Retaining walls
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Retaining walls

You must construct a slope or a retaining wall if you identify a difference in grade during the design process.

Consider a slope if there is adequate space to build a stable slope that satisfies the minimum factor of safety required in the current design practice.

Use a retaining wall if adequate space for a stable slope is not available.

The maximum slope steepness is dictated by the global stability analysis which requires minimum factors of safety as indicated in the Geotechnical Manual.

The slope can be protected with riprap to discourage erosion and/or eliminate the need for mowing and other maintenance.

Consider the following criteria in choosing a retaining wall:

  • Cut or fill determination.
  • Constructability.
  • Aesthetics.
  • Economics.
  • Stability.

Cut or fill determination

The first step in wall selection is to determine whether a wall will be built in a cut or fill situation. Use fill type walls in embankment filling situations. While fill walls can be built in cut situations, the opposite is not true for all cut walls.

The construction of fill walls in cuts requires additional excavation behind the face of the wall and, possibly, temporary shoring. For fill walls built in cuts, the cost of the wall, excavation, and shoring can exceed the cost of a more suitable cut wall.

Fill condition

Two common fill conditions are:

  • Level ground: This condition is best represented by at-grade crossings that are upgraded to grade separations by raising one roadway above the other. This is accomplished by placing fill for the approach to the new, elevated structure.

    Approach retaining walls are commonly needed in urban areas due to the lack of available right of way for side slopes. The most common fill walls in this situation are mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) or concrete block.

  • Slopes: Fill walls placed on slopes require special consideration. Typical fill walls, such as MSE or concrete block built on slopes are considered on a case by case scenario and need to be analyzed by global stability. For walls with a front slope, a bench in front of the wall can improve global stability on the long-term. A notch to be cut into the slope is often required for wall construction. The back face of the excavation may need to be supported with temporary shoring. Consider other wall types if the fill will extend into water.

    Consider the costs of other wall types, such as sheet piling, if cofferdams or temporary shoring are required for construction. Below is a diagram of fill on slope.

Cut/fill condition

This condition consists of placing fill on the upper portion of a slope and removing the lower portion of the slope. This condition is typically encountered when upgrading controlled access facilities when both the main lanes and frontage roads are widened. Below is a diagram of a cut/fill condition.

Consider the following wall types for this situation:

  • MSE or concrete block walls. These wall types require that adequate space be available to accommodate the reinforcement strips or grids. If excavation is necessary into an embankment, the use of temporary special shoring might be required. Other wall types may be more appropriate if extensive temporary shoring is necessary for MSE wall construction.
  • Drilled shaft walls. Depending on the location of the wall on the slope, the wall may be constructed in one or two stages. If the top of the wall is closer to the top of the slope, temporary fill, if appropriate, may be placed prior to drilled shaft excavation to allow the shafts to be constructed in one stage. This will avoid concrete forms for drilled shaft construction. If temporary fill is not used, the portion of the shaft below the existing ground line is constructed first, and then the portion above ground is formed and poured as a column. In firm soil or rock, drilled shaft walls can be an economical alternative.
  • Tied-back walls. Use these walls only in a cut/fill situation when the existing ground line is closer to the top of the proposed wall than the bottom (located in the upper half of the wall). Place and compact any fill before installing soldier piling. Typically tied-back walls are most economical when significant quantities are used on a project.
  • Sheet pile walls. Sheet pile walls have occasionally been used in cut/fill situations. The ground must be loose or soft enough to a depth below finished grade of one to two times the wall height to allow the piling to be driven. It is difficult to advance sheet piling sections in dense material or material stiffer than 12 inch/100 blows.
  • L-shaped spread footing. This wall type is commonly used when a small cut is made at the base of a slope or there is not enough space to accommodate the foundation heel due to existing utilities. The lack of a heel minimizes the excavation required behind the wall.

Cut condition

In this condition, the primary operation is removing ground with little or no fill placed. The wall choices for this condition are similar to the cut/fill condition. The same considerations apply, except that tied-back and drilled shaft walls are easier to construct in this condition. Below is a diagram of a cut condition. Other cut wall types to consider here are soil or rock nailed walls.

