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Ultimate Guide To Retaining Walls NZ

Welcome to our comprehensive guide on retaining walls in New Zealand! Whether you’re a homeowner looking to enhance your property’s landscape or a curious reader wanting to understand why these structures are so vital in NZ, you’re in the right place. Retaining walls are more than just functional barriers—they prevent soil erosion, create usable outdoor spaces, and add aesthetic value to your property. In this post, we’ll delve into everything you need to know about retaining walls, from their types and benefits to building tips and maintenance advice, all tailored to New Zealand’s unique environment.

Retaining walls in New Zealand are essential structures used to prevent soil erosion, manage sloped landscapes, and enhance property aesthetics. Common types include gravity, cantilevered, sheet piling, and anchored walls, constructed from materials like timber, concrete, and stone. These walls are crucial due to NZ’s varied terrain and climate, providing both functional and visual benefits to properties. Proper planning, adherence to local building regulations, and regular maintenance are key to ensuring the longevity and effectiveness of retaining walls in NZ.

What Are Retaining Walls?

Definition and Basic Function

Retaining walls are essential structures designed to hold back soil and prevent erosion on sloped landscapes. These walls provide crucial support for vertical or near-vertical grade changes. Their primary purpose is to counteract the lateral pressure of soil, especially in areas where the terrain needs to be leveled for construction or landscaping purposes. Without retaining walls, soil movement can lead to landslides, erosion, and the collapse of hillsides, potentially causing significant damage to properties and landscapes.

Types of Retaining Walls

Retaining walls come in various types, each suited to different applications and environments. Understanding the distinctions among these types is key to selecting the right wall for your needs.

1. Gravity Retaining Walls

   Gravity retaining walls rely on their mass to resist the pressure from behind. They are usually constructed with heavy materials such as concrete or stone, which provide the necessary weight to hold back the soil. These walls can be simple and robust, making them a popular choice for many projects.

2. Cantilevered Retaining Walls

   Cantilevered retaining walls are more complex structures that consist of a vertical arm (the wall) and a horizontal base slab (the footing). The weight of the soil on the base slab helps stabilize the wall. Typically made of reinforced concrete, these walls are efficient for taller structures, as they use less material than gravity walls.

3. Sheet Piling Retaining Walls

   Sheet piling walls are constructed by driving thin, interlocking sheets of steel or vinyl into the ground. They are ideal for tight spaces and are often used for temporary structures or in areas with soft soil. The sheets form a continuous barrier, making them suitable for water retention and soil stabilization.

4. Anchored Retaining Walls

   Anchored retaining walls can be any of the above types but with additional support from cables or rods anchored into the soil or rock behind the wall. This added anchorage provides extra stability, making these walls suitable for high-load situations or when the wall needs to be thinner than usual.

Subtypes and Materials

In New Zealand, the choice of materials for retaining walls varies depending on the project’s requirements, aesthetic preferences, and budget. Here are some commonly used materials:


Timber retaining walls are a cost-effective and aesthetically pleasing option. They are often used in residential landscaping due to their natural look. However, timber can be susceptible to rot and insect damage, so it’s important to use treated wood and ensure proper drainage to prolong the wall’s lifespan.


Concrete retaining walls are incredibly durable and can be molded into various shapes and sizes. They are ideal for large-scale projects and areas with high soil pressure. Concrete can be precast into blocks or poured in place, offering flexibility in design and construction.


Stone retaining walls offer a timeless and natural appearance. They are highly durable and can blend seamlessly into the landscape. In New Zealand, stone walls are often constructed using locally sourced rocks, adding a unique regional touch to the project. These walls can be dry-stacked or mortared, depending on the desired look and structural requirements.

By understanding the basic functions and various types of retaining walls, you can make informed decisions about which type and material will best suit your project’s needs. Whether you’re looking to create a beautiful garden terrace or stabilize a hillside, retaining walls play a crucial role in landscape design and construction in New Zealand.

