Walk around most residential
neighborhoods and you'll find
concrete block retaining and garden
walls dotting the landscape. No longer
just holding back earth, stabilizing
slopes and preventing erosion, modern
concrete block walls define pathways,
create borders for outdoor “rooms” and
serve as focal points in featureless yards.
Building a block wall is a significant
investment of time (if you do it yourself)
and money (whether you do it
yourself or pay someone to do it).
Shopping for modular block can be
confusing because of the many colors,
textures, shapes, styles and stacking
systems available. This article will
help you sort through your options and
discuss what you need to know before
you shop so you can buy the right
block for your garden or retaining wall.
In a nutshell
- The more expensive the block, the more
it will look like natural stone.
- Each block system will accommodate
curves, steps, corners, caps and setbacks
differently. Your wall's requirements will
help narrow your options.
- When you shop, take along a sketch of
the wall's height, length, radius of inside
and outside curves, and specific features.
Then you'll have everything you
need to choose the material and narrow
down prices on one trip.
- Even if you plan to hire a pro, shop
around to see actual walls rather than
depending on contractors' pictures to
imagine how yours will look.
- Home centers carry some systems, but
you'll find the widest variety of options
at landscape suppliers.
Top of the line: $11 to $15 per sq. ft.
Photo courtesy of VERSA-LOKMid range: $9 to$10 per sq. ft.
Photo courtesy of KEYSTONELeast expensive: $4 to $8 per sq. ft.
What Kind of Wall Do You Get For Your Buck?
Top of the line: $11 to $15 per sq. ft.
The most expensive block offers the greatest flexibility in design potential, styles, colors
and wall size. Big “wow” factor.
Mid range: $9 to$10 per sq. ft.
Mid-priced block is good for highly visible
walls where function is still the primary
concern. It offers a high-end look and feel
and is available in many colors and styles.
Least expensive: $4 to $8 per sq. ft.
These easy-to-install blocks are often used
for garden walls. They're available in a limited
number of styles and colors.
What's the wall's purpose?
A freestanding garden wall 3 ft. or less in height that
serves a more decorative function gives you more flexibility
with the size, style and type of block you choose.
Most manufacturers offer a wide variety of styles in
two or three basic sizes. The garden wall size is the
most common. These relatively small blocks (about 12
in. long x 4 in. high) are lightweight (less than 25 lbs.)
and work best for accent walls around the yard and
garden up to about 30 in. high. All four sides are finished
and they have special blocks for columns, corners
Retaining walls, because they're load-bearing and slope
into a hill slightly, require larger blocks and beefier connections.
These blocks are 16 to 18 in. long x 6 to 8 in.
high and weigh 50 to 75 lbs. Big walls usually entail
excavating and moving tons of soil and gravel as well as
the heavy block itself. These walls can be daunting to
do yourself, so think it through before you unknowingly
dedicate a whole summer to the task. Most systems
are engineered to handle heights up to 4 ft. Retaining
walls above that height must be designed or approved
by a licensed engineer.
What kind of look do you want?
Do you want the block to blend with your property's existing features or to inject something new into the landscape? Although specific shapes, colors and textures vary by region, almost every manufacturer produces four main styles (see photos).
What are your wall's requirements?
The details of your project will help you decide on a block system. Different block systems are suited
to different project requirements. For example, all block systems have limits as to how tight a
curve they can form without being cut. Systems also vary in how they handle corners,
setbacks, cap blocks, columns and steps.
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What's your budget?
The cost of block is only a piece of the total project budget. If you're using a contractor, you'll obviously pay labor
costs. A good rule of thumb for a contractor-built wall is to double the materials price—in other words, half labor,
half materials. Make sure to agree on the front end whether your contractor will provide final grading and resodding
(or will leave your yard a total disaster). Will the driveway be repaired? Wheel ruts fixed? Topsoil included?
These details often account for why one bid is significantly higher or lower than another.
If you plan to build your own wall, beware. There's
a lot of heavy work, including tons of fill and footing
material to get delivered and moved. Also consider
the tools you'll need to rent and other additional costs:
- Delivery charges for materials. Don't wreck your
back or your vehicle. Block is heavy, even the garden
wall variety. Pay the extra charge to place your
materials exactly where you want them.
- Skid steer rental ($200 per day). Keep in mind that
using heavy machinery will damage your yard, so
you need to add in the costs of grading and resodding
- A block splitter costs $90 per day. You can also
have the landscape yard split the blocks for you.
- Plate compactor rental ($50 per day). It's crucial to
compact your footing material or you'll have a sagging,
crooked wall in the future.
- Other materials such as “compactable gravel” for
the base, drainage layer material and drain tile.