Wall Ends, Stairs and Tops


At some point, no matter how beautiful, all walls must come to an end. There are several ways of terminating walls.

Retaining walls easily alter contours and allow for new usable space. At some point, the newly created area has to meet up with the surrounding grades, either at the property boundary or limit of work.  One common way is to curve or turn the retaining wall into the grade so that a smooth, gradual slope can be used to marry the upper and lower grades.

If a more prominent feature is desired, and the grading allows, an exposed corner can be used. Having an exposed corner can be quite an architectural feature in itself.

However, for a retaining wall to have an exposed corner, all three sides of the corner need to be faced, and the retaining requirements of the wall transition into more of a free standing component at the end.  This enables the design of a true “corner” or end and can be used to frame an area or be used as an architectural piece.


When considering steps or stairs, two major components should be considered: traffic flow and design intent.  Stairs should be no less than 4’ wide if they will be used on a daily basis.  Anything less than 4’ will not allow more than 2 people at a time, which can be less than desirable. Prior to design and construction of steps, always refer to your local building codes for railing requirements.

Durable products should be considered, especially in the New England area.  Snow removal, salting, and constant foot traffic are just three of the many factors to be considered in stair “life”.

When designing secondary steps, sky is the limit.  Secondary steps can take on fun curves and be constructed out of almost anything.  Without the requirements of traffic flow, the possibilities are endless.

Using the same stone materials as the wall in facing the stairs enables the steps to better blend in with the landscape. Using contrasting materials such as granite steps with fieldstone walls, will draw your eye to the stairs.

These rough guidelines can help decide the building materials at the outset. By simply widening a set of stairs or using contrasting materials, you can guide “traffic” to either your primary and secondary steps.


Another major finish of any wall is its top.  Typically, the stone used in the wall carries through to the top creating a simple natural stone top with mortared joints.  Traditional fieldstone walls are constructed this way, and it works quite nicely.

To change things up, specific styles of cap stones can be used to drastically change the look of that same wall.  Thinner broken pieces of fieldstone can give a more rustic feel, while the addition of a cut granite or bluestone top can add more of a structured or architectural look.

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Retaining Walls

Retaining walls let you alter the grade or slope of land to create level areas that you can use for planting, adding a patio, or any other multitude of uses. More importantly, retaining walls protect the slope from eroding or collapsing.

As with freestanding stone walls, retaining walls can have a dry-tucked or mortared finish. In stone selection, careful consideration should be given to the proportions of individual stone size to overall wall height.

Most common uses of retaining walls are to create additional usable or functional space. This retaining wall holds back existing grades near the roadway and allows lawn areas to be lowered and leveled out. The ends of the wall melt into the landscape, eliminating the exposure of the back face of the wall.

There are endless possibilities for small and simple retaining walls and these shorter walls offer a powerful effect on any landscape. Smaller walls are still a perfect fit for retaining landscaped areas and leveling out lawn areas and are a great feature when used correctly. Retaining walls around 22″ in height are also perfect for sitting on. A natural stone top or even adding coping to shorter walls creates an instant usable bench, ideal if enclosing a patio or a deck.

Generally, existing grades at property lines cannot be changed, the areas inside those lines however are a blank slate that is up to its owner’s imagination. In layout options: retaining walls with a curvalinear design can offer a more natural look, blending into the landscape while walls with angled corners and straight lines offer a more structured/formal look.

When higher wall heights are required (five feet and above), terracing is a great option. Simply put, terracing breaks up a single tall wall height into several smaller heights. This design technique can soften the look of a monolithic wall, creating additional areas for planting and maintenance on level areas and reducing the potential for erosion across a steep slope.

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Inside the Stone Walls of Outdoor Rooms

According to a recent outdoor living trends survey done by American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA),  over 94% of residential landscape architects rate outdoor living spaces like kitchens or entertaining space as very popular for 2010. The survey identified the trend that the most popular outdoor entertainment features will avoid more expensive, elaborate items in favor of the essentials. For 2010, expectations are for the continued interest in seating/dining areas using installed seating like benches and seatwalls or weatherized outdoor furniture, along with the ever-popular fire pit/fireplace.

An outdoor patio is an extension of a living space and home owners are taking advantage of outdoor space more than ever. The options for patio design, furnishing and accessories can be over overwhelming but the common homeowner considerations for patio design are still comfort, relaxation, and usefullness. Many outdoor living spaces are frequently limited by various factors, such as space, budget or specific contours of a landscape, so finding ways of maximizing the space in outdoor rooms can allow for some rather creative designs.