Why Retaining Walls Are Essential In New Zealand

Geographical and Environmental Factors

New Zealand’s landscape is as diverse as it is beautiful, characterized by rolling hills, rugged mountains, and coastal cliffs. This unique terrain, combined with the country’s variable climate, creates a perfect scenario for the need for retaining walls. The North Island and South Island both feature regions with heavy rainfall, which can lead to soil saturation and increased risk of landslides. In areas like Wellington and Christchurch, which are prone to earthquakes, retaining walls also play a crucial role in maintaining the stability of sloped land, preventing it from shifting during seismic activity.

Soil Erosion Prevention

One of the primary functions of retaining walls is to combat soil erosion. In regions with steep slopes and heavy rainfall, such as those found in many parts of New Zealand, soil erosion can be a significant problem. When the soil is washed away, it can lead to the loss of fertile topsoil, destabilize the land, and even cause damage to properties and infrastructure. Retaining walls act as a barrier, holding the soil in place and preventing it from being washed away. They help to manage water runoff, ensuring that it is directed away from vulnerable areas and reducing the risk of erosion. This is particularly important in agricultural areas, where maintaining healthy soil is essential for crop production.

Landscaping and Property Value

Beyond their functional benefits, retaining walls also offer aesthetic and financial advantages. From a landscaping perspective, they allow property owners to create tiered gardens and add dimension to their outdoor spaces. By turning a steep, unusable slope into a series of terraced gardens, homeowners can maximize their land use, creating beautiful and functional spaces. This not only enhances the visual appeal of the property but also makes it more usable and enjoyable.

In terms of property value, well-constructed retaining walls can be a significant asset. They improve the structural integrity of the land, reducing the risk of damage from erosion or landslides. This added stability can be a strong selling point for potential buyers, who may be concerned about the long-term maintenance and safety of the property. Additionally, attractive and well-maintained retaining walls can increase curb appeal, making the property more appealing to buyers and potentially increasing its market value.

In conclusion, retaining walls are essential in New Zealand due to the country’s unique geographical and environmental factors. They prevent soil erosion, contribute to effective water management, and offer significant landscaping and property value benefits. Whether you’re a homeowner looking to enhance your garden or a property developer aiming to increase land stability, retaining walls are a practical and valuable addition to any New Zealand property.

Choosing The Right Retaining Wall For Your Needs

Assessing Your Property

When it comes to choosing the right retaining wall for your needs, the first step is to thoroughly assess your property. Start by evaluating the slope and terrain of your land. Is it steep or gentle? The degree of the slope will significantly influence the type of retaining wall you should consider. Additionally, take note of the soil type. Clay, sandy, or loamy soils each have different drainage characteristics and stability levels, which can affect the performance and longevity of your retaining wall.

Next, identify any specific problem areas that need addressing, such as erosion-prone spots or water runoff channels. Understanding these factors will help you determine the necessary height and length of your retaining wall, as well as any additional features like drainage systems that may be required. Finally, consider the overall layout of your property, including any existing structures, vegetation, and access points. This comprehensive assessment will ensure that your retaining wall not only meets your functional needs but also integrates seamlessly into your landscape.

Material Selection

Choosing the right material for your retaining wall is crucial, as it affects both the aesthetic appeal and structural integrity of the wall. Here’s a breakdown of the most common materials used for retaining walls, along with their pros and cons:

1. Concrete Blocks: These are popular for their durability and versatility. Concrete blocks can be stacked in various configurations, allowing for creative designs. They are also relatively easy to install. However, they can be more expensive than other materials and may require professional installation for larger projects.

2. Natural Stone: Natural stone walls offer a timeless, rustic look that blends well with most landscapes. Stones like granite and limestone are incredibly durable and provide excellent structural support. The downside is that they can be labor-intensive to install and often come with a higher price tag.

3. Wood: Timber retaining walls are a cost-effective and attractive option, especially for smaller projects. They are relatively easy to install and can be customized to fit the desired height and length. However, wood is susceptible to rot and insect damage over time, requiring regular maintenance and potential replacement.

