Modern Fences – Gabions

Bob Borson —  February 21, 2011 — 23 Comments

I have been wanting to use a gabion retaining wall for a really long time, but in a very particular way – and one that I have never seen before. Architecturally, you might be familiar with gabions in the Dominus Winerydesign by Pritzker prize winning architects Herzog & De Meuron, where the building’s exterior is made of modular gabions of wire mesh containing masses of locally quarried stone (basalt) of varying shapes and sizes – a technology commonly used in river engineering.

A gabion is a basket or cage filled with earth or rocks and used especially in building a support or abutment. They are typically used in civil engineering projects to control soil erosion around heavily sloped projects. But I have been wanting to use them as low walls where I could allow plants to find there way into the gabion and allow the wall to disappear over time into the landscape. Turns out, it would look just like this:

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When I was brought out to Spain courtesy of  the Association of Ceramic Tile Manufacturers of Spain (ASCER), a group who promote the general and common interests of the ceramic industry, I found that someone else had used them they way I have always wanted. These pictures were taken at the Zaragoza EXPO, and it just reinforced my opinion that my idea was a good one.

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These low walls were interesting in a way that I can’t adequately describe. I hope that I am not alone in thinking that this is a good idea.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Craig-Robertson/1151514631 Craig Robertson

    One of my favourite buildings is “Wohnhaus in Stadtberg” Detail Magazine 11, 2003. It features gabions as a cladding on a domestic building yet looks sharp and modern.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Russell-Higgins/100001863567550 Russell Higgins

    Given the wire rusts, and being so thin (compared to structural steel for instance), and so exposed, you can’t count on gal. wire for more than 20 years, and considering peoples lives would depend on it, 10 years.  The poster child for gabion walls is the domus winery, where they used SS for the mesh.  If you want your structure to last, you pretty much have to, which sort of blows any thought of this technique saving money.  Also, the rock isn’t just dumped in.  The outer layer  is hand laid to enhance the structural effect of the wire facing, with flat faced pieces hand picked and reserved for laying on the outer surfaces of the gabion.  Again, not a cheap way to build a wall, one stone at time, hand sorting, etc.. 
    There’s lots of good effects to be had with gabions, but for structural uses, if you’d have to face them or use them indoors only.  Don’t forget loose rock will also act as a home for small animals, insects, reptiles, depending where your live, as well as mold, and dust and seeds will blow in and plants will start growing.  Just stuff to plan for, accomodate in your use.
    I’ve been messing around with a design for a small winery for the NE, a much wetter place than CA where the domus winery is.  Much more challanging trying to work out the issues. 

  • Shaakira22

    I really like the look of the gabion wall, I understand that it really a retainer wall.  I need to build a 9 ft wall around my project site located in Ghana, W. Africa near salt ponds on a lagoon that floods annually from the Gulf of Guinea. I would be concerned about the erosion of the metal from the salt water. What other products would you suggest? These walls are usually built with cement blocks. I’m building an arts & culture center for artisans. Please advise. Thanks

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Sándor-Anita/100000233563582 Sándor Anita

      Dear All, the gabion structures can be used  to a lot of purposes. For example for fences, retaining walls, water bank protection, noise barriers…and so on. If you would like to know more please go to http://www.kobox.hu/Nyitolap/eng  . Tha gabion is very eco-friendly, aesthetic if it is built in a proper way. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to ask me!

  • Polly

    When used to support the cut bank of a river they do indeed also support plant life during the dry season when exposed.  Silt fills the gaps, seeds do the rest. 

    I don’t know how you’d water the plants if using the gambions as a wall.  Possibly by using the same sort of pierced, plastic cone buried in the ground near trees to give a drip feed of water. Buried under a layer of rock at the top, it would be easy enough to direct water to it where it could leak out slowly. Or add an inner network of sphagnum to distribute and hold the water in between the rocks.

    Used as a retaining wall the plants, depending on the sort, should wick up water from the soil behind the wall. 

    Should work fine.

    Polly

  • Geoff Edwards

    from my local experience gabions do not support life as they are typically filled with stone. http://www.freshfordsomerset.co.uk/sustainability_freshford.php#1300741133

     

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1034225981 Michael Balaroutsos

    gabion, is one retaining wall and not just a As a fence, or not?

  • Landscraper

    What happens when the hay or straw breaks down, as it will, leaving the plants without a medium to grow in? Straw exposed to the elements will also become very smelly.

  • jbushkey

    “The moment the architecture student rounds the corner and steps into the plaza where they look up and see the very building they had imagined in that studio…”

    http://architectslike.tumblr.com/post/2586765920/21-studying-abroad

  • http://averydesigninteriors.com Catherine

    Fascinating. Have to say, Bob, you do find the most interesting options – had never heard of gabions.
    Love that they could be used for areas with drainage issues.
    Have to show this post to DH who is a landscape architect.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Catherine.

      Now that you know what they are you will probably start recognizing them as you drive around. They are pretty common but aren’t typically thought of or used in this manner.

      Cheers

  • Richard

    LOL…I was just sourcing these things out for our next house build. Our need is simple. Our property sits on the side of a hill and the hydraulic pressures on the retaining walls would be incredibly high in the winter and spring. Because the water can drain naturally, there is no pressure build up like it would be on a block or solid concrete wall segment, which would require an expensive drainage system. I’d rather put the money into the house. The real selling point for my wife was the ability to insert soils & grasses into the cages to help foilage take hold quickly and hide the frame work. Now to find a local distributor…

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Timing seems to figure into most things doesn’t it. They are interesting things – gabions. What they allow you to do while impacting the site is just great. You’ll have to let me know if you are able to source them properly.

  • Brenda Lynn

    That is a cool idea, Bob.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks Brenda!

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  • http://twitter.com/Tile_Trends Ryan Fasan

    I was also captivated by those little walls Bob… I’ve never seen a gabion with vegetation incorporated. It’s funny how such a little thing grabs people’s attention. I’m sure you’ll find a way to work them into an upcoming project.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Ryan,

      Check out this project – http://bit.ly/faCblY – this is the project that I am planning on using gabions in the way shown in this post. At the end of this link is a 3d animated video fly-thru and you can see where the gabions are being used.

      • http://twitter.com/Tile_Trends Ryan Fasan

        Awesome looking project and perfect topography for using this style of retaining wall methinks.

        Btw “I am a city-boy (man) and my knowledge of septic systems is poop flows downhill and bacteria blahbedity blah blah blah.”

        made it worth the read tight there. <3 u Bob

  • http://twitter.com/robertsaia David Roberts

    Ross Barney Architects LEED Platinum Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston Illinois has a similar wall filled with the bricks reclaimed from the previous synagogue structure.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Thanks David, I’ll take a look at that project.

      I’ve seen gabions used before, they are actually pretty common in my area. Allowing them to be something other than a cage of rubble is what I find so exciting.

      Cheers!

  • Alistair

    I’ve always liked gabions; although I’m only familiar with those filled with rocks. Filling with plants is a wonderful idea and I wonder if you fixed some timber planks to the tops, you would have a seat – an industrial box privet hedge that you can sit on.

    • http://www.lifeofanarchitect.com Bob Borson

      Me too – I have seen them used frequently but never in this manner. I originally took these pictures so I could send them to a client that I have been trying to convince to use them (gabions) exactly in this manner.

      I think there are all sorts of applications for this type of use