Unstable Foundations-Construction Nightmares On Cliffs

Over the years, magnificent architectural structures such as America’s infamous Mount Rushmore, the cliff dwellings of the Anasazis, several Frank Lloyd Wright’s house designs, and the village of Santorini, Greece, have all been built in or on cliffs.  Such architecture attracts millions of tourists and admirers each year, leaving them in awe and wonder and the question, “How is that even possible?”


Without a doubt, building on a cliff can offer numerous potential construction nightmares and many lives have been threatened during such awe inspiring projects.  Construction, alone, on a flat and secure ground can be difficult and potentially hazardous, but a rocky cliff face, which offers no stability, can cause a myriad of problems.

Not only is it dangerous to work in an unpredictable environment (think “falling rock”), but there is more pressure than usual to execute and create a structurally sound architectural design.  Even with safety as the number one priority, nature and the elements control a working situation.

Santorini, Greece: An architectural wonder

Santorini, a volcanic island in the Cyclades group of the Greek Islands, is a “must see” tourist attraction for many travelers hoping to check off their bucket lists.  Known for its stunning sunsets and quaint, yet stunning architecture formed in the side of a cliff, Santorini suffered extreme structural damage during an earthquake in 1958.

After the quake, the cave dwelling homes were reconstructed with a more “quake proof” design.  However, construction on a cliff face, especially one that is hundreds of thousands of years old and close to the sea, is vulnerable to structural change, creating danger to construction workers and residents alike.

In fact, on the volcanic island, it is no longer legal in Greece to build on top of a hill ridge, altering the profile of the land.  In return, excavation work takes place on lower, more stable areas, but can still be costly as excavation must be done carefully and properly as to not ruin surrounding areas, injuring people or causing construction accidents.

Because Santorini is a narrow, steep and seemingly fragile island, donkeys are used to carry tools and other necessities for a construction project.  Construction projects consider the safety of tourists, residents, workers, and the ancient, quaint island.

Cliffside Construction: Would it meet modern day safety standards?

Before OSHA, before labor unions, before laws and regulations, there were workers who risked their lives every day to work on potentially dangerous construction projects.  Take a look at Mt. Rushmore, a project that lasted 14 years, is one of America’s favorite tourist attractions.

The infamous sculpture was built by approximately 400 workers, who sat in hanging “swing seats” (after the granite was blasted away with dynamite) while using jackhammers, drills, and other tools.  Many modern day construction projects, especially those that require working multiple stories off of a ground level, use safety precautions and equipment such as safety harnesses and scaffolding.

While it’s surprising that no one died while constructing Mount Rushmore, the safety of a hanging swing seat is questionable and would likely not pass today’s safety standards.

While today’s construction sites strive to keep workers safe, construction accidents still occur.  In order to stay “safest” while working on a project, workers should follow OSHA standards, use proper protective gear, and stay on stable and level ground.  Leave the cliff dwelling architecture to the past!

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Andrew Miller is a avid blogger and travelor. He first spent two months living on Santorini in Greece and now visits every year.