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A Perspective on Mechanically Stabilized Earth Walls

Pushing the Limits or Pulling Us Down

Robert C. Bachus1, M. ASCE, Ph.D., P.E., and Leslie M. Griffin2, M. ASCE, P.E.
Principal. Geosyntec Consultants. 1255 Roberts Boulevard, Suite 200, Kennesaw, GA 30144.
Senior Engineer. Geosyntec Consultants. 1255 Roberts Boulevard, Suite 200, Kennesaw, GA 30144.


Many will argue that fill walls, particularly mechanically stabilized earth (MSE)
walls, represent a boom to the U.S. geotechnical practice and are a testament to the
valuable and innovative contributions by geotechnical practioners. Many examples
can be cited to demonstrate the professions ability to push the limits in terms of wall
height and creative applications. These success stories notwithstanding, there have
been several reported MSE wall failures that should give the profession pause for
concern. There are indications today that the professions lack of attention and focus
has started to reverse the impressive trends of innovative practice. These failures
should remind us that we have to remain ever mindful of the basic tennants of good
geotechnical engineering practice and that we cannot afford to lose sight of important
geotechnical considerations and perspective regarding the design and construction of
MSE walls and slopes. Unfortunately, the lessons that have been identified by others
from past failures have apparently fallen on deaf ears....because we continue to
experience failures. This paper strives to once again highlight important lessons
regarding the design and construction of MSE walls from both big and small projects.
Most importantly, the authors offer specific recommendations to halt this disturbing
trend before it has potentially severe consequences.


From the relatively simple design concepts proposed by Vidal in 1963,

mechanically stabilized earth (MSE) walls and (subsequently) reinforced soil slopes
(RSSs) have provided geotechnical engineers with yet another tool for innovative
solutions to both difficult and routine geotechnical problems. The track record has
been impressive, as described by others at this conference. Encourgaed by the past
performances, the profession is also beginning to look ahead towards the next 20
years (Berg 2010), as likely will be presented by others at this conference. Without
sounding like the proverbial Chicken Little, the authors also note that recent
publications (i.e., Koerner and Koerner 2009), presentations (i.e., Holtz 2010), and
specific project experience by the authors have shown that MSE wall failures are
apparently becoming more common. The reasons for these failures (sadly) often can
be attributed to factors long recognized by geotechnical engineers, yet the problems
persist and the important lessons outlined by others apparently have not been heeded.

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Rather than merely providing a summary of previous lessons, the authors would
like to build upon these contributions and provide specific recommendations that not
only identify the challenges but heightenen the awareness and the importance of
robust design and diligent construction . The not-so-subtle observations by the
authors is that if current trends persist, the years of successful design, innovative
solutions, and excellent performance of the literally thousands of MSE structures will
be diminished as the failures will tend to represent an albatross around the neck of
design professionals. Should this happen, we will only have ourselves to blame. The
authors note that if current project experience defines the standard of care, then the
standard needs to change.


The intention of this paper is not to provide a comprehensive list of

accomplishments, to provide a recitation of case histories, nor to repeat the numerous
lessons that should have been learned and heeded. Other speakers (and many of the
exhibitors) at this conference will provide illustrative examples of the successes and
advancements that have been experienced by the profession. Many speakers will
likely highlight lessons from previous case histories. To provide illustrative
examples of success and failure, Figures 1 through 3 provide what the authors
identify as examples of the good, the bad, and the ugly MSE walls. To borrow and
modernize the famous poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow regarding the curly
headed girl.

There were geotechnical engineers, who designed MSE walls

And to Seattle in August they fled.
And when they were good, they were very, very good,
But when they were bad they were horrid.

The Good (Figure 1)

A. Very close to this venue, the third runway at the SEA-TAC airport presents
a 42 m (142-ft) tall crowning achievement to MSE innovation.
B. A series of MSE walls at the Babylon Landfill on Long Island changed both
the aesthetics and the perception of a former dump site. These wall systems
were subsequently requested by the local public when asked to comment on
an expansion permit application for the facility.
C. Innovative design and construction monitoring of a RSS on Cherry Island
over soft dredge spoil and sediment adjacent to the Delaware River has
provided exceptional performance despite more than 2 m (6 ft) of
(anticipated) settlement.

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FIG. 1. The Good.

