expensive and Time-Consuming 

Most professionals will recommend that you do everything in your power to avoid replacing a retaining wall for a number of reasons. First and foremost, the process of removing and replacing a damaged retaining wall can be incredibly expensive, time-consuming, and even dangerous to your home and your health. All of this means, of course, that it is preferable to repair the existing structure where possible. 

Thankfully, this is usually possible – unless the wall is very badly damaged or the whole structure is badly flawed. Generally speaking, a professional will suggest helical tie backs or wall anchors to stabilize and straighten a damaged wall, but other solutions may be needed to deal with the underlying causes, depending on what forces are at work. 

No, there is nothing that you can do as a non-professional to safely and effectively repair and deal with the effects of a damaged or collapsing retaining wall. 

DIY Could Cause Collapse 

The main problem with taking a DIY approach to the repair of damaged retaining walls is the same as the problem with trying to repair a damaged wall in your home: it can be incredibly dangerous. If you, as a non-professional, disturb the damaged wall too much or you try to implement an unsuitable solution, then there is a high chance that you will cause the wall to collapse.  

Of course, for many people, the point of DIY is to save time and money while still dealing with the issues that are present in their homes. However, we always tell our clients that DIY should end where structural repairs begin. This is partly for safety reasons, of course, but also because the tools and equipment needed to undertake these repairs are specialist and difficult to use (as well as being expensive to hire). If you don’t have the right training, then you could find that you do more harm than good. 

Professionals Know What to Do 

One of the main reasons to hire professionals to repair your retaining walls, is the fact that they have all of the tools and equipment that they will need to undertake the work for you. Furthermore, they will find it much easier to get ahold of the products they need to complete this work because they have access to professional supply stores, and they can buy from manufacturers when needed. This means that they can often give you a better result at a similar cost to DIY. 

Of course, above and beyond these concerns, professionals will be able to deal with the underlying causes of retaining wall damage, as well as the damage to the wall itself in a controlled and safe manner. This means that you will get a high-quality, durable solution that will protect your property as a whole for years to come. Finally, professional services offer one thing that even the best DIY job never will: convenience and ease. The stress that DIY can bring to your life is substantial, but a professional job will give you better results without the stress, mess, and hassle. 

Problem Signs of a Collapsing Retaining Wall 

The problem signs of most structural issues tend to be similar in many ways, of course, but they can present themselves slightly differently, according to the structure in question. In fact, it will also depend on the material that the retaining wall is made from, too. Retaining walls can be made of concrete, metal, brick, or masonry. The problem signs associated with the failure or impending collapse of a retaining wall include, but are not limited to: 


Cracks of any kind are a bad sign in a retaining wall (or any wall for that matter), but there are some cracks that are more concerning than others and should be treated as such. A small crack that you cannot fit a business card into, for example, is called a hairline crack. So long as it is stable (meaning that it is not growing), this kind of crack is not a huge issue. 

A diagram of a foundation wall anchor system installation.

Spreading cracks, by contrast, are those that are actively growing in length, width, or depth. They are a far more significant issue and can come in several sizes. All are an immediate concern, however, as they are a sign that the retaining wall is struggling to cope with the pressure that it is being required to withstand. 

If you see cracks in your retaining wall, then you should contact a professional immediately and limit the amount of time you spend in proximity to the wall until someone can assess the risk of collapse. 

Crumbling and Cosmetic Damage 

If you have a retaining wall that is made of treated wood or poured concrete, then cosmetic issues like staining, flaking, warping, spalling, and pitting can be precursors to serious damage and deterioration. Cosmetic damage is also a problem sign that can be connected to several problems. 

From saturated soil to defective or flawed materials, cosmetic damage can be a problem sign of many different issues around a property. As such, it is important that you investigate them fully. Failure to investigate could lead to cosmetic damage snowballing and becoming more widespread and serious structural damage. 

Visible Leaning and Bowing 

While cracks are often the first sign of damage in a retaining wall of any kind, there are some cases where it starts to lean, buckle, or bow. Any kind of buckling, bowing, or leaning is likely to be connected to extreme lateral pressure or a failing in the design or construction of the wall. 

These are also strong signs of structural damage to a property that should not be ignored – they will only grow and spread until they become completely unmanageable or the wall collapses. Leaning or bowing walls are likely to start cracking at some point in the process of movement, so be aware that these problem signs are likely to be co-occurring. 