NSWS™, in partnership with Old Village Landscape and Native Terra Design LLC (nativeterradesign@verizon.net), have recently created an outdoor room with a patio space optimizing feature – a hanging bluestone bench.

In this project, NSWS™ retaining walls frame a brick style patio with gray accent pieces and a bluestone bench on hangers finishes off a creation of a tranquil place for the homeowner’s family, friends, and neighbors to enjoy the outdoors. The bench offers the practicality of a seating area, and at the same time allows for a larger area of the patio and patio design to be in view thus creating an effect or feeling of a larger or more open outdoor space.

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Free Standing Walls

In the history of New England farming, stone walls played a very important role and were used for fencing, property lines, and animal pounds.  Free standing stone walls remain a popular landscape feature, and their role has evolved from the simpler needs of confining livestock or outlining properties. A free standing wall along the border of a garden or a yard is an enduring reminder of the New England stone wall history, yet it is completely compatible with contemporary designs and lifestyles. In urban and suburban settings, stone walls can still help establish property lines and define an outdoor space, while also creating privacy, reducing road noise, conveying a feeling of security, and complementing the design of an existing landscape.

To minimize environmental noise, the stone wall acts as a solid privacy barrier, while the Chesnut Hill fence nicely accents the top of the wall. Partial views of the beautifully landscaped courtyard can still be seen by the occasional neighborhood passer-by while the owners enjoy their privacy. If the six foot wall was constructed entirely of stone, the resulting appearance would be that of a fortress and if only a fence is installed, the uniqueness and history of the field stone would be lacking. The marriage of the two offers the best of both worlds, providing an aesthetically pleasing barrier with the needed function of blocking noise and providing privacy.

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A marriage of stone and fence

In line with the free standing wall post earlier this week, NSWS™ really enjoyed partnering with Perfection Fence to finalize a great free standing wall project. We look forward to working with these guys on future projects.

NSWS™ installed this New England Round free standing wall last year.

This year, the bloom of some lush green trees and a fence installation complete the original design, creating privacy and serenity.

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River Rock

“The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time”

– Henry David Thoreau

River rock is a beautiful stone with a smooth rounded surface due to centuries of water washing over it. The smoothed, five-sided stones range widely in color usually from tan to grey. This stone can be used in various applications, however, due to the smaller average size of river rock stone (typically 6-8”), it is best used for shorter height retaining or freestanding walls such as seat walls.

River rock is an exceptional stone for boundaries of water features or as a loosely laid stone wall (pictured above). Constructing walls out of river rock can be described as stacking footballs, so great care and caution should be taken when stacking dry laid walls and design should not permit any dry stacked river rock wall to be higher than two or three courses. After this height, failure is imminent.

If river rock is desired for retaining wall purposes, an exposed mortared joint is required to allow for proper construction with these round shaped stones.

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New England Fieldstone

THIN FLATS: Thin flat New England fieldstone is a great fit for shorter walls. Even this smaller wall is just enough to retain lawn and garden areas from the main sidewalk. Thin flats allow the details of smaller stone wall design to stand out.

One thing to remember with thin New England fieldstone is that the top usually consists of many small pieces, which leads to a high chance of mortar cracking, or even pieces falling out. Installing a solid cap not only helps frame the stone wall visually, but also to eliminate exposure of all top joints.

MEDIUM FLATS: Medium flats can be used for larger areas and can support higher walls. Dry laid walls will allow water to pass through the wall, avoiding pressure buildup. But if a mortared style is preferred, additional drainage measures must be designed to avoid water buildup which could damage a wall and surrounding plant material.

Quality of stone wall construction depends on the craftsmanship and the quality of stone. A mix of sizes can lead to a less appealing wall (below) with different size gaps and uneven stone orientation.

But uniform sizing and quality stone allows for solid stone wall construction with stunning effects.

LARGE FLATS: Large flat fieldstone can be used in the landscape as walls as well as incorporated into steps. Consistent use of stone products for stairs and walls can soften the formality of a design.

By using large fieldstone steppers similar to the wall stone, stairs almost disappear. If a contrasting stone such as granite was used, your eyes would immediately be drawn to the stairs. This is a great way to blend the stonework with the surrounding landscape.

IRREGULAR STONE: A well constructed irregular stone wall will have even sized joints, 2 over 1 stacking and sizing from top to bottom. If the irregular stone is a little more rounded and has slightly larger gaps between the stones, gaps should be similar in spacing which will present a uniform look to the wall.

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