Innovative and Successful Applications of MSE and RSS Structures

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The Bad (Figure 2):

A. Failure to consider the adverse impacts of foundation soil settlement led to
failure of an otherwise impressive 14 m (45-ft) high MSE wall.
B. In an attempt to squeeze useful space at an apartment complex, this MSE
wall with wire facing remain was used. The lack of vegetation and
proximity to the buildings seem an example of bad decisions by the
C. Global stability is always shown on sketches that present the modes of
failure for MSE structures. When walls are developed and constructed for
private (as compared to public) owners, it is a bad idea to rely on a
homeowner and/or developer to complete this geotechnical assessment.


FIG. 2. The Bad.

Failures Occur in the Absence of Good Geotechnical Practices

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The Ugly (Figure 3):

A. Green walls and slopes address a growing demand for sustainable
innovation, but when the vegetation is stressed and/or dies, the entire
structure is viewed to not live up to expectations.
B. When attractive and aesthetically pleasing MSE walls fail to meet
expectations, the commonly recommended soil nailed solution detracts from
the original good intentions.
C. Water infiltrating through a ditch and loading the back of an MSE wall that
had shorter-than-design reinforcement lengths contributed to sliding and
overturning failures. This single example has caused the owner to
consciously re-think their decisions at all of its facilities across the U.S.


FIG. 3. The Ugly.

Examples of but when they were bad they were horrid

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As referenced in the Background, the observations that there are too many failures
resonate across the countryBob Holtz (Seattle, WA), Bob and George Koerner
(Philadelphia, PA), and the authors (Kennesaw, GA). An excellent summary of the
reported failures was compiled by Koerner and Koerner (2009) who cite that the first
of 82 reported failures was noted in 1987, followed by a gradual increase in reported
problems that have been occurring since 1996 at a rate of five per year. These are the
cases that have been reported (read as published). A survey of the audience today
would of course identify a rate that significantly exceeds this, as litigation often
prevents publication of informative case history studies that could provide additional
constructive lessons.

For engineered structures, an isolated failure might be expected, but repeated

occurrences of the same problems seem to be a characteristic of the MSE wall
failures, despite the published lessons that have been learned from these problems.
Consider the following summary statistics (Koerner and Koerner 2009) on
geosynthetic reinforced walls:

Non-technical Factoids
o Ownership: 100 percent of failures are privately owned;
o Facing: 76 percent of failures involve masonry block, with 24 percent fairly
evenly spread among weld wire, wrap around geosynthetics, precast concrete,
and timber;
o Height: All (published) wall failures occurred in walls between
approximately 3.7 to 11 m (12 to 36 ft) in height (though taller walls have
o Occurrence: 67 percent of the failures occurred within two years following
completion of construction; and
o Contributors: 65 percent of the failures were attributed to the design, while 33
percent were attributed to the contractor; the remaining 2 percent were
attributed to a facing failure; notably, none of the failures were attributed to a
defect in the manufactured geosynthetics or steel reinforcements.

Technical Factors
o Soil Type: Fine-grained (i.e., > 50% fines) reinforced wall fill materials were
involved in 76 percent of the failures while 24 percent involved granular
reinforced wall fills; and
o Soil Compaction: 50 percent of the problems involved soils that were
believed to be poorly compacted while 30 percent of the failures involved
soils that were reported to be moderately compacted; the remaining 20 percent
of the failures involved soils that exhibited good compaction.

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Koerner and Koerner (2009) report that virtually 100 percent of the failures could
be attributed to either the properties of the soil or the influence of water. While this
should not be particularly surprising to most geotechnical engineers, Table 1 presents
an interesting summary regarding the allocation of soil and water that is either
internal or external to the MSE wall.

Table 1. Allocation of Soil and Water to MSE Wall Failures

(after Koerner and Koerner, 2009)

Internal External
Soil 26 percent 6 percent
Water 46 percent 22 percent

This compilation should put private developers on notice that they might want to
carefully consider the selection of a designer and contractor for their 11-m (36-ft)
high wall constructed using masonry blocks and native fine-grained materials,
particularly if the system does not include provisions for drainage and if they prefer
to not include construction quality assurance (CQA) personnel to control compaction.
Furthermore, the developer (and the designer) should probably be nervous for similar
projects built within the last two years!

Geotechnical engineers are well acquainted with the influence of water and soil
type on retaining walls. For example, a qualitative rating of soils for use as retaining
wall backfill by Sowers and Sowers (1970) is presented in Table 2. Have MSE wall
designers forgotten that this information is applicable to reinforced structures?

Table 2. Rating of Retaining Wall Backfill

(Sowers and Sowers, 1970)


GW, SW, Excellent, well-draining backfill.
GM, GC, Good if kept dry but requires good drainage. May be subject
SM, SC to some frost action.
ML Satisfactory if kept dry but requires good drainage. Subject
to frost. Neglect cohesion in design.
CL, MH, OL Poor. Must be kept dry. Subject to frost.
CH, OH Should not be used for backfill because of swelling.
Pt Should not be used.

