Four Materials We Use For Retaining Walls In San Francisco

Retaining Walls
By On September 26, 2022 In Retainingwall With No Comments Permanent Link to Four Materials We Use For Retaining Walls In San FranciscoPermalink

Hills, hills, hills! They are everywhere and are one element that sets San Francisco apart from other cities. According to an article in the, “San Francisco has no less than 74 hills.” Want a great leg workout?  Just walk San Francisco!

It’s no denying that this topographic attribute adds beauty, dimension, and more landscaping possibilities.  However, with hills comes erosion and in some cases, the risk of landslides.  Solution?  The retaining wall.

There are many different materials that can be used for retaining walls, but some of the most popular options in the Bay Area include concrete, stone, and pressure treated lumber. Each material has its own unique benefits and drawbacks, so it’s important to choose the right one for your project. Concrete is one of the most durable and versatile options, but it can be expensive. Stone is a more natural-looking option, but it can be difficult to work with.

Like hills, retaining walls are everywhere in San Francisco.  When deciding on a retaining wall, there are numerous material options depending on a variety of factors such as soil mass, hill slope, height, soil/rock composition, weather, cost, and style to name a few.

Here are Tamate Landscaping’s four material picks for those in San Francisco, in light of the factors identified above:

Pressure-Treated Lumber

One of the most widely used materials in our four feet or less high retaining walls is pressure-treated lumber. Note: Walls over four feet high require a permit, including a drawing by a structural engineer, and are generally made of concrete.

The primary reason for selecting pressure-treated lumber over other materials is cost. It is much less costly to install as it is not as labor intensive to build compared to a concrete wall (see poured concrete below for more details). 

Retaining Walls for Garden Terracing
Pressure-treated lumber retaining wall on Stanford Heights Avenue

Retaining walls built with pressure-treated lumber are more rustic if not faced with another higher end wood.  However, by adding a vertical steel beam to a pressure-treated lumber retaining wall, you can achieve a modern look, in addition to reinforcing the wall’s strength.

Pressure-treated lumber retaining wall with steel ibeam

Concrete Masonry Units (CMU)

While walls made with pressure-treated lumber are strong and long-lasting, CMUs, with sufficient drainage, are stronger and generally last longer. As they require rebar-reinforced concrete footings and need to be filled with concrete, CMU retaining walls require more labor, and therefore, are more costly to build than walls made of pressure-treated lumber.

Building CMU Wall
Building CMU retaining wall on Day Street

CMU retaining walls can easily be veneered with other rock, generating a modern look. Here’s one from our project on 34th Avenue and another at Topaz Way.

Stone faced CMU retaining wall
Stone faced CMU retaining wall on 34th Avenue

Interlocking Concrete Blocks

Possibly stronger than CMU retaining walls, interlocking concrete blocks such as Versa-Lok, are easy to install and come in a variety of styles, patterns, sizes, and colors. With these prefabricated concrete blocks, it is easy to create curves which are more difficult to do with lumber and CMUs.  Also, no mortar is needed to hold these blocks together since they are held together with a unique top pinning system. The final product provides for a clean, balanced.

Versa-Lok retaining walls
Versa-Lok retaining walls on Berkeley Way 

Poured Concrete

The gold standard of retaining walls is one that is made with poured concrete. Generally the required material by engineers for four feet or higher retaining walls (permit required), concrete is the strongest and most durable choice, with proper drainage added. 

Concrete retaining walls, however, are much more labor intensive to build, and therefore, generally the most expensive. While it may look very straight forward, it takes a lot of  preparation before the concrete is actually poured. Much of the work comes into play from erecting the concrete forms where the concrete is poured into. 

Concrete forms for Vasquez Avenue project
Concrete forms for Vasquez Avenue project

The concrete forms are normally made out of lumber and metal ties. Rebar reinforcement is then added, and finally, the concrete is ready to be poured!

Concrete pour
Concrete forms waiting for concrete to be poured on Clay Street

After around 24-48 hours, the concrete forms can be removed.  It takes a minimum of 7 days for the concrete to cure 80 percent and approximately 30 days for 100 percent cure.  Just remember, the slower the cure, the stronger the concrete!

In the end, the final product is a modern, sleek, work of art.  Here are two finished concrete retaining wall projects:

Concrete retaining walls
Concrete retaining walls – on Forest Side Avenue

Tamate landscaping has extensive experience in designing and constructing retaining walls. We use only the highest quality materials, including concrete, iBeam, and interlocking blocks. Our team will work with you to create a retaining wall that meets your specific needs and enhances the look of your property.

Concrete Retaining wall and steps
Concrete retaining wall on Vasquez Avenue

If your outdoor space is sliding like sand dunes in the desert or you’re just wanting to add both function and beauty to your eroding hillside, then consider contacting us sooner rather than later. Ultimately, the best material for your retaining wall will depend on your budget, your design goals, and the specific characteristics of your landscape. At Tamate Landscaping, we can discuss the numerous options you have in building the right retaining wall for you.