Soil and rock nailed walls may be constructed in many cut situations and are well suited for low headroom situations under structures including turn-around wall construction under bridges. If possible, the top of wall should be no more than two feet above the existing grade.


Drilled shaft and tied-back walls require drilling a vertical hole in the ground. This dictates that adequate overhead clearance be available for drilling equipment. If clearance is not available, low headroom drilling equipment may be used and shaft reinforcement or soldier piling members can be spliced as they are inserted in the hole. These operations increase costs considerably. In a low headroom situation, a nailed wall is often more economical.

Horizontal clearance is a consideration for tied-back and nailed walls. Tie-backs are often installed with a continuous flight auger somewhat longer than the depth of the hole, which typically means 50 feet or greater horizontal clearance is required. Sectional augers may be used in limited clearance areas. Nails, being shorter, typically need around 20 feet or more clearance for installation. Because of the minimum size of common drilling equipment used, 20-foot horizontal and 6-foot vertical clearances should be considered minimum clearances. The total required clearance will depend on the length and installation angle of the nails.


The final criterion is aesthetics, a difficult area because opinions vary widely. Within reason, most aesthetic treatments can be accomplished independently of wall type.

Some walls such as concrete block walls have a unique appearance that cannot be duplicated by another wall type. However, concrete block facing elements can be used with another type wall to accomplish the aesthetic goal.

The aesthetic treatment of retaining walls may involve items such as:

  • Form liners to produce various surface finishes.
  • Paints, stains, or colored concrete to color surfaces.
  • Various wall geometries to accommodate landscaping.

Depending on the treatment selected, cost may not be significantly affected. The use of simple form liners can be economical, and colored concrete can be expensive. Normal field surface finishing of colored concrete can also yield variable colors.

Consider also the amount of interaction that will occur between the motoring public and the aesthetic treatment. A complicated graphic next to a high-speed roadway is a blur to most passing motorists who might view the graphic for only tenths of a second. In this case, a simple form liner might be a more appropriate treatment. If a wall faces a park or other public area, more elaborate treatments may be warranted.

Potential wall distortions during construction or after construction may significantly affect the appearance of the aesthetic. MSE walls, for example, are flexible wall systems that experience some movement over the life of the wall.

Aesthetic treatments with landscaping in conjunction with retaining walls should be done carefully. If extensive watering of landscaping is anticipated, additional drainage measures may be needed to ensure that excessive pressures do not build up behind walls.

Alternate walls

It is sometimes difficult to pick the most suitable wall for a cut or cut/fill condition. The designer may not be able to evaluate factors that a contractor considers important, such as equipment availability or haul cost for excavated soil for MSE wall construction in a cut. In such instances, the designer may elect to include an alternate wall type in the plans so that the contractor can determine the most economical choice.

When dissimilar wall types are included in the plans for a single wall, present the wall types as alternates so that the appropriate bid items may be included in each alternate. An MSE wall alternate in a cut must include an item for temporary shoring, whereas the tied-back alternate would not need a shoring item. Below is a wall selection flow chart.

Wall layout considerations

Carefully consider the location of retaining walls. The location of a wall can affect the wall quantity significantly.

Embankment side slopes

Consider a typical grade separation where inadequate right of way requires retaining walls to be placed along the approach embankment. In these situations, the walls can be placed at the edge of the upper roadway with the top of wall coincident with the top of the embankment or at some distance from the edge of pavement with the slope extending from the edge of pavement to the top of wall.

Placing the wall coincident with the edge of pavement requires the placement of a concrete rail on top of the wall and eliminates any possibility for a future widening of the upper roadway; however, it improves the long-term serviceability of the wall.

Placing the wall a distance from the edge of pavement requires the use of a guard fence or concrete barrier at the edge of the pavement. It also allows future widening of the upper roadway if the provisions are made in the initial design and detailing of the wall.

Widening fill sections

Fill sections that are being widened present special considerations. Typically, some soil must be excavated to allow construction of an MSE wall.

Placing the face of wall as close as possible to the toe of existing slope minimizes excavation and temporary shoring. Care must be taken to ensure that the slope is stable and wall global stability requirements are met.