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The previous section identified the factors that were found to contribute to the
failures of MSE walls. Furthermore, the authors note that many of these factors have
long been recognized as potentially contributory to instability of engineered
structures. The key question to address is With all of this prior knowledge and
experience, are there explanations as to why we still continue to have problems? In
general, the authors believe that there are potentially logical (but admittedly
unacceptable) explanations for the factors that were identified in the previous section.
The explanations can be broadly placed into the following three categories: (i)
inexperience, poor understanding, and forgetting first principles: (ii) wishful thinking;
and (iii) market pressure. Each of these explanations presents often subtle but
potentially increasingly insidious challenges to the profession.

Inexperience, Poor Understanding, and Forgetting First Principles: One of the

major problems with the MSE technology is that it can be used to construct walls
to a height of 1.2 m, 12 m, or 42 m (4 ft, 40 ft, or 140 ft). The concepts for these
different designs are similar; but unfortunately the reality of actual construction
and performance is much different. Many engineers (or builders) faced with
the opportunity to build an MSE structure fail to see the difference between
systems constructed to different heights. This likely explains why the majority of
the failures occur in walls that are between 3.7 m and 12.2 m (12 and 40 ft) in
height. Most will agree that there is limited engineering required for a 1.2- to 1.8-
m (4- to 6-ft) tall landscape wall where you can procure the materials at a local
building supply store. Similarly, few would likely argue that when the walls are
>30 m (100 ft) in height, extensive design and experience are required. For
structures that are within the mid-height region of 3.7 m to 12.2 m (12 to 40 ft),
there is likely a tendency to adopt the I can do that attitude and actually design
by rule of thumb guidelines. Designers often tend to forget that many of the
design details come from experience and that experience gained from a low-
height MSE wall explicitly cannot and should not be extended to mid-height
walls. It would seem a good practice to re-think the current approach and realize
that any structure over about 1.8 m (6 ft) in height should be considered and
engineered structure and treated as such. Simply changing this perspective
would likely alleviate many of the problems. The authors recognize that there
will be several practitioners (and constructors) that believe this recommendation
is too severe, but with this proposed change in perspective, many of the first-
principle retaining wall concepts of geotechnical engineering hopefully will not
be overlooked. The areas that currently seem to be overlooked due to
inexperience and poor understanding of MSE wall systems include (not
surprising) drainage, strength, and compaction as highlighted above. In many
cases, it appears that the designers failed to consider the engineering aspects of
these structures.

Wishful Thinking: In the previous category, it was postulated that the designers
or builders of the MSE systems did not realize the fact that MSE walls are
engineered structures. For this second category, the authors believe that the

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designers may be experienced engineers, but they simply want to solve a problem
and want their solution to work. We term this wishful thinking as the concepts
are generally adopted and the materials are probably acceptable. The problems
are realized when attention to the details of engineering design are forgotten or
not applied. Three specific examples are cited.
o Soil Type: While both coarse-grained and fine-grained soils used in
construction are geotechnical materials, the engineering properties can be
dramatically different in terms of long-term strength, time-dependent creep
characteristics, and permeability. Engineers should require more site-specific
testing, particularly as the grain size of the backfill materials includes silt and
clay materials, and should remember the information presented in Table 2
regarding retaining wall backfill soils.
o Water: Virtually every geotechnical engineer knows the problems that water
can present to virtually any geotechnical project, particularly walls. Where
many often fail is in the consideration of the various and numerous ways that
water can get into their structure/project. As most geotechnical engineers
realize, however, Mother Nature will find a way! Therefore, we should not
wish or hope that water is not a factor. The design of MSE walls should
either consider that water will find its way into the wall and therefore: (i)
should be accounted for in the design; or (ii) be controlled by explicitly
providing a means for drainage.period.
o Maintenance: Many engineers of substructures (i.e., spread footing, piles,
drilled shafts, and cutoff walls) have the luxury of burying their work
products. By contrast, most walls (and slopes) are visible for their entire life.
Maintenance of these engineered structures is often a relatively foreign
concept to many geotechnical engineers. For MSE walls, particularly welded-
wire baskets that include vegetation, we are learning the valuable and
importance of planned and executed maintenance.