3 Signs Your Retaining Wall Is Failing

Failing Retaining Wall
Failing Retaining Wall
Deep crack in old brick wall – concept image

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to be more current with today’s various practices for retaining walls, and landscaping architecture.

If you moved into a home with a pre-existing retaining wall, or your retaining wall has been around for a handful of years, you may start to see signs of deterioration before you recognize them – or recognize how serious they are. -But whether you call it terracing or retaining, they hold back a lot of dirt, and a collapsing retaining wall can cause a lot of damage. This is especially true in places like California and others built on hillsides and slopes.

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So, You Have a Retaining Wall to Plant

Natural stone landscaping in home garden with stairs and retaining walls

Have you ever planted something in what looked like fabulously rich ground, only to find a sickly-looking sample later? What happened? Why did it die? And what does this have to do with planting a retaining wall?

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Landscaping for Hilly Backyards: Bernal Heights

Retaining wall with waterfall

One of the great things about San Francisco is the hills, because it allows a whole slew of people a panoramic city view. A flat street limits the view. However, it also makes hilly backyards a challenge for any landscaping project.

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6 Clues That Fence Replacement Should Be Part Of Your Backyard Redesign

Before Updates
By On February 6, 2019 In Retainingwall With No Comments Permanent Link to 6 Clues That Fence Replacement Should Be Part Of Your Backyard RedesignPermalink
Before Updates

A beautiful fence can add additional value to a backyard. It can also be quite functional and very decorative for any outdoor living space.

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Retaining Walls in San Francisco? Watch Closely When El Niño Starts Up Again

El Niño

Effects of El Niño on San Francisco retaining walls

When El Nino hit this year, you may have been looking forward to it. After all, it’s rain – albeit a lot of it – on ground that badly needs the moisture. Continue Reading →

Retaining Walls: 3 Types to Hold Back Those California Hills

Multi Terraced

Tamate Retaining Wall

In the landscaping world, retaining walls have the major purpose of providing stability to the earth, preventing erosion and the movement of soil. Continue Reading →

Backyard Landscaping: Private Sports Yard in the Sunset

Sunset District, San Francisco
Sunset San Francisco

In February 2015, we took on a backyard landscaping project in Inner Sunset, one of the four “micro neighborhoods” making up the Sunset District. Our objective was to create a private sports yard for the homeowner, complete with a nice putting green and space for other activities

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Retaining Walls – Whitney Street – Glen Park

Whitney Street Project

Glen Park Neighborhood

Retaining walls are a necessary but often-overlooked element of landscape design. When done well, they can enhance the curb appeal of a property and add value to the home.

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Current Project 2014: West Portal Custom Front & Rear

By On January 18, 2014 In Completed Projects, Ponds and Waterfeatures, Retainingwall With Comments Off on Current Project 2014: West Portal Custom Front & Rear Permanent Link to Current Project 2014:  West Portal Custom Front & RearPermalink

Our first project in 2014 brings us back to West Portal and its a large one for San Francisco Standards.  Below is a shot of the rear before construction. We’ll be constructing new fences and sunken patios with contemporary concrete retaining walls that are becoming so popular these days.  Also included is a gas fire pit, stainless weir waterfearure, decks, lights and much more.


The end of 7 days.  After removing about 40 cubic yards of debris, concrete and dirt, you can see the forms for the new wall going up.



January 24, 2014, the end of week 2, we pumped 12 yards of  colored concrete (silver smoke), removed the forms on the same day and hand troweled for a smooth finish.



Also being installed is the rear wall stonework and water feature.


January 31, 2014:  Day 18.  

Things are moving along as planned and we should be done in about 7 days.  Below you see a test fire of the natural gas fire pit.  We installed a 30″  H- burner but now I’m thinking I was over ambitious.  The unit puts out so much heat that I’m concerned it may create superficial fissures in the concrete where its narrow.  Although the fire pit is a big chunk of steel re-enforced concrete, expansion and contraction of such material may cause an unsightly effect.  After a discussion with my clients, we are downgrading to a 24″ T-burner.  Stay tuned for a night shot.


A photo of Manuel in the background working on the “stainless weir” water feature.  Also, Mario in the foreground, ripping a piece of black limestone for installation.   A word about these two dedicated workers:  From the pueblo of San Mateo, Mexico,  they’ve been with me for 12 plus years and are the single greatest asset to my operation.   They are skilled, dedicated and with an unmatched dynamite work ethic.  Without them,  I simply would not be able to do an installation like this.


A photo of stair stringers made from 4″ pressure treated material.  All cuts have been sealed with “copper green”.   I’d say its elephant proof.


February 7, 2014:  2 shots of “Almost Done”








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