Ask the Architect

A rotting wall holds up a yard


Q. Our front yard has a hilly slope to the street with a wood wall holding it up, made of railroad ties. At one point, the former owners painted the wall an ugly maroon to match the shutters on the house. The shutters are made of plastic. The wall is rotting in several places and can’t be fixed, so we want to either get rid of it or replace it. If we just take it out, the lawn has to be dug up so it won’t collapse onto the street, so we’re thinking we should put in a new wall. What kind of wall do you think we should use, and can we then repaint the maroon shutters white? We aren’t sure we want to pay to have new shutters installed, but we would keep the old ones if they can be painted.

A. The wall was probably built because the sloping lawn would just give you a barrier to the street without much function, if you intended to use the front yard for any purpose. The flatter yard keeps the lawn from eroding downhill and is easier to mow. Although treated lumber, the slightly greenish color, can last a long time, it still is subject to soaking with water, regularly getting into the end grain and slowly rotting from being expanded and contracted. Unless the railroad ties are reinforced with vertical steel rods and are “tied back” deeply into the hill, the wall will begin to lean forward and can also collapse over time.
My first choice is stacking precast concrete wall block, which comes in many earth tones and is highly effective at solving the problem because the weight of the block holds the wall in place, the natural spacing allows water to flow through, there is no wood or steel to rot and therefore the system lasts much longer. Although it can be done by a homeowner, following the directions of the manufacturer and watching the installation videos, it is heavy manual work.
I have done the technical design for hillsides in both materials and go back to see how the work is holding up, sometimes years later. The block holds up much better and does not have the maintenance issues that you will find with wood. Painting the wood traps moisture and leads to the rot you see. Penetrating stain is the much better choice as a wood preservative, but the block system is still the best choice.
As for the shutters, they can be painted, but I recommend removing them, thoroughly cleaning them and then sanding the surfaces with a fine grade of sandpaper before spraying them with a spray paint that specifically is made for plastic. I had a set of plastic Adirondack chairs that had been power-washed, which damaged the surfaces. I lightly sanded and sprayed with semi-gloss spray paint to avoid pitting, and the surface is like new again. Good luck!

© 2020 Monte Leeper. Readers are encouraged to send questions to, with “Herald question” in the subject line, or to Herald Homes, 2 Endo Blvd., Garden City, NY 11530, Attn: Monte Leeper, architect.


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