4. Brick: Brick retaining walls exude a classic, elegant look and are very strong. They are ideal for properties with a traditional or colonial style. The main drawback is the cost and the need for skilled labor to ensure proper construction.

5. Gabion: Gabion walls consist of wire mesh filled with rocks or other materials. They are highly durable and offer excellent drainage, making them suitable for areas prone to heavy rainfall. On the downside, they can be less aesthetically pleasing and may require more space due to their bulkier nature.

Design Considerations

When designing your retaining wall, it’s important to balance aesthetics with functionality. Start by considering the overall style of your property. Do you prefer a modern, sleek look, or something more natural and rustic? Your choice of material will play a significant role in achieving the desired aesthetic. Additionally, think about the color and texture of the materials, as these can enhance the visual appeal of your wall.

Functionality is equally important. Ensure that your retaining wall is designed to handle the load it will bear, whether that’s soil, water, or other elements. Incorporate proper drainage solutions to prevent water buildup behind the wall, which can cause pressure and lead to structural failure. This might include installing weep holes, drainage pipes, or gravel backfill.

Finally, consider the height and length of your retaining wall. Taller walls require more robust engineering solutions and may need permits or professional assistance. For longer walls, think about segmenting them into sections with slight variations in height or material to add visual interest and avoid a monotonous appearance.

By carefully assessing your property, selecting the right materials, and considering both aesthetic and functional design elements, you can create a retaining wall that not only meets your practical needs but also enhances the beauty and value of your property.

Building Retaining Walls In NZ: Regulations And Best Practices

Local Building Regulations

When it comes to building retaining walls in New Zealand, understanding local building regulations is crucial. New Zealand has specific building codes and regulations that dictate how retaining walls should be constructed to ensure safety and stability. These regulations are designed to protect both the property owner and the wider community.

In New Zealand, retaining walls over 1.5 meters in height typically require a building consent. This rule ensures that walls that could pose a significant risk if they fail are built to a standard that minimizes this risk. Even for walls under 1.5 meters, local council regulations might still apply, especially if the wall supports a load like a driveway or building, or if it is near a boundary or public space.

Additionally, walls that are constructed near waterways, on steep slopes, or in areas prone to erosion may also have specific requirements. It’s important to consult the local council’s planning department to get a clear understanding of what’s needed for your specific project.

Permits and Approvals

Securing the necessary permits and approvals for your retaining wall project involves several steps:

1. Initial Consultation: Begin by consulting with your local council or a professional planner to understand the specific requirements for your project. This step is essential to ensure that you meet all local regulations and avoid potential fines or the need to redo work.

2. Design and Documentation: Prepare detailed plans and drawings of your proposed retaining wall. These plans should include the wall’s dimensions, materials, drainage solutions, and any other structural details. Often, these plans need to be prepared or reviewed by a licensed engineer, especially for larger or more complex walls.

3. Lodging Your Application: Submit your application to the local council. This will include your plans, a completed application form, and the application fee. Some councils may also require a geotechnical report or other supporting documents, especially if your wall is in a high-risk area.

4. Council Review: The council will review your application to ensure it complies with all relevant regulations. This process can take several weeks, so it’s important to plan accordingly. If your application is incomplete or doesn’t meet the necessary standards, the council will request additional information or modifications.

5. Approval and Inspection: Once your application is approved, you can begin construction. During and after construction, the council may conduct inspections to ensure the wall is built according to the approved plans and meets all safety standards.

Hiring Professionals vs. DIY

Deciding whether to hire professionals or take a DIY approach to building your retaining wall depends on several factors, including the complexity of the project, your skill level, and your budget.

Hiring Professionals

When to Hire: For large or complex walls, walls over 1.5 meters, or walls that support significant loads, hiring a professional is often the best choice. Professionals bring expertise in design, engineering, and construction that ensures the wall is safe and compliant with all regulations.

