What To Know About Gabion Walls

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Most often used as retaining walls, gabion walls are effective and inexpensive, as well as labor-intensive to build.

Even if you’ve never heard the term, you’ve probably seen a gabion wall. The word gabion comes from the Italian gabbione, or “big cage,” and gabion walls are just that — wire mesh cages filled with loose stone (also called riprap), gravel, or other masonry material.

We know — you’re now saying to yourself, “So that’s what they’re called!” Read on to learn more.

What Is a Gabion Wall?

Gabion walls are most frequently used as retaining walls or as tall, vertical walls in industrial settings, such as bridges, embankments and seawalls. Gabion walls are often stepped or built at a slant to better retain the soil behind them.

Retired construction worker Alcide Trincia used to build gabion walls with his father, often after a flood or landslide. Today, you’ll still see gabion walls in coastal or riverine areas to control erosion, or even to divert the flow of a body of water.

In residential settings, gabion walls appear as retaining walls, privacy fences or decorative landscaping elements in a garden or yard.

Gabion Wall Pros

“Gabion walls are made of inexpensive materials and can be built quickly with the right equipment,” says Paolo Marchetti, who runs a construction company in central Italy. “That’s part of the reason you see them used so often in industrial settings, like roads and areas prone to flooding.”

According to Marchetti, these are the biggest advantages to gabion walls:

They’re inexpensive. Materials usually consist of wire mesh and fill matter, which may be rock, crushed concrete or leftover construction materials like brick and tile. “To make a gabion wall look nicer but still save money,” says Marchetti, “you can use cast-off construction material in the middle of the wall, and better quality material, like tumbled stones, on the outside.”

They’re good for drainage. Because they’re porous, gabion walls are well-suited to retaining soil or terrain that requires drainage. Marchetti installed a gabion wall to stop erosion of land routinely waterlogged in rainy season. “Because water can flow right through the wall,” he says, “the gabion system was the best solution.”

They don’t crack. Erosion from wind and water, seismic activity and the sheer weight of the earth behind it will eventually take their toll on the sturdiest of retaining walls. Because they have no solid surface and are built with flexible but resistant wire mesh, gabion walls don’t crack, and won’t collapse unless their wire cage breaks.

The gabion walls Trincio built with his father lasted up to 30 years. But today, he explains, with galvanized wire and mesh, he says a gabion wall can last “40, 50 or 60 years.”

They’re a greener solution. We like this best of all. Because they don’t require cement or timber and often use otherwise discarded materials, gabion walls have a lot smaller carbon footprint than other retaining wall solutions.

Gabion Wall Cons

Before you rush out and order rolls of wire and a truckload of rocks with plans to redesign your backyard, keep in mind that gabion walls aren’t for everyone. “Gabion walls aren’t complicated to build from a technical standpoint,” says Marchetti, “but they’re also just a lot of work physically.” Here are the downsides of gabion walls:

They’re highly labor-intensive. Building the wire cages (or buying ready-made cages) is relatively easy. Filling them with stones, gravel or busted-up cement is back-breaking labor, especially if you’re working with hand tools like a shovel, buckets and wheelbarrows. “The higher the wall gets,” says Marchetti, “the harder it is to do the job with just manual labor.”

They may require heavy equipment. If your gabion wall project involves a large, long wall or one with multiple steps and elevation change, you might need to call in the heavy machinery. “It’s a lot easier to dump the fill material into the wall with a backhoe than it is with a shovel,” says Marchetti.

Trincia recalls building a sizable gabion wall by hand with his father and advises against it. “You’d never build a large gabion wall without a backhoe,” he says.

They’re not always that attractive. Let’s be honest. Gabion walls are functional and inexpensive, but they’re not always the prettiest solution. Their industrial look may not blend well with the rest of your yard or garden. With some creativity, however, you may come up with gabion wall ideas that suit your style and even become a focal point.

How To Build a Gabion Wall

Gabion walls can go up fast because unlike other types of retaining walls, they usually don’t need a poured cement footer.

“If you’re building on flat ground that’s not composed of clay, which will settle under the weight of the wall, you can get by without a foundation,” Marchetti says. If the ground is soft or mostly clay, dig down until you reach more compact earth, and fill the excavated space with a layer of gravel.

Building a simple gabion wall involves clearing the area and marking where the wall will go. The cage features sheets of heavy-duty wire mesh or PVC-coated steel wire tied together with galvanized wire to form a rectangle. (For smaller projects, you can buy ready-made gabion cages.) Once the cage is set in place, the fill material is inserted and the top of the cage wired into place.

More complicated tall or stepped walls require more planning, plus a buddy with a backhoe. “Stepped walls usually mean a lot of excavation beforehand to carve out the area the wall will occupy,” Marchetti says.

Tall walls, he says, feature cages stacked on top of one another. Along with long walls, they might require supporting rebar rods set in a concrete base, as well as wire cross-braces to help the wall hold its shape.

How Much Do Gabion Walls Cost?

Depending on the type of fill material, gabion walls are one of the cheapest retaining walls you can build, ranging from $5 to $40 per square foot installed. While they’re doable as a DIY project, Marchetti recommends that if you’re building on your own, stick to less-ambitious projects, like lower walls and those with fewer running feet.

“It’s not so much a question of skill as it is labor,” he says. “It takes a long time to fill a gabion wall by hand and it’s exhausting work.” And your energy and enthusiasm for the project might run out well before that wall is filled.

Elizabeth Heath
Elizabeth Heath is a travel, culinary and lifestyle writer based in rural Umbria, Italy. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, HuffPost, Frommers.com, TripSavvy and many other publications. Her guidebook, An Architecture Lover's Guide to Rome, was released in 2019. Liz's husband is a stonemason and together they are passionate about the great outdoors, endless home improvement projects, dogs, their unruly garden and their slightly less unruly 8-year-old.