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Retaining Wall Collapse Near Atlanta

To Whom it May Concern:

We suffered a catastrophic retaining wall failure at our home near Atlanta. Regrettably we found this site too late. Between our own ignorance about retaining walls and an eagerness to save money, we made bad choices that led to a very dangerous situation. Fortunately, no one was hurt, however others who make the same mistakes as we did, may not be as lucky.

We captured the retaining wall collapse on our security camera in real time. The quality is not ideal, but my wife made a copy of the collapse with specs of the wall and some of our thoughts. Our hope is that seeing the force and damage caused by the collapse may help others to fully appreciate the importance of choosing a professional retaining wall company over a general contractor. Please display the attached video for the benefit of others.

When we first began looking at making more space in our backyard, we really thought we knew how important choosing the right retaining wall builder would be. So we were meticulous at reading reviews of contractors with high star counts and closely examining and comparing pictures of their work. Things, in the end, which were a complete waste of time!

After meeting with twelve different contractors, we got twelve very different quotes. Our first lesson that we were absolutely clueless as the cost is much higher than my wife and I had ever imagined. Our second lesson was realizing there are “contractors” and there are “retaining wall contractors”. We, very stupidly, confused the two! Don’t get me wrong, they both build retaining walls, but that is the only similarity. Standard contractors are staining a deck one day, replacing gutters the next, repairing a leaky roof after that and maybe once or twice a year, they build a retaining wall. Retaining wall contractors, on the other hand, specialize in various types of retaining walls, and all they ever do is related to the retaining wall industry. The retaining wall contractors are the more expensive of the two, but they also gave us the most confidence about building a retaining wall that would last, add beauty and add value to our property.

Their ideas included concrete masonry retaining walls wrapped in stucco and capped with brick or stone. Aside from that, the only thing the retaining wall contractors all had in common was their utter disdain for modular block. At the time, my wife and I believed this was because modular block was at least half the price of the poured concrete and masonry retaining walls they were pitching. From lowest to highest, their quotes varied 75%; granted, the materials and scale of the wall was a contributing factor to the price range.

Every general contractor insisted (forcibly) that modular block was our only choice. The reason for that, as we learned in lesson eleven, modular block is the easiest and cheapest type of retaining wall to build. From lowest to highest, their pricing ranged about 25%. We, being the dupes we were at the time, chose a general contractor not a retaining wall contractor. We signed his estimate which was in the middle of the other GC’s and gave him the required deposit check.

Right away there were problems. Our general contractor told us that work would begin right after his deposit check cleared; it didn’t. The next week he finally returned our many calls to say the retaining wall block was on “back order”. “Back order” as we learned in lesson five means I am busy fleecing more idiots like yourselves. The worst part of realizing we had made such a terrible decision was that somehow my wife and I both knew we should have hired the retaining wall contractor, and this was our very own hell of cheaping out.

About three weeks later, at 5 AM, sixteen enormous pallets of the modular block were delivered on my driveway, preventing our cars from going in or out. We were furious.

The general contractor said he would send someone out to move the pallets so we could use our driveway, but it would be a few more weeks before work could begin. He said that he had to start another job, because the materials for our job were on back order.

Two months later, at 6 AM a very old and beat up looking truck appeared in our driveway. My wife was just getting ready to call the police when the truck’s doors suddenly creaked open and a crew that would look more at home behind bars got out and began shouting filthy language at each other. Two of the men began shoving each other violently as we watched paralyzed from my daughter’s bedroom window. My wife announced she was officially dialing 911 when my phone suddenly rang, it was our general contractor. His gravelly voice asked, “Has the crew got there yet?”

The crew arrived each morning but rarely returned from lunch. On the days they did come back from lunch, we always wished they hadn’t. In short, our job was botched by a bunch of guys who eventually admitted they had never actually built a retaining wall before. They are known as sub-contractors. They typically hung drywall and framed houses. They confided that they took this job because the general contractor could not find anyone else willing to build retaining walls. The entire job took eleven weeks.

As horribly as everything went, we enjoyed our new play area immensely. The pandemic was keeping everyone at home, so we threw frisbees and played badminton every day. It was wonderful to have this new area for the kids to play outside.

But then it rained for a few days and our new wall collapsed! I left messages for our general contractor who we later learned was in jail. A week or so later he texted to say he would look into the collapse as soon as he could. Then he stopped returning my calls altogether. My wife called an attorney who sent a letter to our general contractor, but urged us not to rely on this matter ever being resolved.

We learned to live with the collapsed retaining wall over the winter, but the whole experience, especially the certain knowledge that my entire investment was a loss, made us all feel very nauseated. But when it began warming up in March, we finally called a clean-cut retaining wall contractor we somehow knew was the right choice before we cheaped out and hired the crooked general contractor.

He arrived and made a very thorough survey of the damage, took pictures from every angle and even used a drone determine the most likely cause for the collapsed wall. Before rendering any snap-judgments, he wanted to return to his office to review and consider his findings and he would call in a day or so with his conclusion and ideas to move forward.

The new retaining wall contractor wanted to remove and dispose of the 862 modular blocks and caps instead of reusing them, as other retaining wall contractors suggested. Their argument was that now that they are here, you may as well use them. The leftover blocks were the only remaining value of the investment from our original contractor.

But, after seeing how easily the modular block retaining wall collapsed, we were happy to see it go. The new retaining wall contractor had us look very closely at the modular block, which was already beginning to stain and spot. That was the reason he only used modular block retaining walls when no one could see them, or when a person could afford nothing else. He said that because the back of house faced the retaining wall, we needed something beautiful that could be maintained over time and especially when we inevitably sold our home.

The new retaining wall contractor began work the next week; the entire job took three weeks. His crew arrived promptly at 8 AM, took a 45-minute lunch break and left about dark each day. They kept the area of exposed dirt tarped, the previous contractors did not do that and often had to contend with mudslides. Also, unlike the previous crew, the retaining wall contractor’s crew followed a plan an engineer devised. On several occasions, the county inspector came to examine their work.

The new stucco and brick retaining wall is far more elegant than the modular block wall that collapsed. We are very happy with the work, which was also far better than the general contractor’s subcontractors. All I can say is that retaining walls are not something that should be trusted to just any builder. Consider only licensed retaining wall contractors who get permits for their work.

Hopefully this will save someone the hard lessons we had to learn.

P. Zimmer