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The first ‘Building Minds’ school in Madagascar will be using 3D printing

«Education is the answer to solving the problems we do have. And many people are not addressing the issue of infrastructure», says Maggie Grouts 

The need for building schools 

According to UNESCO, 260 million children in schooling age over the world do not have access to education. Maggie Grout, founder of the non-profit Thinking Huts. This is «because of the lack of infrastructure». Especially in developing countries «many of the current schools are overcrowded. Often falling apart because they don’t even have the funding to maintain them».

She started Thinking Huts at the age of fifteen, with the aim of changing that; and doing so in a way that it would have been sustainable both for the environment and for local communities. Starting in 2020 she is developing the Building Minds Project, in collaboration with architect Amir Mortazavi.

The plan is to 3D-print schools on a scale. Construction of the first one is due to start in summer 2021 in Finarantsoa, in south central Madagascar. «Education is the answer to solving the problems we have. And people are not addressing the issue of infrastructure within the realm of education», says Grout.

Instead, «many professionals in the industry are venturing into housing»; so she feels that «we can make the most amount of impact by filling that gap when a lot of people aren’t ».

Thinking Huts goals comply with Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) four and nine, that deal with Education and Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure.

The first 3D printed school

The first school will use 3D printing technology to build inside a University campus, in Finarantsoa. A 765 square feet beehive-shaped building. «I had the vision for the beehive six years ago and that’s what I wanted it to look like» explains Grouts.

«I also wanted it to blend in with the environment. What you see with most school production is a rectangular shape. That does not belong to Madagascar, and I wanted the local community members to accept it so that they could make it their own».

The beehive shape also turns out to be convenient for the 3D printing technology. Although they are still looking around; Grout and Mortazavi are exploring a partnership opportunity with 3D printing company Hyperion, based in Helsinki, Finland. They operate with robotic arms, which work more easily with curves.

«3D printing» explains Mortazavi, «is able to build curved walls and multiple dimensions with ease» which also allows to make modular constructions. Grouts agrees: «the printers really allow you to achieve the modular building vision with the beehive shape».

According to Mortazavi this becomes a positive feature especially for schools that need to expand. «We thought about a modular shape so you can expand it any moment and infinitely». In terms of the materials for the construction; Grout says they are likely to be using Polymer Modified Concrete (PMC) for the first building.

It has the advantages of «emitting less Co2 while being sound and secure», a key aspect when it comes to building schools.

Polymer Modified Concrete (PMC) building

PMC is a type of concrete made through the substitution of lime-type cements with a polymer as the binder of the material. They are also open to looking into other materials opportunities, if they increase the sustainability of the building.

Mortazavi says he has «recently found out about a company that builds using sand and saltwater mixed with a binder to print». Grouts also says that she is «hoping to get the right agreements and be able to source materials locally». However she is skeptical that they «will be able to make that happen in time for the first school».

Using robotic arms instead of cranes or other larger equipment is convenient on a number of additional levels. «When it comes to costs the printers are our biggest concern»; both in terms of the actual price of the machines and the need to ship them to the building area.

But robotic arms are «smaller, lighter and easier to transport to rural locations and assemble on the spot». Solar panels on the roofs will provide the school with electric power and a water catching system help to store and reuse rainwater.

Roofs, doors and other smaller parts of the buildings will use locally sourced materials. Although most of the structure will use 3D printing; foundations and roofs will still rely on human labor, locally sourced, including the community in the building process. 

The printing work itself will last «one or two days», dropping the timings considerably. In terms of funding, the project is currently relying on Crowdfunding, but Thinking Huts is exploring other viable ways to get investments from private companies and corporations, mainly from tech and construction industries.

The first ‘Building Minds’ school in Madagascar

Involving the local community 

The first reason for the selection of Finarantsoa as a location is the connection with the local University. Engineering students will be involved in the construction process. «So that they can also learn about the 3D printing technology and how to use it».

Later on, the plan is to take the project to more rural areas and teach local community members about 3D printing; while creating job opportunities as far as the human labor needed is concerned. The involvement of communities goes far beyond that: «Bringing this technology in developing countries and teach it to local communities is essential. But to do it in an empowering way, rather than following the traditional humanitarian model».

This is why Grout started with looking for feedback when the project was at an embryonic stage. «When I first started, I went through local non-profits who work with communities on the ground; and that’s how I got the first feedback. I did not have the renders at the time, so I was just telling them my vision».

This will of blending the project with local culture is also reflected in the design itself. Madagascar traditional textile patterns will be printed on the walls both inside and out; thanks to the power of the technology used to create different layers. «Knowing that we had to respect the limitations and capabilities of 3D printing from the beginning; we wanted to celebrate the local tradition as much as possible» says Mortazavi.

Attention was paid to the choice of color for the buildings as well. Instead of the traditional gray commonly associated with concrete, the walls will be of a light brown, recalling the tone of most buildings in Madagascar.

Schools, estimates Grout, will cost around twenty-thousand dollars; close to half as expensive as they normally are in the same area. The first one will be the most expensive because «there will be a large amount of Research and Development to be considered». After that «costs will drop».

Using walls to add value

In most parts of the world, walls as we are used to consider them, are used as a protection from the weather. This is not the case in places such as Madagascar, where the climate tends to be gentler. During the design phase they could think of walls and how to use them in a variety of different ways.

One is to build vertical farms on them: «food and security is another problem of our time, so we are hoping to integrate vertical farming into our school design so that we will also be helping communities to tackle that issue, at the same time the students could also learn new and sustainable ways to grow food».

Other ideas are being developed, possibly for future buildings, and included in the renderings: «We’re thinking of not having walls just for the sake of protection from the natural elements. We asked ourselves what walls served, and what was their purpose – so we thought of different solutions, like using them to paint art and turn them into an art gallery; or they can become rock climbing walls for exercising; or used as shelving to put books or supplies». This would also allow creative communication of internal and external spaces and further attracting the community. 

Thinking Huts

Is a non-profit organization whose mission is to increase global access to education through 3D printing technology. Founded in 2015 by fifteen-year old Maggie Grout, it plans to build the first 3D printed school in Finarantsoa, Madagascar in 2021. 

Studio Mortazavi

Funded in 2009 by architect Amir Mortazavi is an architectural design studio based in San Francisco, Lisbon and Paris. Collaboration is at the heart of their activity to create a distinctive art of living.

Matilde Moro

The writer does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article.