How do you build an Earthquake-proof building?

After the massive earthquake near Japan this morning one wonders if it’s possible to build an earthquake-proof building? The answer is yes and no. There are of course, engineering techniques that can be used to create a very sound structure that will endure a modest or even strong quake. However, during a very strong earthquake, even the best engineered building may suffer severe damage. Engineers design buildings to withstand as much sideways motion as possible in order to minimize damage to the structure and give the occupants time to get out safely.

Effect of isolating the base of a building subject to a sideways ground movement.

Buildings are basically designed to support a vertical load in order to support the walls, roof and all the stuff inside to keep them standing. Earthquakes present a lateral, or sideways, load to the building structure that is a bit more complicated to account for. One way to to make a simple structure more resistant to these lateral forces is to tie the walls, floor, roof, and foundations into a rigid box that holds together when shaken by a quake.

The most dangerous building construction, from an earthquake point of view, is unreinforced brick or concrete block.  Generally, this type of construction has walls that are made of bricks stacked on top of each other and held together with mortar.  The roof is laid across the top.  The weight of the roof is carried straight down through the wall to the foundation.  When this type of construction is subject to a lateral force from an earthquake the walls tip over or crumble and the roof falls in like a house of cards.

Construction techniques can have a huge impact on the death toll from earthquakes. An 8.8-magnitude earthquake in Chile in 2010 killed more than 700 people. On January 12, 2010, a less powerful earthquake, measuring 7.0, killed more than 200,000 in Haiti.

The difference in those death tolls comes from building construction and technology. In Haiti, the buildings were constructed quickly and cheaply. Chile, a richer and more industrialized nation, adheres to more stringent building codes.


730 ton motion damper inside the Taipei 101 skyscraper

As the buildings get bigger and taller other techniques are employed such as “base isolation.” During the past 30 years, engineers have constructed skyscrapers that float on systems of ball bearings, springs and padded cylinders. Acting like shock absorbers in a car, these systems allow the building to be decoupled from the shaking of the ground.

Watch the video below to see these system in action. These buildings don’t sit directly on the ground, so they’re protected from some earthquake shocks. In the event of a major earthquake, they can sway up to a few feet. The buildings are surrounded by “moats,” or buffer zones, so they don’t swing into other structures.

Another technique to dampen the swaying of a tall building is to build in a large (several tons) mass that can sway at the top of the building in opposition to the building sway. Known as “tuned mass dampers”, these devices can reduce the sway of a building up to 30 to 40 percent. The Taipei 101, formerly known as the Taipei World Financial Center, has just such a giant pendulum mounted between the 88th and 92nd floors. Weighing in at 730 tons and capable of moving 5ft in any direction, it takes the prize as the worlds largest and heaviest building damper. In fact, it is so heavy that it had to be constructed on site since it is to heavy to be lifted by a crane.

Can you build a better building?

At Imagination Station we have several shake tables in our Engineer It! exhibit that give visitors the chance to build various model structures and then test them on a shaking “earthquake” platform. Our Earthquake platform is large enough to stand on, but not nearly as big as the shake tables at some engineering test facilities. These things are really called shake platforms because they are much, much larger than a “table”.

Here is a great video from WIRED that shows how a large shake platform can be used to test a full-scale structure in response to the motion of an earthquake. I love the crazy shot at 1:17 into this video of a ball bearing base isolator scooting around to stabilize a structure!

For more information about earthquakes in general check out the United States Geological Survey’s earthquake website.

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About the author

Carl Nelson is the Chief Scientist and Exhibits Director at Imagination Station in Toledo, Ohio. He holds a Masters Degree in Experimental Physics from Michigan State University and has been having fun exploring (exploding?) science in Science Centers for the past 19 years.


50 Responses to “How do you build an Earthquake-proof building?”
  1. john says:

    i dont really get it. Iam doing geography home to make a earthquake resistant building!!!!?????

  2. Amarc says:

    Seriously?!?!?!?! I cant understand this stuff! Make it easier to understand.

  3. nicole says:

    HOW DO U DO THIS!!!!!!!!!!!! with 30 straws and some sring

  4. orville says:


  5. Alyssa says:

    I get this…but u arent giving clear directions how to build one. But this is helping me on my science project.Thanks

  6. lionheart says:

    I think that this site is really helpful as I am currently doing a geography project and would like to thank you! :)

  7. Berryz says:

    Thanks! This really helped me with my science project! btw lionheart…. u know warriors?

