Markets: Gabions and Dry Stone Walls

Gabions in a garden pond.

(February 2009) The trend is conspicuous: Stone trade fairs are showing more and more gardening and landscaping products. Conversely, gardening and landscaping trade fairs have seen a growing share of stone producers exhibiting. There are no statistics or numbers to cite, but this much is clear: next to architecture and design gardening and landscaping has morphed to a market of hope for the stone industry, so much so, in fact, that one trade journal wrote: „Green is the colour of hope“.

True enough: the branch does not offer the possibility of great turnover in mass. But small producers and manufacturers of enriched products, those who add value by incorporating services or ideas, will find an attractive field. Readers will find below a checklist („Role Model Automotive Industry: Consumers and Suppliers Closely Intertwined“) for interested newcomers.

We have compiled the most important aspects around this theme. These are: dry stone wall – of great interest in many countries, and gabions – wire mesh encasings for riprap.

Other aspects of gardening and landscaping, like Crazy Paving or the use of gravel as mulch will be covered in a subsequent issue.

In many European countries, gabions are quickly gaining popularity and esteem among garden-owners. These are mesh baskets made of galvanized steel wire and filled with riprap. The technique probably was first implemented around 1890 in Italy as an economical means of supporting roads and banks, as the name implies, which stems from „gabbia“ the Italian word for „cage“.

No longer are these merely square boxes as can be seen along the slopes of European highways. They are being produced in many different shapes and sizes, among others as thin protective walls or as round turrets.

What’s more: renounced architects use them in designing facades. Herzog & de Meuron caused quite a stir with their Dominus Winery in California, which integrates gabions filled with local basalt: critics praised the local reference mirrored in the building; also the gabions afford interesting lace-like lighting in the interior. has repeatedly reported on the diverse implementation possibilities. By and by the gamut is being exploited to its fullest: newcomers are, e.g.: L-shaped gabions for building corners, or gabions in which soil-filled elements are incorporated. Others yet have lights integrated so that at night the gabions emit a bizarre glow.

Some producers even go so far as to offer grow-mats, which can be integrated in the baskets and will eventually enrobe the mesh in natural greenery.

Garden-owners with small children, too, enjoy tailor-made solutions. The so-called security gabions promise that no sharp wire edges protrude which might injure a child.

By no means are gabions always filled with quarry waste. Often their visible side is filled with high-value stone, giving the elements a noble appearance. One company has integrated bright stone among dark ones spelling out the company name for all to see.

By the way: in Europe one can now purchase do-it-yourself gabions. The consumer buys the wire mesh siding, and assembles it on site filling it with available material or the material of his choice. Note that such constructions do not stand up to excessive strain. Professionally filled gabions are jounced to assure optimal density and fit.

Visitors to the Riomaggiore in the Cinque Terre Nature-Reserve are greeted at the train station by a mural telling of the toils on the wine terraces.

In many countries, dry walls are a relic of past centuries. In Great Britain and Ireland they meander along hundreds of meters over pastures and slopes. They were originally erected as boundaries for pasture animals or as demarcation elements. They offer an attractive accent with their washed grey colour contrasting to the lush green of the pastures in the landscape.

After many years of neglect, these dry walls have recently been rediscovered and are experiencing a sort of revival among enthusiasts. The Dry Stonewalling Society in Great Britain not only actively offers laymen and companies alike an opportunity to train in the art. It also entertains international contacts (see links).

A dry wall is aesthetical pleasing, and ecologically sound as it offers a living environment for a multitude of animals. But unlike concrete, it requires maintenance. Gaps often ensue, which, if not properly filled, soon extend to leave but an elongated heap of stone where the wall was once standing.

By the way: Hadrian’s Wall in England or the Limes on the European continent do not count to the dry walls as the builders used bonding material, namely lime mortar. This, then, is the definition: a dry wall is a wall comprised of layered stone only – without use of any bonding material.

Mostly quarry stones are used and only roughly split to size. The art is in the layering, which must stand up to natural earth movements, rain and wildlife.

The United States also has its dry walls, the most famous of which are situated in the State of Kentucky in the blue grass region. Many stories are told of them: it is often said that they were erected by slaves during the confederate war (1861-1865).

Scientists Carolyn Murray-Wooley and Karl Raitz did research and found that the legend is only partially true. In reality, Irish immigrants imported the tradition in the first half of the 19th century. They passed their know-how on to the slaves, who soon became masters of the art. The project gained countrywide fame as Paris Pike secured and restored a section of the wall while extending and widening a road.