Benefits: A professional contractor can handle all aspects of the project, from obtaining permits to ensuring proper drainage and structural integrity. This can save you time and stress, and often results in a more durable and attractive wall.

DIY Approach

When to DIY: If you’re planning a small, simple retaining wall (typically under 1.5 meters and not supporting significant loads), and you have some construction experience, a DIY project can be a cost-effective option. However, you still need to ensure you understand and comply with all local regulations.

Considerations: DIY projects require careful planning and execution. You’ll need to research building techniques, gather materials, and possibly consult with an engineer or building inspector. While DIY can save money, mistakes can be costly and may require professional intervention to fix.

In conclusion, building a retaining wall in New Zealand involves navigating local regulations, securing necessary permits, and deciding between hiring professionals or taking a DIY approach. By thoroughly understanding these aspects, you can ensure your retaining wall project is successful, safe, and compliant with all regulations.

Step-By-Step Guide To Building A Retaining Wall

Building a retaining wall can seem daunting, but with careful planning and execution, it’s a project that many DIY enthusiasts can tackle. Here’s a detailed, step-by-step guide to help you through the process, ensuring your wall is both functional and attractive.

Planning and Design

1. Assess the Site and Purpose

Before you start, understand why you need a retaining wall. Is it for erosion control, creating a level area in your yard, or purely for aesthetic reasons? Assess the site where the wall will be built, considering factors like soil type, slope, and drainage.

2. Choose the Right Materials

The materials you choose will significantly impact the wall’s durability and appearance. Common options include concrete blocks, natural stone, brick, and timber. Each material has its own set of pros and cons, so choose one that best fits your needs and the overall look you desire.

3. Determine Wall Dimensions

Decide on the height and length of your wall. This will help you estimate the quantity of materials needed. Remember, higher walls may require additional support or professional engineering advice.

4. Design Considerations

Sketch a detailed plan of your retaining wall. Include measurements and consider elements like curves, steps, or terraces if your design includes them. Ensure your design complies with local building codes and regulations.

Excavation and Foundation

1. Mark the Area

Use stakes and string to mark out the exact location of your retaining wall. Double-check your measurements to ensure accuracy.

2. Start Digging

Excavate a trench where your wall will sit. The depth of the trench should be about one-eighth of the wall’s height for stability. For instance, if your wall will be four feet high, dig down at least six inches.

3. Prepare the Base

Fill the trench with a layer of gravel or crushed stone to create a solid foundation. This layer should be about four to six inches deep. Compact the base with a tamper to ensure it’s level and firm.

4. Laying the First Course

The first row of your wall is crucial for stability. Lay the first course of blocks or stones carefully, ensuring they are level. Use a level to check each piece, adjusting as necessary to keep the base even.

Building the Wall

1. Stagger the Joints

As you build, stagger the joints between each row of blocks or stones. This pattern increases the wall’s strength and stability, similar to the technique used in bricklaying.

2. Backfill Regularly

As you build, backfill behind the wall with gravel or crushed stone. This helps with drainage and adds weight behind the wall, improving stability. Compact the backfill material as you go to avoid future settling.

3. Reinforce if Necessary

For taller walls, consider reinforcement. Geogrid is a common material used to reinforce retaining walls. It’s a synthetic mesh that’s laid between layers of blocks and extended back into the soil. Consult with a professional if you’re unsure about your wall’s reinforcement needs.

4. Cap the Wall

Once your wall reaches the desired height, add capstones to give it a finished look. Secure the caps with construction adhesive for stability and aesthetics.

Drainage Solutions

1. Understand the Importance of Drainage

Proper drainage is critical to prevent water pressure from building up behind the wall, which can cause failure. Water buildup can also lead to erosion and instability.

2. Install Drain Pipes

Place perforated drain pipes (also known as weep holes) at the base of the wall, running them along the length of the wall. These pipes should lead to an area where water can safely exit, away from the wall.

3. Use Gravel Backfill

Fill the space behind the wall with gravel, which allows water to flow through easily. This reduces the pressure on the wall and helps direct water toward the drain pipes.

