Leveling Out the Landscaping
LESLIE: Alex in West Virginia is on the line with a question about grading. Tell us what’s going on at your money pit.
ALEX: I bought my house last year. It’s a 1926 American Foursquare home. The lot that the home was built on is 140 feet deep by 30 feet wide. But the problem is the drop from the very back of the lot to the very front of the lot is pretty significant. It’s about 10 feet. So the house is on a hill and I’m wondering what I can do to level out the front yard so it’s easier to mow and so it looks nicer, if I could build some sort of retaining wall.
And then I want to do something in the backyard the same way because playing on it, for our dog and kids, is kind of hard. I was wondering what you thought about maybe trying to level that out somehow.
TOM: Well, right now it sounds like the house is kind of cut into the hillside. Does it – so it slopes down towards a street in the front or it slopes away from the house?
ALEX: That’s correct. It slopes down. If you stand on the very front of the yard, you can’t – you’re not even above the lawn in the back.
TOM: So, I mean a retaining wall is the best way to achieve that. But of course, building a retaining wall, especially if you’re talking about several feet like that, is no small task. It’s a pretty big project and it’s got to be done well because if it’s not engineered properly, it’s going to fail. Fortunately, today there are a lot of good masonry products – precast masonry products – that work extremely well for retaining walls.
It used to be that your best option was something that looked like railroad ties that were stacked up and you had these railroad ties that would go back into the hillside. They were called “deadmen” because they would just lay there and hold the wall in.
LESLIE: That’s a terrible name.
TOM: But eventually, it – that’s what it was called. It was called the “deadman” and it was the piece that was perpendicular to the wall and was basically covered with soil, because that would be sort of the tie that would hold it in place.
But today, you could use precast retaining-wall blocks. They’re made by a number of great manufacturers. And you can stack those up, once you prepare the base properly, and then just sort of backfill as you go. And remember to provide for proper drainage because that really is the key. Whatever you do, you want to make sure that you’re handling the water that’s running down that hillside properly.
And if you are building into a slope like that, it’s really more important than ever to have what’s called a “swale,” where the water sort of divides before it gets to the back of your house, then it goes around the left and the right sides and then runs down to the street.
But certainly, that’s an option but it’s a big project. And it’s one that I would recommend you get professional help with because of the size and the scope of it. Well worth having a landscape architect or a designer kind of spec that out for you because if you’re going to do it yourself, you’ll know exactly what you have to do.
And if you’re not going to do it yourself, you can use that spec to get bids from qualified contractors and you’ll know that they’re all going to be sort of bidding apples to apples. The problem is if you just call a contractor and say, “Build me a retaining wall,” everyone’s going to build it slightly differently. And it’s going to be hard for you to figure out what’s the best choice, because the guy that’s the cheapest may not be doing the best job or using the best materials. You follow me?
ALEX: Mm-hmm. Oh, yeah, yeah.
TOM: That’s the way I’d approach it.
ALEX: I appreciate your answer. I listen to your podcast every week.
TOM: Well, thank you so much for doing that and we’re so glad you called.
ALEX: Alright. Thank you.