Retaining Walls vs Common Walls (Similarities and Differences)

Walls. We need them for our privacy. And we certainly need them to function. If walls have similar functions, how can some be different? For instance, how do retaining walls differ from common walls

Well, there are different types of walls with various functions. Some are indoors and others are outdoors. Some divide properties while others hold a home together. 

Are common walls truly common? (Answer: yes, but the term “common” is used in a different context.).

What are retaining walls holding in place?

Dalinghaus Construction has over 100 years of combined experience in construction, understanding the terminology and functions of these walls. And within our 2,000 foundation repair projects, hundreds have involved retaining and common walls. When it comes to the purpose of these walls, we want you to know their functions, similarities, and difference. That way there isn’t a barrier between you and the knowledge you crave. 

What is a retaining wall? 

Retaining walls are those walls you’ll find on hillsides or slopes. You know those concrete or brick walls you’ve seen on the hillsides of the highway? Those aren’t for show. There’s a purpose to them. Basement walls are also retaining walls. 

They retain soil by preventing lateral movement. The ones in residential areas are so your neighbor’s soil doesn’t slide onto your property or vice versa. And when you’re on the highway, you want to make it so the hillside isn’t sliding onto the roads you drive on. 

They stabilize the soil from further movement. And you don’t want your home moving down a slope like the slowest-moving slide in history. 

As time passes, gravity will win in the long battle. But when they’re constructed well, they can do their jobs for decades.

For a more in-depth look at retaining walls, check out our article What is a Retaining Wall?

What is a Common Wall?

They aren’t “walls that are common.” Well, they’re common, but that’s not where the name comes from.

A common wall divides properties.

This is essentially a shared wall with your neighbor. You’ll find these in duplexes or condos. It’s that center wall between your property and your neighbor’s. 

These can also be a brick wall outside of your home, acting like a fence. 

Think of it like the Berlin wall and how it divided Germany. Never mind the historical context and who the neighbors were. Just the function of the wall. 

Fun Fact: They’re also called a “Party Wall.” Don’t let them party too hard, though. They have responsibilities. They’re more like that one friend you want at a party, making sure no one gets between you and your fun time. Party responsibly, kids.

Similarities

    • They’re both walls.
  • Bet you didn’t see this similarity coming.
  • Both are load-bearing walls.
    • They’re designed to hold a certain amount of weight
    • The difference in load-bearing is a common wall deals with vertical movement, whereas a common wall deals with vertical loads within a structure.
  • Both have a variety of materials used to construct them.
    • Both walls can use concrete, concrete blocks, brick, or wood. 
  • Both can technically be shared (depending on the circumstances).
    • A common wall is a shared wall meant to divide properties. 
    • While retaining walls in a residential area are owned by someone, they can be shared in some instances.
      • Example: You live in an HOA area with your home at the top of a slope with many other homes. The length of one retaining wall will be stretched among those multiple properties. 
  • They need to be addressed over time.
    • It would be nice for something to last forever. However, time outlives people and objects. Whether it’s repair or concrete removal and replacement, these walls will need addressing at some point. 

Differences

  • All retaining walls are load-bearing, but not all common walls are.
    • This sounds like a contradiction from the similarities. For common walls, it depends on the location.
    • If you have that brick common wall outside dividing properties, it’s not managing a load vertically like a structure is with a roof. 
  • You won’t use drywall for a retaining wall.
    • While both types of walls can be composed of wood, you won’t find your retaining wall covered in drywall.
      • There may be homeowners that cover it in drywall. A little weird, but to each their own. The drywall adds nothing to a retaining wall’s job.
  • Different signs and symptoms of foundation settlement.
    • Signs of a retaining wall in need of repair.
      • Leaning
        • Sometimes tree roots push on the wall, the footing is failing, or poor drainage causes this. 
      • Sagging
        • You’ll see sagging if your footing fails in a specific spot. Cracking
        • Worry if you can fit a quarter in a crack across your wall. Hairline cracks are no issue.
      • Bulging – This is a sign of water pressure building up behind the wall.
    • A sign of a common wall in need of repair.
      • Cracks in your drywall.
        • Again, if you can fit a coin in the cracks of your drywall, have it inspected.
  • Each wall has a very different function.
    • In case that wasn’t obvious. 

You know how these walls are different and what they have in common. Retain more knowledge. 

You’ve learned about the functions of retaining walls, the purpose of common walls, and the similarities and differences between each wall. While you’ve retained so much information, don’t put walls between you and your education. 

Here are more resources for you to read. 

For retaining wall repairs, check out How Are Retaining Walls Repaired?

If you’re unsure what to do about your potentially failing retaining wall, you’ll want to read Should I Fix, Replace, or Tear Down My Retaining Wall?

For any other queries, go straight to our Learning Hub to search for any wall or foundation repair questions you may have. 

For additional questions, call Dalinghaus Construction at (877)360-9277.

WRITTEN BY

Justin Sexton

Justin joins the Dalinghaus Construction family with a significant background in logistics and project management. He joined the team in early 2017 as a foundation inspector, but quickly transitioned towards a marketing role. He now manages the marketing department and creates everything that you see from us digitally.

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