4. Waterproofing

For additional protection, consider applying a waterproof membrane to the back of the wall. This can help prevent moisture from seeping through the wall material and causing damage over time.

By following these steps, you can build a retaining wall that’s both functional and visually appealing. Remember, the key to a successful project is in the planning and attention to detail at each stage of construction. If you encounter any challenges, don’t hesitate to consult with a professional to ensure your retaining wall stands the test of time.

Maintenance Tips For Longevity

Maintaining your retaining wall is crucial to ensure it stands the test of time, especially in the varied climate of New Zealand. Here are some essential tips to keep your wall in top shape:

Regular Inspections

Performing regular inspections is the first step in maintaining the longevity of your retaining wall. Here’s what to look for during these routine checks:

Cracks and Fissures: Inspect the surface of the wall for any visible cracks. Small cracks can quickly turn into bigger problems if left unchecked. Pay close attention to the mortar joints if you have a brick or stone wall.

Leaning or Bulging: Look for any signs of the wall leaning or bulging outward. This could indicate pressure build-up behind the wall or a shift in the foundation. 

Drainage Issues: Ensure that the drainage systems, such as weep holes or drainage pipes, are not blocked. Proper drainage is vital to prevent water pressure build-up behind the wall.

Erosion or Soil Movement: Check the area around the wall for signs of soil erosion or movement, which can compromise the stability of the wall.

Common Problems and Solutions

Identifying and addressing common problems promptly can prevent minor issues from becoming major repairs. Here are some common problems and their solutions:

Cracks: Small cracks can often be filled with a suitable sealant or mortar. For larger cracks, it might be necessary to consult a professional to assess the structural integrity of the wall.

Leaning or Bulging: If your wall is leaning or bulging, it could be due to excessive pressure from the soil behind it. Installing additional drainage or reinforcing the wall with tiebacks or anchors might be necessary.

Water Damage: Water is one of the biggest threats to retaining walls. Ensure that your drainage systems are working correctly. For severe water damage, you may need to replace affected sections of the wall.

Erosion: Planting ground cover or adding a layer of mulch can help prevent soil erosion around the base of the wall. In some cases, installing a retaining mesh or grid can provide additional stability.

Seasonal Maintenance

New Zealand’s diverse climate means your retaining wall will face different challenges throughout the year. Here are some seasonal maintenance tips:

Spring: This is a good time to check for any damage that may have occurred during the wetter months. Clean out any debris from drainage systems and inspect for new cracks or movement.

Summer: With generally drier conditions, focus on preventing erosion by ensuring the soil around the wall is stable and well-planted. Water the surrounding vegetation to maintain root stability.

Autumn: Prepare for the wetter months ahead by ensuring all drainage systems are clear and functional. Remove any fallen leaves or organic matter that could block drains.

Winter: Check for any signs of frost damage or water pooling around the wall. Ensure that drainage systems are not frozen and that water can flow freely away from the wall.

By following these maintenance tips, you can help ensure that your retaining wall remains sturdy and functional for many years. Regular inspections, addressing common problems promptly, and adapting your maintenance routine to the seasons will go a long way in preserving the integrity of your wall.

Inspirational Ideas For Retaining Walls In Your Garden

Creative Designs

When it comes to creating a retaining wall that not only serves its practical purpose but also adds aesthetic value to your garden, the design options are virtually limitless. Consider using a mix of materials such as stone, wood, and concrete to create a unique look that complements your home’s architecture. For a modern touch, sleek, smooth concrete walls with clean lines can provide a contemporary feel. On the other hand, natural stone walls offer a rustic charm that blends seamlessly with outdoor environments. Additionally, integrating curves and terraced levels into your retaining wall design can add visual interest and create a more dynamic landscape. These multi-level walls can also serve as seating areas or planters, adding both function and beauty to your garden.