Market Pressures: This explanation is perhaps the most disturbing, because in the
worst case scenario it implies that a design engineers principles can be
compromised by external pressures from the market, whether those pressures
come from competitors or clients. In an attempt to make the client happy, get the
job, or to get a lower price, there may be an unconscious (or potentially
conscious) impact to overlook some aspect of the design. This includes adding
notes on the design drawings to indicate that certain aspects of design (e.g., global
stability, settlement, etc.) are the responsibility of someone other than the wall
designer. Taken to its extreme or cycled through several iterations, it may be
difficult to remember all of the compromised steps. In this case, a failure is likely
inevitable. It has often been cited that there is a perception that the contributions
of geotechnical engineers are unappreciated and not valued. While the
authors have experienced the frustration of this perception, we also feel that
succumbing to market pressures essentially validates the same perception. While
this last explanation may represent the exception rather then the rule, the authors

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note that the actions of even a few can ruin the good efforts of majority. Consider
the following:
o In the Southeastern U.S., the term blow count engineer and sample
fetcher is often applied to the geotechnical engineer, as these terms connote
the lack of value for the geotechnical work product. An extension of this to
the topic at hand is a concept that a MSE Wall design can be bid on a per
ft2 basis regardless of subsurface conditions, wall height, materials, etc.
o The authors are aware of MSE wall projects where geotechnical exploration
programs are not executed prior to design. This has recently extended to a
project where the geotechnical investigation was conducted but the report was
explicitly not provided to the MSE wall designer by the owner for fear of
potential implied owner liability for the MSE wall design.
o In many cases, the MSE wall designer is forced to submit stamped design
drawings that include limitations regarding external stability and settlement
analyses. These limitations state that these assessments are explicitly not the
responsibility of the wall designer. While the authors may agree with this in
concept due to absence of foundation parameters, it begs the questions: (i)
who is responsible for external stability and settlement calculations; and (ii)
how can a design be executed in compliance with recognized design
methodologies, if the design does not include external stability assessments?
Should the design drawings be stamped and issued for construction without
verification that these analyses have been performed?

In an effort to control (read as reduce) costs, CQA personnel are often not
employed during construction and in many cases their reports seem to provide lip
service to the concept and really do not act on behalf of the owner to assure that the
designers field conditions and/or assumptions are achieved. A landscaper that is
experienced in building 2 m (6 ft) high walls likely does not have the construction
quality control (CQC) experience or knowledge for constructing the 11 m (36 ft) high
walls they are now building.


The previous sections summarized the various causes for failures and identified
potential reasons and/or explantions for the problems, despite our apparent
understanding of the causes. The authors believe that there is a need for specific
guidelines and/or recommendations. It is too simple to believe that just because we
know the reasons for the failures, we will be able to minimize and/or eliminate them.
This simple solution is, unfortunately, in the authors opinion another example of
wishful thinking, as numerous case histories have repeatedly identified
lessons....and yet problems persist. The Koerner and Koerner (2009) report repeats
some previously cited and recognized recommendations as a means of reducing the
incidence of failures: (i) use granular materials, (ii) provide adequate compaction to
the backfill; (iii) control storm water at the site; (iv) minimize impact of external
sources of water; and (v) be sure that the software adequately models the as-built
conditions. These are excellent recommendations, but the authors believe that

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stronger and more specific recommendations need to be advanced. This section

identifies five initial specific recommendations that should be implemented and
considered part of the standard of care for MSE wall designs.

The Buck Stops with the Designer: The wall designer plays a critical role in
improving the practice and in reducing the incidence of failures. The authors
believe that if we are to change practice: (i) change has to start with the designer;
and (ii) ultimately the designer should assume responsibility for the engineered
system. To accomplish this the designer has to insist that adequate geotechnical
investigations be performed and inform the owner that design parameters are to
be identified in the report. This action will reduce the requirement for extensive
limitations on the design drawings and the designer should minimize the number
of limitations, conditions, caveats, etc. that are included on the design drawings.
This may involve interaction between the geotechnical engineer who prepared the
report and the MSE wall designer. An MSE wall design can not (and should not)
be designed as though it is placed on an flat parking lot if the actual site
conditions includes slopes at the toe of the wall and foundation conditions that
indicate a potential for slope stability and settlement.

Drainage: In many regards this should be the easiest recommendation to

accomodate. Simply stated, if the MSE wall design does not include loading due
to water pressure, than the MSE wall should be designed either to: (i) be freely
draining (i.e., open graded, permeable, granular) backfill, or (ii) include a base
and/or chimney drain. Guidelines for these drainage systems are available in
numerous design guidance documents. They should be followed explicitly or
specific equivalency calculations need to be provided i.e,. always include
drainage unless it is specifically engineered out of the design (Berg et al. 2009).
As summarized previously, water can generally be traced to the root of most
geotechnical problems, including those with MSE walls.

