When Retaining Walls Fail

Although new techniques and technologies have allowed engineers to design mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) walls that support more weight on steeper slopes than ever before, the risks associated with large retaining walls have grown. It is estimated that approximately one in every 1,000 MSE walls fails, which leads to expensive litigation and a reluctance to build large retaining walls. This article discusses the causes of this high failure rate, and how engineers can reduce the risk. There are two primary causes of MSE wall failure: water, and a lack of communication among project team members. Retaining walls appear to be simple structures. However, their design and construction is actually a complex process, involving a geotechnical engineer, structural engineer, project owner, architect, wall materials supplier, surveyor, general contractor, earthwork contractor and inspector. The complexity of this entire process can lead to confusion and mistakes, which ultimately can spell failure. This makes communication and documenting changes an essential part of any MSE wall project. Even the best communication cannot eliminate all risks, however. Water can cause retaining wall failures in a variety of ways, from clogged drain lines to insufficient porosity of the backfill material. To reduce the risk of retaining wall failures, these rules should be observed: maintain good communication throughout the project team; document all communication in writing; keep the engineers involved during construction, including site visits; control the water; and treat the retaining wall (particularly an MSE wall) as a complex engineering structure.


  • English

Media Info

  • Media Type: Print
  • Features: Photos;
  • Pagination: pp 34-36
  • Serial:

Subject/Index Terms

Filing Info

  • Accession Number: 01351570
  • Record Type: Publication
  • Files: TRIS
  • Created Date: Sep 6 2011 11:53AM