Placing the wall close to the existing top of embankment requires use of a cut-type wall or a fill-type wall with extensive shoring.

Depressed sections

In depressed sections, consider additional width for the lower roadway to allow for future lane additions. Once retaining walls are in place, they cannot be moved to accommodate future width requirements.

Bridge abutments

Place retaining walls a reasonable distance in front of bridge abutments to allow adequate clearance for wall construction. For most retaining walls, the face of the wall should be at least 3 feet in front of the face of the abutment cap. For tie-back, soil-nail, and MSE walls, this is especially critical because the anchors and wall reinforcements may need to be skewed around the abutment foundations.

To improve the appearance of walls, control of the top of wall profile with vertical curves rather than discreet elevations at specific points. This results in a much smoother top of wall.

Structures behind walls

Consider the proximity of a retaining wall to structures behind the wall. MSE walls are usually placed at least one to three feet in front of foundation to allow space for attachment of the reinforcements to the facing panels and skewing of the reinforcements.

Stability considerations

Thoroughly investigate retaining wall stability. Stability analysis should be conducted for both short- and long-term conditions.

Unlike foundation failures, which can occur slowly over a period of years, retaining walls can fail rapidly with catastrophic results. Retaining wall failures can close a transportation facility just as quickly as a bridge failure.

Sliding and overturning

Sliding involves the lateral translation of a wall due to inadequate resistance to movement at the base of the wall. Past sliding failures have involved marginal soil at the base of walls.

Overturning relies on the mass of the wall to resist the soil driving forces behind the wall. Because the driving forces are applied to the wall at roughly two-thirds the wall height above the base, the wall tends to overturn if the wall mass or geometry is inadequate.

Consult the governing standard for minimum factors of safety for these two modes of failure.


The combination of vertical and horizontal loads on a wall combine to produce a resultant force at the base of a wall, which is not at the middle of the footing. The distance between the middle of the footing and the location of the resultant force is the eccentricity. The location of the resultant force is limited to the middle third of the footing in design to ensure that the rear part of the footing does not lift off the ground.

Bearing pressure

The weight of the wall mass and the active driving forces behind the wall exert pressure on the foundation soil along the wall base. The pressure is greatest at the toe of the wall. If the ultimate bearing capacity of the soil under the toe of the wall is exceeded, the toe of the wall can plunge down into the foundation soil. The result is a local distortion of the wall face.

 A safety factor of 2.0 in bearing capacity is generally considered adequate.

Global stability

Global failures of walls encompass the entire wall as well as a portion of the retained soil. This type of failure does not always depend on the wall design specifically but more on the strength of the foundation and retained soil. Computer programs can evaluate global stability.

Consult the TxDOT Geotechnical Manual for minimum factor of safety for global stability.


Settlement can be significant when walls are constructed on soil softer than approximately 5 blows/12 inch TCP. Settlement is mainly a problem in the coastal areas of the state where soil softer than two blows/12 inch occurs to depths of 20 to 50 feet.

If a bridge approach embankment is constructed over soil subject to significant settlement, there are several options to either accelerate consolidation or to install foundation improvements.

Settlement can be accelerated by installing vertical drains through the compressible subsoil. Construction of embankments on very soft soil is also more likely to result in rotational stability failures during construction if no precautions are taken.

When encountering significant layers of soft soil, obtain samples for consolidation testing to determine potential settlement. Note that data obtained from consolidation testing is only approximate.

Temper any values calculated for settlement with previous experience in the area. When significant settlement is anticipated, the best solution may be to lengthen the bridge and, thereby, reduce the height of the approach. This is often the most economical and practical solution.

Design procedures

The design of retaining walls requires a thorough knowledge of structural and geotechnical engineering. This does not mean that one person must design every aspect of a retaining wall. Design loads and allowable pressures recommended by a geotechnical engineer are often used by a structural engineer to design the wall.

The following design procedures convey general methods and do not address every design situation.

Earth pressure distribution

Determine the pressure applied by soil on a retaining structure by different methods depending upon the wall type.

