Prized for their strength and versatility, concrete retaining walls require precise construction methods. With this high level of technicality comes incredible versatility. Poured concrete retaining walls can be colored, textured, accented with embedded objects and much more. When installed properly, concrete offers much more room for customization than any other retaining wall material.

Here are the steps Tom Ralston, owner of Tom Ralston Concrete in Santa Cruz, CA, follows when pouring a retaining wall:

  1. Meet with clients and determine what components they want and how the space will function.
  2. Design the walls - determine shape, size and placement.
  3. Remove existing plants, top soil and other debris that may be in the way of construction, Ralston calls this process grubbing.
  4. Lay out and dig the footings.
  5. Build forms.
  6. Add rebar for reinforcement, Ralston places rebar every 16” on center.
  7. Pour footings and wall. If the wall exceeds four feet in height, footings should be poured separately.
  8. Allow concrete to cure.
  9. Create contraction joints every 4-6 feet.
  10. Remove forms and install waterproofing and drainage system.
  11. Finish the surface of the wall as desired.
  12. Install patios, steps and other hardscape elements.

Decorative options for concrete walls:

  • Stamp the surface of the walls - Ralston uses texture skins
  • Do a sponge finish while the concrete is wet - creates a stucco-like look
  • Trowel in a Victorian swirl pattern - looks like old-fashioned plaster
  • Apply an acid stain or color hardener

Transforming a Hillside

Tom Ralston Concrete used cast concrete walls to transform this hillside into a beautiful and usable space. These walls were designed to have sweeping curves and integral lighting. The surface of the walls was hard troweled and colored with an Alcantar Nutmeg Color hardener to create a variegated look. To preserve the structural integrity and decorative finish, a cementitious waterproofing was installed to back of the wall where it contacts dirt.

Layered Concrete Retaining Wall

This wall, created by Ron Odell's Custom Concrete, is over one hundred feet in length, more than a foot wide and took three truckloads of concrete to pour. To achieve the layered look light gray concrete was poured in the bottom of the forms and then sprinkled with rocks and other natural debris which was followed with dark gray concrete. This process was repeated until the forms were completely filled.

Learn More: Redefining the Retaining Wall

Terracing a Hillside with Concrete

A forty foot grade made retaining walls necessary for this property. Victor Amador, of Soft Concrete, formed the walls himself and poured them in place. He approached the walls from the mindset of a sculptor, creating pleasing curves and even pockets that serve as planters. The walls were textured with an Italian slate stamp and painted to match the house.

See the rest of this project: Concrete Pathways & Textured Concrete Walls Create the Perfect Garden

Poured Wall with Embeds

The low retaining wall surrounding this patio is far from ordinary. Hundreds of rocks and stones found on site, as well as local seashells, were embedded randomly to enhance the freeform organic design. Portions of the wall were polished, while the areas with protruding stones were left alone. The top of the wall features a ribbon of glass aggregates.

Learn more: Contractor Uses Decorative Aggregate and Stone to Transform a Concrete Patio