Bulkheads vs. Seawalls: What’s The Difference?

A picture of a bulkhead structure next to a beach dock.

At our marine construction company in St. Augustine, we encounter a lot of frequently asked questions from our clients, whether they’re working with us to build their first residential marina, or they’re getting their beachfront business ready for the summer tourist season. One of the most common inquiries we receive at Yelton Construction is: What’s the difference between a bulkhead and a seawall?

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Since these terms are often used interchangeably — and therefore incorrectly — this article aims to break down the specific features of both seawalls and bulkheads so that anyone can understand what sets one apart from the other. Knowing the defining characteristics of each is important whether you’re a contractor, a homeowner looking to upgrade your residential marina, or just a curious person interested in marine construction terminology.

If you’re interested in learning more about marine construction, or if you’re a contractor in southern Florida looking for some quick reads and informative resources for your projects, please visit our main site at YeltonConstruction.com


Bulkheads: The Basics

Bulkheads are one of the most common structures seen in coastal regions next to residential and commercial areas. Although they are classified as a retaining wall, they’re not like the kind you might see in a yard or a garden because they serve a different purpose. Designed for marine and coastal environments, bulkheads are a common structure used to stabilize soil conditions on the shores of beaches, lakes, and rivers alike, thereby preserving and/or redistributing materials in order to protect nearby structures and the people who use them. 

In a city like St. Augustine, bulkheads play a major role in protecting nearly everyone’s property, from the business owners who run seaside establishments, to the families visiting the beach for an amusing afternoon, to the marine contractors and construction professionals that built surrounding commercial and residential structures. 

Seawalls: The Basics

Seawalls are a preventative and protective barrier that keeps coasts safe from tides, waves, and tsunamis, as well as general soil erosion. In the sense that they ward off improper distribution of soil and help to protect nearby structures, seawalls are similar to bulkheads. Where they differ is in their scope of functionality — a bulkhead wouldn’t do much to protect a city like St. Augustine from a tropical storm, but a seawall might give it a fighting chance. 

How are seawalls and bulkheads built? How do they work?

Like many structures found in marine construction, bulkheads are designed to stand on land as well as to be submerged underwater. Since the main function of a bulkhead is to retain the optimal conditions of soil and sand on the land directly next to a body of water, they’re generally built in a vertical orientation. Seawalls are also tall, vertical structures, but they tend to be much longer and span greater horizontal distances. Both bulkheads and seawalls are made out of durable materials that are less prone to water absorption, such as concrete, vinyl, and/or riprap (a type of loose stone commonly found in marine structure foundations).

The bottom of a bulkhead or a seawall goes into a body of water, where it extends further below, several to a dozen feet deep into the soil and silt. Both structures are formulated in such a way that, during periods of high tide or violent waves, the soil remains relatively where it was originally located. This preserves the integrity of the ground that connects the waterfront to the land, where fundamental foundations of shorefront and marine structures are located.

So, what’s the real difference between seawalls and bulkheads? 

The primary and most significant difference between seawalls and bulkheads boils down to the populations and number of structures surrounding the construction site. Seawalls are generally designated for the security of large coastal settlements like Jacksonville and St. Augustine, whereas bulkheads are more commonly employed for smaller properties like residential homes and small businesses. 

When it comes down to it, both seawalls and bulkheads serve vital purposes for the properties and populations they’re designed to protect. The same could be said of virtually all other structures found in marine construction, such as boat lifts, docks, and barge and crane operations. After all, it’s the combined effect of all these buildings and installations that allow us to enjoy the natural beauty of Florida’s beaches!

Is A Seawall Or A Bulkhead Right For Your Marine Construction Project?

Both homeowners and general contractors rely on Yelton Construction for their seaside structure needs. Whether you want to ensure your summer boat house is safe from any unexpected storms, or you’re a construction professional in the market for seawall building services, there’s no team more experienced or committed to quality workmanship than ours. For more information on services we provide for residential and commercial properties in St. Augustine, please contact our crew of expert marine contractors today!