The soil behind walls, which are free to deflect or move in response to the applied loads, are considered to be in the active state. For this condition, calculate the earth pressure based on Rankine's or Coulomb's methods. The pressure distribution is triangular in shape with the maximum pressure occurring at the bottom of the wall. This is the case for spread footing, MSE, drilled shaft, and sheet pile walls. Usually soil pressure is assumed to increase downward at a rate of 40 psf per foo of depth.

Structures such as tied-back walls or braced excavation shoring are more or less fixed and, therefore, unable to achieve the active state. For this condition, use an earth pressure distribution as proposed by Terzaghi and Peck. The pressure distribution is in the shape of a trapezoid.

Internal analysis

Internal analysis refers to the design of the wall structure to resist the stresses induced by the earth pressure applied to the wall. This aspect of design comprises mostly structural engineering. The various elements of the wall must be designed to carry the stresses generated so that an adequate factor of safety is attained.

  • Mechanically stabilized Earth walls: The internal design of MSE walls involves checking the earth reinforcements for allowable stresses and anchorage into the mass of select fill behind the face.

    Make allowances for metal section loss on the reinforcements when computing tensile stresses. Alter the reinforcement density and size to attain proper stresses and anchorage.

    The overall dimension of the reinforced mass is most often governed by external stability.
  • Tied-back walls: The internal design of tied-back walls involves the analysis of a continuous beam (soldier pile) to determine the support reactions (tied-back loads) for an applied load diagram (earth pressures).

    Correct the tied-back loads determined by the continuous beam analysis to account for the anchor inclination. Select a soldier pile that will adequately resist the maximum bending moments from the continuous beam analysis. Then design the wall facing that spans between the soldier piling. Analyze this as a simple beam to support the maximum soil pressure. Then design the facing-soldier pile connection.
  • Drilled shaft walls: The design of these walls involves the analysis of a continuous beam on nonlinear supports.

    The nonlinear supports model the soil in which the beam is embedded. This approach accounts for the bending stiffness of the drilled shaft foundation unlike other methods, which consider the foundation to be infinitely stiff.

    Use the computer program COM624 or LPILE to conduct the analysis. Use the program to determine the foundation response to the applied load for a range of embedment depths. Determine a foundation length by examining the embedment-deflection relationship for a suitable deflection either at the ground line or the top of wall.

External analysis

The external analysis of walls examines whether walls will stay where built. A number of failures of walls and embankments prove that external stability is just as important as internal design. External stability is routinely evaluated for fill-type walls. Cut-type walls are not routinely checked for external stability due to the different approaches to their design. However, if exceptionally soft soil is present, check the various aspects of external stability for cut-type walls. As always, sound engineering judgment should prevail.

  • Sliding and Overturning: Sliding of a retaining wall occurs when the active driving forces from the soil behind the wall exceed the frictional or cohesive forces along the base of the wall and the passive resisting force in front of the wall. Whether to include passive forces in front of a wall depends on whether that soil will be present during construction or at some future date.

    Overturning occurs when the active driving forces exceed the gravitation resisting forces of the wall mass. The mass of the wall is considered the reinforced volume for an MSE wall or the weight of the concrete and soil above the heel for a spread footing wall. The safety factor is determined by adding moments about the toe of the wall.
  • Eccentricity: The eccentricity is the sum of the moments of the forces acting at the base of the wall divided by the sum of the vertical forces. The moments are normally calculated at the rear of the base of the wall.

  • Bearing pressure: Bearing capacity failures under walls involve the displacement of soil from under the wall. Use bearing capacity equations to determine the ultimate capacity of the foundation soil. These equations require cohesion and friction values determined by triaxial testing. If this data is not available, use Texas cone penetration data to obtain allowable bearing pressures from the drilled shaft and spread footing design chart.

    The classical bearing capacity equation for the ultimate soil pressure is below.


Nc, Nq, Ng are theoretical factors based on the geometry of the failing mass of soil beneath a footing, c is the soil cohesion, and g is the density of the soil. A safety factor of two is typically required for bearing capacity.

The figure below gives these factors.

  • Global stability: Global stability of walls is a special case of slope stability. The limits of the wall affect where a potential failure surface can develop.