Incorporating Plants and Greenery

A retaining wall doesn’t have to be just a functional structure; it can also be a lush, green feature of your garden. By incorporating plants and greenery into your retaining wall design, you can create a living wall that breathes life into your outdoor space. Consider planting cascading plants such as ivy, creeping thyme, or trailing rosemary that spill over the edges of the wall, creating a soft, natural look. You can also use the different levels of a terraced retaining wall to plant a variety of flowers, shrubs, and even small trees, turning the wall into a vertical garden. This not only enhances the beauty of the wall but also helps with soil retention and provides a habitat for beneficial insects.

Lighting and Accessories

To truly make your retaining wall a standout feature in your garden, consider adding lighting and decorative accessories. Outdoor lighting can highlight the textures and colors of your wall, making it a focal point even after the sun goes down. Install LED strip lights along the top or bottom edges of the wall for a subtle glow, or use spotlights to highlight specific areas or plants. For added charm, incorporate decorative elements such as wrought iron accents, ceramic tiles, or even water features like a small waterfall cascading over the wall. These accessories not only enhance the visual appeal of your retaining wall but also create a welcoming and cozy atmosphere in your garden.

By incorporating these creative ideas into your retaining wall design, you can transform a functional necessity into a stunning feature that enhances the overall beauty and usability of your garden.

FAQs: About Retaining Walls NZ

What are retaining walls?

Retaining walls are structures designed to hold back soil and prevent erosion. They are commonly used to manage sloped landscapes and create level areas in gardens and yards.

Why are retaining walls important in New Zealand?

Due to New Zealand’s varied terrain and climate, retaining walls are crucial for preventing soil erosion, managing water runoff, and creating usable outdoor spaces. They also enhance the aesthetic and functional value of properties.

What materials are commonly used for retaining walls in NZ?

Common materials for retaining walls in NZ include timber, concrete, and stone. Each material has its own benefits and is chosen based on the specific requirements of the project and the desired aesthetic.

What are the different types of retaining walls?

The main types of retaining walls are gravity walls, cantilevered walls, sheet piling walls, and anchored walls. Each type is suited for different applications and site conditions.

Do I need a permit to build a retaining wall in New Zealand?

In many cases, a permit is required to build a retaining wall, especially if it is over a certain height or if it affects public safety. It’s important to check with your local council for specific regulations and requirements.

Can I build a retaining wall myself, or should I hire a professional?

While some smaller retaining wall projects can be done as DIY, larger or more complex walls should be built by professionals. This ensures the wall is structurally sound and complies with local building codes.

How do I maintain a retaining wall?

Regular maintenance of a retaining wall includes checking for cracks, leaning, or water damage, and ensuring proper drainage. Seasonal inspections and prompt repairs can extend the life of the wall and prevent major issues.

What design considerations should I keep in mind for a retaining wall?

When designing a retaining wall, consider factors such as the wall’s height, the type of soil, drainage requirements, and the overall landscape design. The wall should blend with the surroundings and serve its functional purpose effectively.

How do retaining walls prevent soil erosion?

Retaining walls prevent soil erosion by holding back soil and reducing the gradient of slopes. This minimizes the movement of soil and water runoff, protecting the landscape and structures.

What are some creative uses for retaining walls in landscaping?

Retaining walls can be used creatively in landscaping to create terraced gardens, outdoor seating areas, raised flower beds, and pathways. They can be integrated with plants, lighting, and decorative elements to enhance the overall design of your outdoor space.


In conclusion, retaining walls are a crucial feature for both functional and aesthetic purposes in many New Zealand landscapes. We’ve discussed the various types of retaining walls, the benefits they offer, the materials commonly used, and the key considerations for their design and construction. Now that you understand the essentials, it’s time to take action and start planning your retaining wall project. Whether you’re looking to prevent soil erosion, create more usable space, or enhance your garden’s visual appeal, a well-built retaining wall can make a significant difference. Don’t hesitate to share your experiences in the comments or reach out to a professional for expert advice and assistance. Your dream landscape is just a project away!

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