  8. Devon says:

    what is the authors full name, im writing a research paper and i need his full name as a requirment?!?

  9. Carl says:

    Hi Devon,
    My full name is Carl Nelson.

  10. Amber Powell says:

    Well what is the name of the design and I was wondering if I can use it for a science project.. or if u can’t give it out have any good names for designs

  11. skylar says:

    Love the videos!

  12. Karin says:

    Hello :) can you give me a brief explanation on how physics was applied on the tower, like equilibrium, and what other units can be measured if ever i’ll try to make an experiment like this.. ^_^

  13. I.P Daily says:

    would cheeseballs be a good name for the building my friend and i are writing about and designing?!?!?!?!?!?!?!!?!?!?!?

  14. RAKESH BORANA says:

    Is hard concrete which contains almost 72% silica and 14% aluminium gravel used in base of building is useful to reduce Earthquake Shock

  15. Jocelyn says:

    Thanks! Thus was just what we needed to get some homework done.

  16. edgar says:

    thanks for the help

  17. Kaylei says:

    Can u make this a bit clearer?

  18. Sangeeta says:

    How many feet/metres can an ‘earthquake proof’ building sway. Please give me a range of feet/metres. Thanks in advance :-)

  19. Kirk says:

    Thanks so much, helping me with my Science project

  20. Shaynnnn says:

    thanks! :D heaps of help.

  21. Anthony says:

    When did you publish this article Carl? I wish to cite some of your ideas into my research if you allow me to. Thanks in advance.

  22. Dean Engelhardt says:

    I’m not sure that tilt-up buildings are safe – in particular in an aircraft hanger located in a seismic hazard zone. Your thoughts? I am arguing against this for our new Sheriff’s hanger in San Bernardino, CA.

  23. Carl says:

    Hi, This article was first published in March of 2011, by Chief Scientist, Carl Nelson of Imagination Station. Located in Toledo, Ohio.

  24. Carl says:

    Hi Dean,

    Wow, I’m not sure I can answer that question, there are so many variables involved. So much depends on the specific structure and location.


  25. Noelle says:

    This really doesn’t help me build one!!??

  26. Julia says:

    hi, i don’t know what people use to make earthquake resistant structures please help?! carl!?

  27. John says:

    I think this site is very educational it helped me build a building

  28. dondon Ambalong says:

    Where we can buy ready made earthquick resistant,
    rubber padding or absorber or anything to resist earth quick. for a 40 X 30 meters private residential building

    thanks a lot

  29. Kavya says:

    Is this a good website for earthquake projects?

  30. golden says:

    this is so cool

  31. mackenziecote says:


  32. lia says:

    this didn’t help at all what does an earthquake proof building have that a normal building doesn’t?

  33. april says:

    well i have to do this with spegetii and marshmallows and some masking tape

  34. Ashish says:

    how can we used rollerballs to prevent the effects of earthquake in construction like building. On the foundation or mount of the coloumns…….

  35. Trinity Montgomery says:

    How can i make schools and hospitals safe for an earthquake?

  36. charlie says:

    thanks this really helped with my desighn progect

  37. CHEESE says:

    I don’t understand some of it but I think its a great website :)

  38. rodayna says:

    thank you

  39. hannah says:

    that isgreat info for my project

  40. bob says:

    Im working on a science project for middle school and my partner and I need to make a building that is earthquake proof how do i do that?

  41. Sabrina hill says:

    how do you build a earthquake proof paper skyscraper out of 5 piece of card stock, liquid glue and a cardboard base

  42. Person says:

    So…basically we need matierals and stuff like that. Well my matierals are: Spaghetti, marshmellows and masking tape XD

  43. pen-island person says:

    You put a pole in the ground at a 90 degree angle to stabalize the building against earthquakes.

  44. NinjaOfDark says:

    I dont get this stuff :(

  45. Sonjay says:

    Great! Helped a lot

  46. jesus says:

    I am really stuck with how an earthquake resistant building still stays upstanding after an earthquake. if you could help that would be great. thanks.

  47. Carl says:

    Hi Jesus,
    In most of the examples given in the article, the building tends to be “flexible” to some degree or moves a bit with the earthquake instead of being rigid.


Check out what others are saying about this post...
  1. […] For buildings, we use: -Base Isolation (adds flexibility to buildings so they more sway than strain) -Ball bearings (shock absorber) -Springs (shock absorber) -Padded cylinder (shock absorber) […]

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