I built this little planting bed over the winter. The wall is drystone, mostly made of Hooper’s Creek.
I built this drystone retaining wall a couple of years ago, just outside of downtown Asheville. I like to visit it when I can and I have been working in that neighborhood lately (more updates to follow.) My friend Betty Sharpless, owner of Good Help Landscaping, maintains the site and is responsible for these beautiful irises. The wall is made of a variety of sandstones from Tennessee and Virginia with some Pennsylvania bluestone thrown in for fun. See more pictures of this wall here.
Benefits of a Drystone Retaining Wall
A well-crafted drystone retaining wall will have a smaller carbon footprint and will outlast a similarly sited mortared wall. Here are some of the other advantages of drystone masonry:
- Flexible, moves rather than breaks in response to outside stresses
- Drains water effectively, preventing build up of hydrostatic pressure, the force that pushes over mortared walls
- Doesn’t require concrete footings or slabs or block wall backing
- Weathers better and lasts longer
- Easier to repair work or reuse the stone at a later date
- Requires no waterproofing
- Looks more natural in the landscape
Hooper’s Creek is quarried in Fletcher, North Carolina- the nearest source of workable building stone to Asheville. It is a type of granitic gneiss, a metamorphic stone that is extremely hard and dense. It has a great texture and it sounds like glass when you hit it with a hammer.
These images show a patio made almost exclusively of Hooper’s Creek. And some pebbles of course. The grain of Hooper’s Creek gives it the sharper angles and straighter lines than the sandstones often used for flagging.
Back to Chapel Hill for a couple of days recently. The stone structure is finished. It waits patiently under wraps for the ironwork.
Here’s a close up of a wall section. There are two marbles hidden in the wall, gifts from Ethan and Logan. Sadly, the marbles aren’t visible in this view.
My current project has me journeying to Chapel Hill to build a entry sign for the Ironwoods neighborhood. Two years ago I built a memorial bench in this same neighborhood for Grandpa Tony. I am delighted that they invited me back to complete this project, a collaboration between myself and blacksmith & artist Lynda Metcalfe. I met Lynda during the Handmade House in the Ramble project and have been hoping to find a way to work with her ever since. I am excited about the collaboration and how the final piece will mesh our two crafts and styles into a seamless design.
The boulders are anchored in concrete and the wall sits on a slab. The wall is structural stone, about fourteen inches thick. The big boulder (roughly 1500 pounds) has a perfect notch for my cell phone.
I used a sheet of foam core to create a template of the boulder’s shape to give Lynda a rough guide as to where her ironwork will tie into the stonework.
Thanks be to Matthew Feldt for the photographs and all his help with this project.
Finished this project today- four small drystone retaining walls.
During the installation process in Gainesville, my friend Mary Padua brought a group of students from the University of Florida to the site. She is a professor in the Landscape Architecture program at UF and a gifted designer and photographer. The students are studying implementation and construction drawings. I talked briefly about the project, about the work in general and designing with stone. At the end of the conversation, I ran through my five suggestions for young designers:
Learn the local geology
Just as a designer moving to Colorado would set out quickly to learn the local plants, learning about the local geology can be an invaluable asset. The make up of the Earth varies more dramatically from place to place than many realize. Knowing what types of rock are present, their formation and structure can help a designer choose the best application for each. The finished product is stronger and more durable and it looks like it belongs to the place it built. Also, the more you knows about the local geology, the more you can understand about the forces that will actively try to destroy your work such as erosion and earth movement.
Connect with local craftspeople
Large architecture firms hire large builders. This is cost-effective and helps to ensure compliance with the myriad laws that control construction. But large builders don’t have the vision or the gift of invention that independent craftspeople do. Local craftspeople understand their materials intimately and create distinctive works that celebrate creativity and are meant to last. Employing local craftspeople is the sustainable choice for the economy as well; they spend their wages in their communities and often support other small businesses. Local craftspeople are a fantastic asset to the design process as well, adding a strong practical understanding to the conceptual development of an idea.
Dry stonework is the sustainable choice for landscape applications such as retaining walls, paths, patios, and steps. A well-crafted drystone retaining wall will have a smaller carbon footprint and will outlast a similarly sited mortared wall. I offer a more detailed take on this here.
Water always wins
There’s a misconception that modern materials and techniques are so advanced and technologically sophisticated that they can withstand any assault, resist any force. This is patently false. Water always wins. The forces of weather over time should be a central consideration in the design and implementation of every project.
Learn about business and marketing
I expect that most young Landscape Architects will start working in larger firms and over the early years of their design careers get practice at the whole range of design tasks. Many will, at some point, strike out on their own. It’s an amazing journey and incredibly rewarding, but it can be very challenging to start your own business. I encourage everyone to start learning their way around the business side of the design and construction trades now. Project bidding, tax issues and insurance requirements sneak up fast when you set up your own shop. Marketing is often very difficult for the self-employed. Taking classes now and reading books can be helpful. Learning by doing is best, if you can find opportunities to handle the business side earlier
Biltmore Forest Walkway
The Biltmore Forest Walkway project entails replacing a 40 year old walkway leading to the front entrance of a house in Biltmore Forest. The existing walkway was set in sand on soft soils and had settled, shifted and recently been overrun (underun?) by moles. After removing the old stone- to be reused- I dug out the sand and soft soil. I replaced the substrate with road bond and compacted it with a jumping jack tamper.
I’m using pea gravel as my setting bed. The compacted road bond and the pea gravel in combination create a very unfriendly environment for moles. It’s also less attractive for their favored foods, like worms. This is what the area looked like after the prep work was done, before I started setting stone.
The original material is no longer quarried, but a similar stone, a granitic gneiss called Hooper’s Creek, is a good match. The key to mixing different types of stone is to make the mix consistent throughout. It’s obvious when you introduce a new type of stone halfway through a project. But if you have all the varieties in play from the first stone, it usually works out fine.
My Friday goal was to finish the matrix, what I call the edges and the big stones that connect the sides, leaving only the fill-ins and details for Monday.
Friday Quitting Time
Except for that one area at the very end, the matrix is done. Monday is all about filling the gaps.