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Boundary, Garden and Yard Walls

The Purpose and Design of Walls

Most of us like to have walls around our properties. In some countries front gardens are open plan, no walls, which gives a streetscape more like a park than a residential street but, for many reasons, the vast majority of the world have walls or fences around their land.

Walls serve a number of purposes, to keep dogs out (or in), to provide visual privacy or for security to keep intruders and thieves out.

Walls vary in their design and height according to their purpose, prisons need particularly well designed fences and walls, but they all need to be well designed and constructed to suit their purpose.

We need to think carefully about the purpose of the wall or fence and design and construct it to suit the purpose.

Walls for Religious Purposes

A Balinese garden wall

The Balinese traditionally live in family compounds and, yes, certainly they have walls around their houses but there is a reason for this. Their walls have narrow high gateways with steps up to a high threshold and there is often a screen immediately behind the gate. This is not, as we might assume, for privacy or for protection from the nocturnal indulgences of the neighbourhood cat burglar but for the far more important purpose of deterring mischievous spirits from finding their way into the compound.

Temples or other special places may have high walls but generally around their houses the Balinese tend to have walls that you can see over, usually about 5 feet high. Very often these walls are built as an expression of architectural creativity finished with stone or brickwork to a standard that equals the quality of the buildings within. The gateways can, as we all know, be particularly attractive.

It seems that people more recently arrived in Bali may have misinterpreted the reasons for these walls and, while they are continuing the practice, they have added an emphasis on aspects that reflect a far more insecure view of the world. Walls are getting higher and are starting to exhibit sharp railings and even barbed wire along the top.

What is the Purpose of the Wall?

A recently renovated front wall I saw recently is for a business and it runs right alongside a main road. It is finished with rough rendered cement and has broken glass set in the top, very unattractive and hardly a symbol of welcome to any potential clients. It is not even a particularly effective deterrent to any intruder with a modicum of expertise in his chosen profession. Indeed some might even suggest that such a wall is a beacon to passing ambitious malefactors that here is a building with something of value to protect. "Hey everyone we have valuables on our premises and we are expecting to be robbed."

In some places protection is needed. Port Moresby comes to mind, a very dangerous lawless place where you are as likely to be attacked by a policeman as by any one else. This is a place where people live behind high fences with razor wire along the top and it is not easy to forget the sound of bullets zinging over the rooftops. But we are living in Bali, probably one of the safest places on earth these days and yet we feel we have to have walls around us, even in the gun toting west of that wonderful home of Democracy Inc. they may have only white picket fences around their houses.

Last week I visited a new house being built by a European gentleman in an area of rice fields, it was difficult to avoid noticing that the walls around his land were 4 metres high! I asked him why. I pointed out that such high walls not only cut off his lovely view of the rice fields but worse, were in fact, quite dangerous. There was no proper buttressing to hold them up and such large vertical surfaces meant that a strong wind could easily blow them over. He didn't know why his builder had built them so high.

So why do we need boundary walls such high walls around us, some might even question why we need them at all?

Security Needs Careful Thought

Is it for security? Perhaps we might need to carefully think about that one.

Years ago a young Italian woman moved to Australia. She didn't speak English at all well and didn't know many people. She lived in constant terror of someone breaking into her house so her husband arranged to have double locks fitted to the doors and bars on every window. The house became a fortress. Unfortunately one day someone did manage to break in. There was no easy way of escape either for her or for the startled intruder that she found in her house. She was murdered, a victim of her own fear.

Another well known story was of a European man living in an out of the way place in Africa. He was terrified of being bitten by one of the many rabid dogs in the area so he built a high fence around his compound. One day a dog did manage to get in and, quite understandably, could't get out. The man himself couldn't get out to escape. He got bitten, contracted rabies and, of course, he died.

A conscientious intruder will always be able to get in and is unlikely to be considerate. "Oh, I say, what a beautiful mahogany door, I'll have to be careful not to scratch it as I smash my way in." It is difficult to get through a locked door without damaging the woodwork. In Britain these days intruders often get in by taking off the roof tiles and jumping through the ceilings doing a huge amount of damage on the way. Often the damage is more costly to repair than the value of what is taken.

Of course the stakes can be raised considerably when an intruder is disturbed and may be startled into doing something rather nasty. It is wise to bear in mind that the intruder is probably as frightened as you are.

As a result some people take a different view of house security these days. They take the approach that it is better to allow an intruder to take what they want and get away easily, justifying this by saying the loss of material possessions simply isn't worth serious injury or even death. Make door locks relatively weak so the door won't be seriously damaged if someone tries to break in, make it possible for an intruder to flee.

Dogs are Good for Security

A large dog in the garden is probably the best deterrent you can have. My labrador would give you a nasty lick if provoked but, being somewhat larger than a typical dog, he does not instill a sense of confidence in an opportunistic visitor to say nothing of the deep, loud bark that belies the softness of his tongue.

The Construction of Boundary Walls

But let us look at boundary walls from a construction point if view.

Probably one of the most common causes of problems in houses in Bali is caused by constructing buildings on the boundary wall. The boundary wall becomes incorporated as part of the building itself and all sorts of problems can result

It works like this. Someone buys a piece of land and the first thing they do is to build a boundary wall around it. This is usually a hurried, low cost effort with thoughts of serious building later.

The wall is usually built quickly and cheaply from batako or breeze blocks - loose grey concrete blocks that are usually cheaply made. Needless to say batako is a very weak building material and is used to fill gaps rather than to have any sort of structural strength. It is also very porous and soaks up water like blotting paper.

Walls and fences need good support

Boundary walls should be built with reinforced concrete columns set into good foundations. Reinforced concrete bottom beams and top beams are needed to give the wall stability and to provide a strong frame for the weak batako infill.

Fences need strong posts and should also be embedded in a good solid concrete base.

Constructing Buildings onto Existing walls

A common problem is that people consider the boundary wall as unimportant, just a boundary around the land. The wall is thrown up with inadequate design and a very low standard of reinforced concrete work and certainly not with the consideration that, at a later stage, it may even be used as part of a building.

Boundary walls are also usually long and inevitably subject to considerable stress caused by even very small ground movements and, as a result, they often crack.

It is easy to realise the difficulties when such a wall is then incorporated as part of a building. Cracking, dampness and resulting water damage are very common problems. These problems can become of major significance if a concrete gutter or slab is cast on top of the wall.

Some suggestions you might consider:

  • Try to avoid building a house directly onto a boundary wall.

  • If you do have to then make sure the wall is properly built. It is probably best to build a second wall on the inside of the boundary wall that has full structural strength.

  • Make sure the wall is waterproofed preferably on both sides to stop water soaking into the batako.

  • Build "control joints" into the wall to allow it to crack and move without damaging anything else.

Control joints

A control joint is a purposely made vertical line of weakness built into a wall anticipating that the wall will move and crack. A control joint allows movement to take place and any cracking to occur at the weak point where it cannot do serious damage.

Plants to improve security

Instead of using glass or even barbed wire along the top of your walls you might consider growing bourgainvillea, a plant well endowed with rather sharp barbs. Spikey plants are a serious deterrent to anyone who may want to climb over the wall.

Finally I suggest that you can help to keep your environment beautiful, keep your walls low and provide some work for the local craftsmen by making them into architectural statements.

Copyright © Phil Wilson February 2011
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