Backyard Transformation with Retaining Walls, Stairs, and Decks

Redwood Retaining walls with steps

Ashbury Heights project with five retaining walls, two decks, stairs, bench area, and stainless steel cable system. Artificial turf on bottom level of retaining wall and plants on other levels.
Transformation of client’s backyard in Ashbury Heights, San Francisco

In the Asbury Heights neighborhood of San Francisco we were challenged with an extremely steep hillside with crumbling retaining walls and stairs. Or, like many of our previous projects, an entire removal and redo of what existed.

Before contacting us, our clients had architectural drawings generated which included concrete retaining walls, stairs, and a deck design. While the design would have generated a beautiful landscaped hillside, it did not consider budget and was simply too expensive to install. This is where Tamate Landscaping came in with another plan and within our client’s budget.

Our backyard transformation plan included: demo the entire hillside, install various levels of pressure-treated wood for the retaining walls, remove and build new stairs, build a deck on the bottom area and replace existing top deck, selecting and installation of plants, drip irrigation, lighting system, and pet-relief area. By proposing to install tiered pressure-treated retaining walls in lieu of concrete walls, we could stay within our clients budget and still provide a beautiful, functional, and sustainable backyard retreat.

Below is a play-by-play of this backyard transformation.

Stage 1 – Demo

Ashbury Heights project backyard before demo. Steep hillside with crumbling retaining walls and stairs.
Ashbury Heights project backyard before demo

What exacerbated this already difficult project was access to the backyard. Like many houses in San Francisco, there was no side or back way access. All the thousands of pounds of unneeded wood, wood decking, battered boards, planks, concrete, and plant debris needed to be carried up four flights of steep stairs directly through the house and out through the garage! That, I would say is a feat in itself!

Demo in progress at Ashbury Heights project. Workers carrying heavy lumber.
Demo in progress at Ashbury Heights project

With a lot of sweat and muscle, we powered through this stage of the process. Carrying all the demoed debris up those many flights of stairs was definitely a work out! After removing tons of material and debris, the hillside was ready for prepping of the retaining wall installation.

Trailer full of demo debris on street in front of client's house in Ashbury Heights.
Trailer full of demo debris

Stage 2 – Retaining Walls

Five tiered retaining walls at Ashbury Heights project with artificial turf on bottom.
Final five tiered retaining walls.

First and foremost, was determining how to position the retaining walls and setting the posts to work with the natural slope of the hillside. Due to the gradient, we determined that five retaining walls were needed to be constructed to sufficiently hold up the hillside and be visually aesthetic as well.

Digging 3.5 feet holes for retaining wall posts at Ashbury Height project.
Digging 3.5 feet holes for retaining wall posts.

Posts were the the first thing that went in for the retaining walls. Post locations were staked and digging the post holes followed. 

Next was setting the posts and pouring the concrete. While this step is theoretically straight-forward, 30,000 pounds of rock, sand, and concrete had to be manually transferred from the trailer in the front of the house to the backyard through the house. 

Rock and sand were first unloaded from the trailer into 10 gallon buckets (around 80 pounds per bucket!), manually walked down through the house staircase, poured down the chute, and then put back into 10 gallon buckets to further carry it down the hill to the concrete mixer. Also, numerous 94 pound bags of concrete mix had to be manually transferred down many flights of stairs and through the house. This was no simple task to say the least!

Paul standing next to Easy Chute used to transfer rock and sand to backyard from deck.
Easy Chute used for transfer of rock and sand

As noted above, to save time (and body!), Paul rigged up a debris construction chute to transfer sand and rock from the top deck in the backyard to the top of the yard. Many trips up and down the stairs saved from this ingenious idea! Thanks, Paul!

Pressure-treated boards were then nailed in and MiraDRAIN added to the backside for drainage. Redwood paneling was added to the face of the pressure-treated retaining walls for a polished, upscale look.

Stage 3 – Stairs

Redwood stairs with stainless steel cable system installed in Asbury Heights, San Francisco
Redwood stairs with stainless steel cable system

The stairs leading down to the bottom deck were constructed while the retaining walls were being worked on. Precision measurements and cutting stair stringers were necessary to ensure proper dimensions and uniformity of rise and run of the stairs.

Stair stringers cut to perfection at Ashbury Height project
Stair stringers cut to perfection

During construction, our clients decided to replace the existing stairs from the top deck to match the the newly built stairs below. With rain in the forecast, the team put up tarp to cover the area being constructed. This allowed work to continue during the atmospheric river.

Tarp covering used during atmospheric river at Ashbury Height project. Tarp covers stairs installation area in progress.
Tarp covering used to work during atmospheric river

The railing system included high end stainless steel cables. While the stainless steel cables look simple to install, it requires a lot of precision to properly tighten the cable. Otherwise, the cables could get a saggy appearance. Allowance for temperature changes need to be considered, therefore, the cables can’t be installed too tight either.

Stainless steel cable system at Ashbury Heights project.
Stainless steel cable system installed on stair railings

Stage 4 – Custom Built Decks and Bench

The backyard design also included the building of two decks and a custom made bench in the lower deck. Both decks and the bench were made with redwood, while we used pressure-treated lumber for the structural components.

Lights being installed by lead project manager under custom made bench at Ashbury Heights project
Lights being installed under custom made bench

The top deck was installed using a “nail-less” system. Using a CAMO tool and edge deck screws, a fastener-free surface was achieved. Voila…no nails! Actually, the CAMO tool inserts special CAMO nails sideways into the redwood planks so no nails are visible.

Camo tool used to fasten redwood planks to fabricate "nail-less" deck.
Camo tool used to fasten redwood planks

Stage 5 – Irrigation, Planting, Dog Relief Area, and Lighting System

A variety of plants that thrive in San Francisco’s Mediterranean climate were selected, planted, adjusting for the amount of sunlight in the backyard. Plants included (but not limited to): Chinese Fringe, Breath of Heaven, Fatsia Japonica, Fern Pine, and Cordyline.

An auto drip irrigation kits system was installed. This ensured each plant was supplied with water by using individual emitter rings located at the base of each plant.

An automatic flood lighting system was also installed. Path lights, up lights, and step lights were installed in the stairs, under the bench, and strategically placed around the plants.     

Both the irrigation and lighting systems were connected to a timer which allowed our clients to freely adjust the scheduling of watering and lighting.

Finally, a dog relief area was added to the lower retaining wall area using artificial turf. Not only dog friendly, but environmentally friendly too!

Backyard Retreat Complete and Ready to Enjoy

By comparing the before and after pictures of our client’s backyard, it is clear that our work was transformative. Now our clients have a beautiful, useable, and sustainable backyard where they can enjoy and retreat to after a busy day at work.

If your San Francisco backyard is in need of major restoration, please contact Tamate Landscaping for ways we can transform your area to a beautiful, functional, and sustainable living space. We have over 25 years of transforming overgrown or underutilized yards into unique, beautiful retreats that you can enjoy for years to come and add everlasting value to your home. 


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