    The failure surface for a rotational failure can be either circular or noncircular depending on the stratification of the foundation soil. For walls on uniform soft clay, the failure surfaces tend to be circular. If the soft zone is fairly thin, the failure surface tends to be noncircular following the soft zone.

    TxDOT uses the GSTABL 7 computer program to analyze for stability. While the subsoil can be tested in advance to obtain strength data for analysis, the future embankment material properties are unknown. An accurate answer is difficult to obtain because normally about half of the failure surface passes through the embankment behind a fill wall.

    Local experience may provide some insight into the strength of the proposed fill. While computer programs are used to evaluate wall stability, an approximate hand check of the results may be conducted by the method of slices.

Recommended construction and maintenance system selection


The project engineer must ensure that the retaining wall system selected for a given location is appropriate. MSE wall suppliers are only responsible for the internal and external stability of their walls. The overall (global) stability of an MSE wall system is the responsibility of the engineer who selects this type of wall for inclusion into the plans.

The RW(MSE)DD (Design Data) is a 2013 standard sheet in the proprietary retaining walls section. This standard sheet must be used in conjunction with the RW(MSE) standard. It is required that the retaining wall designer of record at the time of plan preparation populate this sheet with assumptions fundamental to the wall design, and sign and seal this sheet. Refer to the document, RW(MSE)DD Guidance, for further information on the use of this standard.


Location geometry most often dictates the selection of a retaining wall system. The Geotechnical Manual offers information regarding evaluation of geometry and selection of various wall types.

MSE walls are commonly used on TxDOT projects; however, in many situations--especially cuts--MSE walls may not be the most appropriate wall type. Often the additional excavation and shoring required for installation of MSE walls in cut situations make them uneconomical and difficult to construct. Although tied-back, soil nailed, drilled shaft and spread footing walls all require considerably more design effort and time, they are preferable in many cut situations.

The feasibility of each proposed retaining wall installation must be evaluated. Usually this involves a simple review of the wall height, site geometry, and soil borings.

In general, it is not recommended to place walls on slopes steeper than 4:1. This condition should be carefully reviewed for both short and long-term stability. Of particular concern are walls placed on freshly cut slopes, where the soil data may indicate high strengths at the excavation level. Freshly exposed material will soften with time, and an assessment of long-term strengths must be made when analyzing walls in this situation.

Local districts may want to modify these guidelines based on their experience with specific projects and local conditions.

Soil characteristics

The Texas Cone Penetrometer is poorly correlated for very low soil strengths and may yield overly conservative results. When evaluating stability of walls on soils weaker than 20 blows per foot, it may be appropriate to conduct laboratory or in-situ testing in addition to the TCP. Triaxial or direct shear laboratory tests will generally yield more accurate soil strengths for this type of analysis.

Recommended construction practices

Actual soil conditions

Because soil borings are taken at discrete locations, it is difficult to determine what soil conditions will be experienced over a wider area.

During construction of retaining walls, evaluate the proposed retaining wall location and notify the project designers of potential problems.

Potential stability problems include the following:

  • Soft or wet soil.
  • Areas that are producing groundwater.
  • Areas that exhibit slope failures during excavation.

Each of these conditions should be brought to the attention of the wall designer. It may be necessary to improve the soil foundation.

Adherence to plans and specifications

Assure adherence to plans and specifications during construction, especially with respect to width of reinforced volume, length of straps, and type of backfill used. A number of short and long-term retaining wall performance problems are the result of contractor failure to adhere to specification and plan requirements.


MSE walls require particularly close attention to placement and compaction of select fill. Monitor wall panels for verticality upon completion of the backfilling of each panel. Initial panel batter should be modified as required to achieve a plumb retaining wall. In many cases failure to evaluate panel plumbness throughout construction results in walls that are significantly out of tolerance.


Make close observation of the retaining wall and backfill after heavy rainfall, particularly in areas with higher volumes of rainfall. Rain can soften or loosen the compacted backfill, and any rain that seeps into the backfill can increase pressures on the wall panels. Check any existing surface covers for cracks and quickly seal to prevent seepage into the backfill.

Base backfill

Backfill the excavated area in the base of retaining walls as quickly as possible. Accumulation of groundwater or surface water in this area will soften the soils and reduce the stability of the walls. Excavation at the base of an existing wall for installation of storm sewer, roadway, of other structure should not proceed without a determination of wall stability in the excavated condition.

