Do You Need a Membrane Behind a Sleeper Wall?

By Sam Wood •  Updated: 10/12/21 

If you are planning on building a sleeper wall then you will have come across protecting the wood with a membrane, but is this needed? Let’s have a look.

Why use a membrane?

The idea behind using a membrane behind a sleeper wall is that it helps keep water and moisture away from the sleeper. This will slow down the rotting of the wood and make the sleeper wall last longer.

You do not want your sleeper to be sat in damp soil all of the time. Using a proper membrane can add 10-20 years to the overall life of your sleeper, with a lot of caveats.

A membrane can also help the wall to act as a water barrier. If you get a sudden deluge of water it can often come flooding out of walls. With a fully waterproof membrane, the idea is that the water would flow down the backside and then under the wall rather than through it.

This can cause issues of its own though, which is something we will talk about now.

Issues With Membranes

So what are the potential problems that can be caused by using a membrane behind a sleeper wall? Well, one obvious one is a build-up of water.

If you go with a fully waterproof membrane but don’t provide adequate drainage in other areas then you could end up with a lot of water just sitting behind the wall.

This will put a lot of strain on the wall and could eventually lead to collapse. It will also make the ground very soggy, so if this is a flower bed or lawn it won’t be particularly productive.

You will also need to consider how the water drains away under the sleepers. If you just run the membrane down to the bottom of the sleepers and don’t add extra drainage then all that water will be flowing into your sleeper foundations.

Depending on how you made these foundations this could lead to them getting washed away. And if your foundations get washed away then you can be sure your wall will be soon to follow.

Membrane Then Gravel

A good system to use if you are going to use a membrane is to then backfill behind the membrane with gravel. This essentially creates a drainage channel, like a mini french drain.

If you are planning on building a really long-lasting sleeper wall then I would seriously consider this method.

Semi Permeable or Fully Waterproof

This is a question that often comes up. Should you use a membrane that lets a bit of water through, this could ease the pressure behind the wall and prevent a build-up of water. Or should you go with a fully waterproof membrane that stops all water, like a thick plastic barrier.

In my opinion, if you are going to the effort of adding a membrane to your sleeper wall then I would say go the whole hog. Use a fully waterproof membrane and backfill with gravel.

I would also be tempted to paint the rear and bottom of the sleepers with bitumen paint to add even more protection.

Related Reading

If you are thinking of building with sleepers then you might find these posts interesting.

Sam Wood

Wood by name, wood by nature. I am a fully qualified, time-served, award-winning joiner with an NVQ Level 3 in Carpentry and Joinery as well as an HNC in Construction. Beyond my joinery qualifications, I have also earned a degree in building surveying. I believe these qualifications make me perfectly positioned to provide expert advice on many different areas of DIY as well as share all of the tips I have picked up in over a decade working on building sites!