I Built Terraced Retaining Walls With Old Tires

It took two years, but the retaining walls the author erected with salvaged materials and the sweat of his brow turned a hilly parcel of land into a useable home site.


| May/June 1983



retaining walls - profile diagram of the building site

Diagram in profile of the site the author purchased.


Illustration by MOTHER EARTH NEWS Staff

A little more than two years ago I purchased a two-acre residential lot in the bluff country of Iowa. The price seemed quite reasonable, but the challenge presented by the lot was formidable! This particular piece of property, you see, lay crudely up a long, steep hillside. However, it did afford a marvelous view of the agricultural valley below, and of the skyline of Omaha, Nebraska, 16 miles away. My homesite was part of a newly developed subdivision comprised of 42 lots. I chose to buy a sloping, south-facing site because it offered a chance to fulfill my dream of a passive solar retirement home in scenic surroundings. I just needed to figure out two things: Where would I put a house, and how could I make that house accessible?

How Would You Like to Be Asked a Million Times, "What Are You Doing, Anyway?"

The only exit from the nearby paved street onto my lot was a small, ill-shaped area just big enough — if it were level, which it wasn't — to turn around a car. Obviously, that wouldn’t do. Since I had no money to rearrange the site's topography, I tapped a less costly resource: my brain. Countless site plan sketches and endless hours climbing up and down the hillside later, a workable solution came to me like some sort of great vision: retaining walls. I needed terraced retaining walls. The parts of a plan for the lot fell into place.

I picked up my shovel and began what turned into a two-year "labor of love." My task took almost every evening, every weekend, and a month of vacation to complete. The lot's terrain was such that I couldn't get earth-moving equipment to the spot, so I was limited to using my body and an ordinary spade, two 5-gallon plastic buckets for carrying dirt, a saw, and (over the two years) three pairs of sturdy work shoes.

"I Thought Maybe You Were Building Some Sort of Monument!"

First, I enlarged the sloping parking area adjacent to the street by leveling it off and reinforcing the southern edge, adding a 15-foot-wide band of level surface. In the beginning, that really was all I'd hoped to accomplish by myself, but once the job was so satisfactorily finished I couldn't stop. I felt that I'd just scratched the surface of what could and should be done. Again, I spent hours sitting and contemplating various possibilities, including the option of digging a basement by hand!

My original vision soon expanded to embrace the entire hillside, and I began to work even harder and more enthusiastically. The task became almost a way of life for me, as I felt I'd started something that only I could or would finish.

At the southern edge of the parking area (digging with the shovel), I terraced the slope sharply downward for 12 feet, creating an earthen courtyard on each side of the ground level of my future home. Then in the "house" space between these courtyards, I dug down 12 feet again to excavate for a walkout basement, using the dirt to make another level terrace. (As I dug, I simply pitched the earth outward to the south, expanding the level area as I worked.) The retaining wall for this courtyard rises approximately 12 feet above the beautiful, native meadow below. Later I added two other terraces in circular patterns around a pair of large oak trees at the base of my lot.





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