Ancient Incans Earthquake Proof Walls Inspire These 3-D Printed Modern Structures

The brilliant ancient civilization figured out how to make seismically stable structures using stones that fit together like Legos. Now it’s time to learn from the past.

Over 500 years ago, when Incan workers built Machu Picchu, they devised an ingenious building technique to prevent building collapse during Peru’s frequent earthquakes. It worked a little like an ancient form of Legos: Every stone fit together perfectly without any mortar. Now California-based architects are using 3-D-printers to create a similar design.


“We have been working out connection details for 3-D prints and architecture, and we recalled our visit to Peru several years ago to study Incan architecture,” explain Ronald Rael and Virginia San Fratello, co-founders of Emerging Objects, an architecture firm that specializes in 3-D printing. “Their use of masonry with complex connections that interlocked seemed like a great place to start the investigation.”

The Incan design could move slightly in an earthquake and then resettle without falling down; the tight connections between each stone made buildings less likely to vibrate and eliminated stress points. Walls also leaned slightly inwards, with rounded corners, to add to the stability.

The new 3-D-printed Quake Column is based on the same principles, but it’s much easier to make. Instead of massive stone blocks, the design is made of lightweight, hollow pieces with built-in handles so they’re simple to carry around. Each piece is numbered, so construction is no more difficult than putting together some IKEA furniture.

In an initial prototype, the architects built a single column with a huge 3-D printer. Soon, they plan to build entire walls. The first test showed that the design was much stronger than reinforced concrete, and it eliminates the need for any rebar or mortar. The company is currently seeking funding to test more prototypes and bring a set of building components to market. Ultimately, the design could help make buildings safer.

“Because we are located in the San Francisco Bay Area, the concern for earthquake resistant structures is necessary and immediate,” they say. “Adaptations using 3-D printing can generate architecture and structures that respond to lateral seismic loads.”

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.