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I'm interested in building a garden wall from either concrete or rammed earth, or a mixture of the two, but I'm concerned about Michigan winters and the havoc they wreak on everything solid. It seems that all concrete steps I've ever seen around here are either quite new or in the process of disintegration. I would consider anything that can't last 100 years to be a failure.

I've been unable to find any good information online about this, and even asking a friend who is a builder didn't turn up any good info. (It seems that all residential buildings around here are built from wood, primarily.) It's easy to find info about the frost line, but not about the actual longevity of the concrete (or rammed earth) structure. How would I go about getting information on how to build/pour a wall so that it can last a century or more?

Also, could I expect rammed earth to be more or less resilient to cracking? (Would the clay involved make it a bit more flexible than straight concrete?)

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All the answers are extremely helpful. I'm sorry I can only pick one. –  iconoclast Jun 12 '13 at 14:33
    
Concrete steps spall because of the salt used on them. –  Fiasco Labs Jul 30 '13 at 21:37
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4 Answers

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You need to understand the properties of the materials you're planning to use.

Rammed earth is earth, chalk, lime and gravel, mixed into the right consistency and proportions for strength and longevity. It's then rammed into a form work to form a solid mass.

As it is earth, it can wash away like earth so it's susceptible to water damage if not properly protected from water. As a garden retaining wall I wouldn't therefore recommend it because it's going to get wet frequently. They can use it on houses because the roof and it's overhang protects the walls from constant moisture.

If it's a particularly high wall you would normally put seep holes into the wall to allow for drainage. Naturally, even with plastic pipe in the hole I would think it'll not last 100 years. So if you're thinking of using rammed earth, I'd definably line the wall with plastic.

Also, earth does crack as it expands and contracts. You fix the cracks with more rammed earth mix. People with these types of houses generally have to patch cracks every few years for this reason. But, it's a very organic material to work with and they would be aware of this... it's a choice you make when you build with it.

You could use cement in place of lime. That may make it last a lot longer and increase it's strength. I've seen this work for some structures and it may require some experimentation being out in the open.

Concrete on the other hand does last a long time if properly prepared. It also can crack as it naturally expands and contracts. To prevent serious cracking you need to cut it every few meters and fill the gaps with a flexible compound. You might notice that as you drive over some concrete highways you'll hear a bump, bump, bump, noise. That's the wheels going over the horizontal cuts in the concrete designed to allow for expansion and contraction and prevent cracking. If it's a big retaining wall you'll need these cuts.

Concrete is also porous so water can be absorbed. You can imagine that concrete that has absorbed water that freezes won't be good for the concrete right? Because it could cause it to crack, and it does. So you need to get a grade of concrete that is less porous and stronger (and make sure it's thick!). Talk to your concrete supplier if you got this route and make sure you get a stronger grade and that when the concrete is poured it is not too wet.

If I were you I'd consider using a different material all together. Have you considered brick? You can get some flexible mortars so you won't get the same cracking issues as you would with concrete and it will look more attractive in my opinion.

Another option is to use a hardwood. Down here in NZ we call them railway sleepers. You can stack them, bolt them together and form a pretty nice retaining wall. It's strong and attractive. I'd paint the side where the dirt is touching it to protect the wood, or use a plastic barrier or paint on barrier like mulseal. It probably won't last 100 years but it should last at least 50 if well prepared and looked after.

By the way, some woods like Jarrah can last a very long time without any treatment. We can sometimes get Jarrah poles used by the electric company for the overhead wires. They pull them out of the ground and they are still as good as when they went in over 50 years ago. So, some hardwoods can really last.

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Drainage, drainage, drainage.

All frost heaving issues disappear when there isn't water trapped. Piers sunk to below the 100 year worst case frostline (piers of crushed gravel, holes lined with landscape fabric (to prevent silt intrusion. Oversized (width wise) trench footings packed in crushed gravel (21AA in MI) Active groundwater management via French drains, swales and contouring.

Once you take care of the foundation, whatever you build above will last.

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If you want a wall to last 100 years, you likely need to consider some 'flexibility' into the design...so perhaps a stacked block or stone wall is the better longer-term solution (See also: Great Wall of China, Hadrian's Wall, etc.)

In either case a 100 year lifespan will still require a certain amount of maintenance. ;)

As for concrete steps, the biggest way to destroy them is to use salt in the winter. This causes two issues: 1) it creates more freeze/thaw cyclces and 2) there are chemicals in path salt that erode the concrete.

I doubt you'll be using salt on the wall, so that's a plus there.

Still, a monolithic wall is going to depend heavily on a quality foundation. With a concrete wall, you're basically building a foundation, and in MI, that's not a simple task as you need to deal with the frost line.

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The proponents for rammed earth are quick to point out the parts of the Great Wall of China were built with rammed earth. But I'm willing to bet that those parts don't run through an area with Michigan-style weather. Rammed earth looks like it could be built in block-like sections, but I need to research this more. I'm not sure if concrete could be done this way, since it is more of a liquid, and is poured into place. Probably possible but it seems harder to achieve. –  iconoclast Jun 10 '13 at 20:16
    
with regard to the last paragraph of your answer, do you mean that if I build the wall's foundation deep enough I will avoid problems with cracking? In other words, the step taken to avoid heaving (going below the frost line) will also avoid cracking? –  iconoclast Jun 10 '13 at 20:17
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Honestly, I don't know if anything will avoid cracking. I used to live in MN and every concrete retaining wall I ever saw that was over 40 years old or so was cracked. But at the very least, you will need a solid foundation--but I think that will only reduce the cracking--not prevent it. If you want to stick with concrete, there are plenty of concrete wall block options, though...many of them can be dry stacked using a masonry adhesive. –  DA01 Jun 10 '13 at 20:24
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Concrete is absolutely capable of lasting hundreds of years. The Romans used a lot of concrete in structures that are still standing today. –  Henry Jackson Jun 11 '13 at 0:18
    
@HenryJackson has a material, certainly. But in the context of a monolithic wall, while it will last, you will likely have to deal with cracking. (Als note that Roman Concrete has a different makeup than the stuff you pick up at Home Depot.) –  DA01 Jun 11 '13 at 1:38
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Concrete can be placed with components that reduce or eliminate cracking. A crack in concrete reduces the strength and affects longevity. Try placing concrete with a shrinkage compensating component such as GreenCanvas to eliminate shrinkage cracking and concrete curling. Protect your concrete from the elements by applying products such as chemistry that is 244 tested to repel salts.

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