There are two main ways this issue usually manifests in retaining walls. Firstly, the wall can start to lean outwards at the very top or bottom. It is most common for the top of the wall to lean rather than the bottom because this point is free-standing along its length (i.e., it is not connected directly to the ground or another structure). Alternatively, the wall can start to bulge and buckle in the middle. This usually happens at the point where the soil behind the wall exerts the most pressure or at a point where the wall is already weak. 

Separation From Adjacent Walls 

Retaining walls of any considerable length tend to be built in sections rather than as one continuous length of wall. This increases the ability of the walls to withstand pressure and weight to a certain extent. In some cases, the joints between these sections of the wall, or the joining point between the retaining wall and any property that it is connected to, can be the weak spots. 

This weakness or damage may display itself as a growing gap between the sections of the wall or the wall and that connected property. Over time, this process of separation may also lead to cracking or leaning and bowing in the affected walls. As the soil begins to shift or fall through the gap, the pressure the wall faces may increase or decrease (this depends on several factors), but even if the pressure is relieved, a wall with these gaps poses a risk of collapse. 

Extreme weather or flooding, for example, could be all it takes to further damage the already unstable wall and cause it to collapse partially or fully. Likewise, a sudden snap freeze or a series of freezes and thaws could exacerbate the damage. 


Retaining walls should have drainage facilities in place, just like any other man-made structure, so seeing water coming from the wall is not necessarily an issue (especially during or just after a storm). However, any leaks or water should be coming from actual drainage lines or spots. These will be placed regularly and be visibly manufactured and intentional. 

If you find cracks that are leaking after storms, or water is running over the top of your retaining walls, this might mean you have problems to deal with. In Knoxville, TN, most obviously, this is a sign of issues with drainage, but this problem with proper drainage will undoubtedly lead to structural damage like cracking and leaning. 

Root Protrusion 

If you notice tree roots or plants growing through your retaining walls, this is a serious problem that should not be ignored. Tree roots are very powerful and can break through almost any surface at a given time. Even a well-built retaining wall will not withstand mature tree roots indefinitely. 

If you see roots starting to protrude from cracks in your retaining walls, then you should refrain from trying to remove them. Keep in mind that they may now be responsible for holding up certain sections of that wall. Instead, you should contact a professional to ensure that the situation is properly assessed. 

These signs of damage and deterioration are serious and should not be ignored. Making sure that you act quickly could save you time and money by preventing an avoidable collapse in sections of the wall or the wall as a whole. Thankfully, there are a number of solutions available these days. 

How to Fix a Collapsing Retaining Wall 

Of course, as with any structural issue, the solution to a collapsing retaining wall will depend heavily on the situation and the underlying causes of the damage. Nonetheless, there are now a number of potential solutions that can be used to repair a damaged wall rather than simply replacing it. 

In most cases, the solution to a collapsing retaining wall will be similar to the repair methods used to stabilize and straighten bowing walls. Helical tiebacks and wall anchors, for example, are common and effective methods of repair for these kinds of issues. These methods of repair work to stabilize a damaged wall by applying equal but opposite force to a wall to counteract the weight of the soil behind it. 

In most cases, this will be incredibly effective, but there are some cases where it’s necessary to take supplementary repair processes alongside these measures in order to get the best possible results. This could mean installing extra drainage systems or replacing the most damaged sections of a wall. This is why it is important to contact a professional when you notice these signs. The solution to a collapsing retaining wall is rarely as simple as it seems to be. 

Professional Repairs From AFS Foundation & Waterproofing Specialists 

If you are worried about retaining walls on your property, please do not hesitate to contact the team here at AFS Foundation & Waterproofing Specialists. We have been helping homeowners restore their properties to full stability since 2000. As such, our team has decades of collective experience to bring to projects. We’re happy to serve Birmingham, AL, Huntsville, AL, Mobile, AL, Nashville, TN, Chattanooga, TN, and Knoxville, TN. 

Whether your retaining wall has already collapsed, or it is simply showing signs of damage, we always begin with a free inspection appointment. These appointments come with no obligation to book repairs with us on the day, or at any time, but you will be provided with a written estimate for the cost of all of our suggested repairs. This will help you to make an informed decision if you decide to shop around a little. 


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