First it was necessary to revive the know-how. The U.S. society and those from Canada, France and Italy to Australia have published many brochures for anyone interested. Two ground rules are: the base must be wide enough relative to the height of the wall, and throughstones must be incorporated periodically. Throughstones can protrude to both sides, which can serve as steps to help cross the wall.

Across the world, dry walls serve to support terraces on steep slopes. Examples can be found in the Peruvian Andes, where archaeologists have taken on the task of conservation (1, 2 in German), as well as in wine regions all across Europe. In one project sponsored by the European Union with the participation of France, Portugal and Austria and also embracing Swiss participation (1 in French, 2 in German) educational modules were developed to assure survival of the knowledge in building these natural stone walls.

A famous example can be found in the Italian National Park Cinque Terre. Visitors arriving at the train station of Riomaggiore may witness the work of those who toiled during the Middle Ages to win land from the steep hills in order to harness the soil for their vineyards. The town’s museum offers some technical data on the dry walls: their total length is 4300 km and their surface about 8,6 km². The construction’s biggest challenge is keeping in enough rainwater to irrigate the wine while draining off any excess in case of heavy precipitation.

The World Monument Fund has included Cinque Terre in the List of the 100 endangered Monuments. A project at the University of Genoa as well as a number of organizations and volunteers are currently involved in the task of securing the cultural heritage.

An ever-growing number of garden owners are appreciating natural stone terraces as an alternative to concrete. The stacked stones soon attract small wildlife, which in turn keep unwanted guests at bay. Producers have long since left the primitive realm of uneven quarried stone and offer sleek, sophisticated, and elaborately worked alternatives.

Last but not least we wish to point out the role played by dry walling in architectural history: formerly this was the building norm. The singularity of both the Egyptian pyramids and the Incan complex of Sacsayhuamán lies in the lack of excipient to fit the stones together. To this day, we do not know, how the ancient peoples were able to achieve such precision. Other old building complexes such as Trulli in southern Italy and Brochs in Scotland were built using the dry wall technique.

USA: Dry Stone Conservancy, Stone Wall Initiative

Canada: Dry Stone Walling Association

Australia: Dry Stone Wall Association

Grat Britain: Dry Stone Walling Association

France: Pierre Sèche

Spain: Piedra Seca

Role Model Automotive Industry: Consumers and Suppliers Closely Intertwined

The automotive industry has witnessed the weaving of a cooperative mesh between automotive corporate enterprises and their suppliers. The corporate enterprise thus not only functions as a consumer, but also supports the supplier in a multitude of ways, e.g. training or quality control.

While suppliers strive to maintain a high standard of quality and sell at low prices, they can count on the automotive industry to help them reach their goals.

Figuratively speaking the automotive company is the spider at the centre of the web surrounded by a multitude of little supplier-animals – but unlike in nature itself, here the spiders don’t devour each other. Instead, they cooperate with one another.

Let us attempt to transpose this role model to the stone industry – a producer who is interested in expanding his operation to include gardening and landscaping.

Questions on his checklist would be:

„Could it be interesting for me as a producer of natural stone to engage in gardening and landscaping?”

The answer would probably be „no” since stone producers engage in just that: producing stone or processing countertops, etc. If he doesn’t know the ropes of the branch, so to speak, he should not engage in it himself. Or – to use the analogy of our spider in the web – his next thought would be: „can I group small firms around me, who work in the field and with whom I could cooperate?” Or: „Could I establish such companies perhaps with the help of former employees or family members?” The actual consumer would refer to these satellite companies.

What would the further cooperation look like? „I might support the gardener in marketing” would perhaps be one consideration for the stone producer.

With respect to marketing strategies, it would be advantageous to play the ecology card: Unique selling proposition – („my”!) stones are produced locally reducing waste of energy for transportation and the carry the face of the region.

To demonstrate the full range of materials and services on offer the parties could cooperate in setting up and entertaining a reference centre. The producer would act as a funding partner or even as a patron. Better still, the entire region could engage in this role. Carrara is an example in point, where an open-air showroom has developed over the centuries: in Massa one can find sidewalks made of white marble, in Pietrasanta the train station is clad in marble, in Carrara some old houses have marble mailboxes, and in Sarzana some pedestrian crossings have integrated marble cobblestones, not to mention churches, pillars and sculptures in every town to name but a few of the transposed ideas.