Wall constructed to hold in place a mass of earth or prevent the erosion of an embankment. It may also be battered, with the face inclined toward the load it is bearing. The most basic type of reinforced retaining wall is the massive concrete gravity wall, which is prevented from falling over by the sheer weight and volume of its mass. A cantilever (L-shaped) retaining wall resists overturning by means of cantilever footings, spread footings (see foundation) shaped to resist overturning and sliding.
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A retaining wall is a structure that holds back soil or rock from a building, structure or area. Retaining walls prevent downslope movement or erosion and provide support for vertical or near-vertical grade changes. Cofferdams and bulkheads, structures that hold back water, are sometimes also considered retaining walls. Retaining walls are generally made of masonry, stone, brick, concrete, vinyl, steel or timber. Once popular as an inexpensive retaining material, railroad ties have fallen out of favor due to environmental concerns.
Segmental retaining walls have gained favor over poured-in-place concrete walls or treated-timber walls. They are more economical, easier to install and more environmentally sound.
The most important consideration in proper design and installation of retaining walls is that the retained material is attempting to move forward and downslope due to gravity. This creates lateral earth pressure behind the wall which depends on the angle of internal friction (phi) and the cohesive strength (c) of the retained material, as well as the direction and magnitude of movement the retaining structure undergoes.
Lateral earth pressures are typically smallest at the top of the wall and increase toward the bottom. Earth pressures will push the wall forward or overturn it if not properly addressed. Also, any groundwater behind the wall that is not dissipated by a drainage system causes an additional horizontal hydrostatic pressure on the wall.
As an example, the International Building Code requires retaining walls to be designed to ensure stability against overturning, sliding, excessive foundation pressure and water uplift; and that they be designed for a safety factor of 1.5 against lateral sliding and overturning.
Earlier in the 20th century, taller retaining walls were often gravity walls made from large masses of concrete or stone. Today, taller retaining walls are increasingly built as composite gravity walls such as: geosynthetic or with precast facing; gabions (stacked steel wire baskets filled with rocks); crib walls (cells built up log cabin style from precast concrete or timber and filled with soil); or soil-nailed walls (soil reinforced in place with steel and concrete rods).
Proper drainage behind the wall is critical to the performance of retaining walls. Drainage materials will reduce or eliminate the hydrostatic pressure and increase the stability of the fill material behind the wall, assuming that this is not a retaining wall for water.
A number of systems exist that do not simply consist of the wall itself, but reduce the earth pressure acting on the wall itself. These are usually used in combination with one of the other wall types, though some may only use it as facing (i.e. for visual purposes).
The wall face is often of precast concrete units that can tolerate some differential movement. The reinforced soil's mass, along with the facing, then acts as an improved gravity wall. The reinforced mass must be built large enough to retain the pressures from the soil behind it. Gravity walls usually must be a minimum of 50 to 60 percent as deep or thick as the height of the wall, and may have to be larger if there is a slope or surcharge on the wall.
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