Ask the Architect

The backyard needs leveling


Q. We moved into our house with a sloping backyard knowing we’d have to level it out. We found a guy who specializes in stack block walls on the internet, and saw pictures of his work, and are satisfied that he can do the job. He recommended calling an engineer or architect, which we did. That’s when we learned that the harder part of this is all the months we’re waiting for permits to make our backyard useful for our kids to play in. We couldn’t have imagined it was this complicated. Our neighbors don’t seem to mind that we’re going to do it, even saying that it should’ve been done long ago. Are we missing something here? Should we have just built this and waited to see if anyone even cared?

A. Your question is asked every day. Even officials, who would answer that you’re absolutely doing the right thing to get plans and permits, answer that they’re just doing their job, possibly intimating that they might agree with you. Truthfully, you are doing the right thing. Not just because of the paperwork, stages of review — including a zoning variance — but because raising your property means high fences viewed from the bottom of the walls. Neighbors have complained, saying they’re looking up at the “Wall of China,” and municipalities reacted.
Safety is why the process is worthwhile. A stacked block wall, done incorrectly, can give way, with costly — or deadly — consequences. I was once called to look at a predicament where someone using no formulas, no instructions (apparently) and no common sense built a chest-high wall, which began to drift and lean in the first rainstorm. It violated the laws of nature in that it did not have the ability to resist the hidden or plain-sight conditions.
Yes, there are formulas, charts and tables developed for holding back land masses, just as there are formulas for designing columns and beams. In my experience, the less you know, the happier you are at the beginning of the process. The more you learn from what went wrong, especially after it goes terribly wrong, the worse off you’ll be.
Well, it wasn’t even the leaning wall that was the biggest part of the problem. It was the fact that a few feet from the not-so-correctly built wall was a swimming pool made of gunnite. Gunnite is concrete that has been sprayed in layers onto a heavy mesh of woven reinforcing rods. It’s one of the strongest types of construction, so strong that it was used to form the hulls of PT boats in World War II to resist torpedoes. So when the landscaped wall drifted and leaned, the strongest kind of pool built began to twist like a pretzel. It wasn’t the wall that was the biggest problem; it was how to stabilize and stop the twisty pool from breaking apart.
Hang in there. Fences and walls, not permits, are the bigger problem to solve, safely. Good luck!

© 2021 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.