Filter fabric

Cohesionless select fill is subject to erosion and piping if subjected to large quantities of water flowing into the wall. Filter fabric is required at each panel joint and is designed to retain wall backfill while allowing the water to pass. Gaps or voids in the filter fabric allow fill to escape from behind the wall.


Sealing of coping joints prevents excessive quantities of water from entering the top of the wall. The current RW(TRF) standard sheet requires all coping joints be sealed. This item of work should be required in the field and monitored for compliance.

Periodically inspect walls for evidence of backfill loss, loss of joint seals, or movement.

Reseal joints, particularly those that may allow surface water to enter the wall backfill. If evidence of backfill loss is observed, backfill the affected area with select fill if the area is accessible, or use flowable fill if access is restricted.

Water infiltration into voids in walls can cause excessive pressures within the wall and result in displaced panels and wall failures. Treat voided areas when they are small and manageable, as they will always increase in size with time.

Design recommendations

MSE walls have been the most common retaining wall type on TxDOT projects for the past two decades. The advantages of MSE walls include their low cost, low design effort, speed of construction, and attractive appearance. MSE walls will continue to be used in large quantities on TxDOT projects in the coming years. With this in mind, the Bridge Division recommends the following be considered on upcoming projects utilizing MSE walls:

  • Selection of backfill for MSE walls: The 2014 Retaining Wall Standard Specification (Item 423) lists four types of select backfill for MSE walls:

    • Type "BS" is the default backfill for permanent MSE walls. It is a good quality backfill, and will result in acceptable wall performance.
    • Type "AS" is a coarser, higher quality material, exhibiting improved constructibility and performance. It is generally a more expensive backfill material, but should be considered for projects where the enhanced performance would be desirable.
    • Type "CS" backfill is used only on temporary MSE walls, and is not appropriate for permanent walls.
    • Type "DS" backfill is a freedraining, rock backfill. Type "DS" is intended for use in MSE walls that are subjected to inundation.

    Retaining walls subject to inundation should clearly state that Type "DS" backfill will be required below the 100-year water elevation noted in the plans. Alternately, the entire wall volume may be specified as Type "DS". For projects requiring Type "AS" or "DS" backfill in the MSE walls, either the general notes or the wall layouts themselves should clearly designate the required backfill type. If no backfill type is specified, the specification reverts to Type "BS."

  • Increase minimum embedment: Consider increasing the minimum embedment of MSE walls from 1 foot to 2 feet below finished grade. On projects where a small amount of fill is to be placed below the wall, the designer may want to specify a minimum embedment of 2 feet below finished grade or natural ground, whichever is lower.

    The standard embedment of MSE walls is currently required to be 1 foot unless otherwise shown in the plans. Several TxDOT districts require a minimum embed of 2 feet. Two feet gives a greater margin of error against inaccurate surveys or grading, and provides an additional measure of stability in soft soils. Projects over hard ground, or requiring excavation into rock may want to retain the 1-foot embedment.

  • Steep slopes: Discourage the placement of walls on slopes steeper than 4:1. Many soils in Texas exhibit marginal slope stability at 3:1 or even 4:1. The additional load of a wall on these slopes reduces their stability and may result in a failure. If project requirements dictate walls on slopes (perched walls), a detailed slope stability analysis should be performed, and measures should be taken to assure wall stability.

  • Avoid using cement-stabilized backfill: Although cement-stabilized backfill is an option allowed in our standard specifications and is an easy short-term solution, it affects the long-term performance of the wall because it reduces the wall's flexibility and it does not allow drainage through the wall. On projects where settlement is anticipated due to soft soil, a general note should be added to the plans eliminating cement-stabilized backfill as an option.

    Retaining walls serve well, but there are some key points for successful wall performance: the correct system must be chosen for each location, and proper construction practices must be employed. Also, as described above, there are a number of design and maintenance issues that are equally important.

Proprietary retaining wall system review

Concrete block retaining wall system

Mechanically stabilized earth panel type systems

Loss of backfill in mechanically stabilized earth