CQA Monitoring: Owners should budget for and designers should insist on
qualified CQA monitoning during construction for all walls larger than
approximatelt 3 m (10 ft) in hieght. The geotechnical engineer who provides
oversight should assume responsibility for assuring that the design parameters and
conditions are achieved. The authors experience is that qualified CQA monitors
are extremely beneficial and influencial in achieving high quality work products.
The responsibilities of the field monitors needs to be explicit and should include:
(i) assuring compaction and calibration requirements; (ii) understanding all
relevant design details; (iii) reviewing laboratory test results; and (iv) assuring all
materials meet the project specifications.

Laboratory Testing: In recent years, there seems to have been a reduced emphasis
on laboratory testing for both soil and soil/geosynthetic interface materials. There
seems to be more emphasis on assumed ( and potentially wished) properties.
This trend needs to be reversed, particually when fine-grained soils are considered
in the design. Testing should assess the long-term strength and settlement of fine-
grained soils and the strength and creep characteristics at the soil/geosyntehtic

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interface. Designers need to assess potential what if design conditions and

testing needs to be performed to model these potential conditions. Upon review
of the test results, the designer needs to interpret these results and suggest
appropriate design recommendations.

Maintenence: There is an increased emphasis on long-term, life-cycle cost

assessment for current construction projects. There is also strong interest in
sustainable development. As mentioned previously, walls are engineered
structures that are visible and accesible for their entire service life. Designers
need to consider potential maintenance requirements and have these
recommendations be included in the design report. Owners need to budget for
and then implement the maintenance recommendations. With regards to MSE
walls, this is particularly important for welded-wire basket facing that support
vegetation. In all cases this will mean controlling vegetaion from adversely
impacting the face by removing trees from the face that will become established
as volunteer growth. In some cases this may mean providing irrigation (i.e.,
introducing water) to the soils at the face and developing specific topsoil
specification for materials placed in the front of the wirs baskets. In the authors
experience, lack of maintenance for these welded wire structures often leads to a
perception that the walls themselves are failing.

To assure that these recommended actions are included in the design and the
operations documents, it is recommended that forms be developed to help assure that
these guidelines are included in design packages. In cases where concurrence needs
to be achieved between owners, engineers, and contractors, forms should similarly be
developed and executed.


This paper started with an appropriate historical quotation. It seems fitting to end
with a similar timely citation from the Spanish philosopher George Santayana who
noted in 1905 that ..."Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat
it." The authors note that there have been numerous examples where lessons
learned have been reported, but apparently not fully heeded by the MSE design and
construction community. The goal of this paper is to slow the incidence of failures
by: (i) identifying the key elements that cause the problems; and (ii) defining specific
actions to address these causes.

Geotechnical enginners provide a tremendous service and can represent significant

value to a project. However, if we allow failures to continue at anywhere close to the
existing rates, we will see an impressive history of innovation slowly recede because
the public will not trust us to provide MSE walls that will serve as durable engineered
structures. As an example, in suburban Atlanta, one municipality banned all MSE
walls because of the high incidence of failure. The ban was lifted only after
prescriptive requirements for investigation, independent review, and final
construction confirmation by a third party were adopted. In a final disturbing trend,
the increased market pressures and (a potentially correlated lucrative litigation

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environment) has caused some designers to concede and leave the ranks of innovative
design. If these trends continue we will only have ourselves to blame as we will
essentially pull down the good works of earlier generations of geotechnical engineers.


Berg, R. (2010). Fill Walls Recent Advances and Future Trends. Earth Retaining
Structures 2010, ASCE.
Berg, R.R., Christopher, B.R. and Samtani, N.C. (2009). Design and Construction
of Mechanically Stabilized Earth Walls and Reinforced Soil Slopes. FHWA
NHI-10-024 Vol I and NHI-10-025 Vol II, Federal Highway Administration,
Washington, D.C., 306p (Vol I) and 378p (Vol II).
Holtz, R. (2010). Reinforced Soil Technology: From Experimental to the Familiar.
Terzaghi Lecture, GeoFlorida, Palm Beach, Florida.
Koerner, R.N. and Koerner, G.R., (2009). A Database and Analysis of Geosynthetic
Reinforced Wall Failures. GRI Report No. 38 (Members only distribution).
Sowers, G.B. and Sowers, G.F. (1970). Introductory Soil Mechanics and
Foundations, MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc., New York, NY, 556 p.

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