Architecture, design, community: improving access to school in Madagascar with 3D printing

Locals were involved, from work to sharing knowledge and design. Architecture must start from togetherness and can help improve access to education globally

Thinking Huts is an NGO aiming at raising the access to education worldwide. Progress was made, but according to the UNESCO institute for statistics, about 263 million children, adolescents and youth worldwide (or one in every five) are out of school. For Unicef, education is vital to reach the Sustainable Development Goals. 

Improving access to school with action

«I want to live in a world where every student can go to school», says founder Maggie Grout, «overcrowding and long travel distances should not be a barrier».

The project started in 2015 with the aim of making education more available across the globe by action-driven Maggie Grout. «Where you live should not inhibit your whole life trajectory and potential», says Grout.

After seven years, they managed to open their first school In Madagascar in Fianarantsoa. The name of the project is Bougainvillea, after the flower which grows stronger over time. Just like education should, in Thinking Huts’ vision. After the school was completed, the flower was planted on site, together with the local community. 

Madagascar: reasons behind a choice

In a report that came out last month, the institution revealed that in Madagascar, where Thinking Huts operates, the out of school rates reaches twenty-two percent of children in the country.

According to UNESCO, one out of every three Malagasy children will not complete primary school; For those who do, ninety-seven percent of Malagasy ten-years-olds are unable to read single sentences.

Thinking Huts will address the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Four and Nine, about Quality Education and Industrial Innovation.

The idea is to break cycles of poverty through education in the country. During construction the aim is to also teach building and technology skills to the community. 

3D Printing: potential for building schools

The architectural design was created by Bruno Silva and Yash Mehta of Defining Humanity based upon Grout’s honeycomb vision. The local construction was managed by SECOA. For the 3D printing of the pilot, Thinking Huts partnered with 14 Trees, a company that has printed buildings in Kenya and Malawi.

Defining Humanity designed the pilot school for thinking huts and made their vision come to life: «Defining Humanity» explain architect and designer Bruno Silva & Yash Mehta «is a non-profit organization which strives to turn empathy into actions for those in need through technology and a global network of volunteers».

3D printing was used as a building method. It has proven to have potential for scalable humanitarian projects, where costs and efficiency must be carefully handled: «the main advantages are the speed once it is up-and-running, and the reduction of costs once the process reaches economies of scale».

Which essentially means «the more you print, the less expensive it will be», Grout explains. What started as a rendering progressed into a new realistic and replicable octagon design for Hut v1.0, made possible by Defining Humanity. 

Maggie Grout: about materials 

The 3D printed walls were composed of a proprietary concrete mixture «that withstands environmental pressure». While the walls are honeycombed and hollow, steel reinforcements were also used.

Though cement is a large polluter in the construction industry that society is increasingly replacing to be more responsible, «with 3D printing you can reduce the waste produced due to the precision of the technology as it layers the walls from the ground up».

The roof, door, windows, and other elements were sourced locally. Local manufacturers were also involved in the project. Part of the endeavor was also dedicated to teaching 3D operational skills that can be utilized for future construction projects. Sharing local is key for the project: it is not just about learning in school. 

The contribution architecture can give

Architecture tends to be seen as a highly placed discipline. Yet, it is where the need is higher that it can really make a difference. Part of the reason why children end up not attending school is the lack of infrastructure.

Especially in developing countries: they literally do not have a place that can be dedicated to teaching and learning. Grout, partnering up with Defining Humanity, is determined to solve this issue. «Education in developing communities is valued but underserved», Silva and Mehta explain.

«When combined with technology Architectural design has the power to deliver faster, efficient and cost-effective spaces that promote learning and togetherness which strengthen communities». Architecture and design must be about change, considering how to build a future that is fair:  according to Silva and Mehta, «creative design catalyzes meaningful collaborations, foster agency, and create opportunities for future generations».

In this case, it started with technology: «our role as designers was to understand technology and deliver the most optimal design». Grout says this idea aligns with the broader vision behind Thinking Huts.

«Our pilot shows the world that it is possible to combine architecture, construction, and technology for an altruistic purpose». She believes it will inspire hope in a world that often is clouded by negativity and shies away from real change. 

Huts explains: the role of community

It starts from design: Grout was inspired by beehives and the symbolism of bringing people together. Beehives only function when everyone wants to see the family thrive: « it is quite fitting because we are essentially bringing together all the partners, communities, students, and teachers to achieve our moonshot vision».

Working together is both an aim and an asset. «Involving the locals was the most important part to me, from the beginning of this whole endeavor, » says Grout. This is not always an easy process: «I had to make sure that the community trusted me and that the Malagasy people supported this innovation»

She involved the community from day zero: «the students and community knew about this school project long before I was able to arrive on-site to complete the build». Feedback was and will be part of the project, as an essential part in the design of future schools.

Grout recounts her experience with a fondness feeling: « We hired local workers, our construction team was led by Hery, Adrien, and Joseph. Hery and Adrien are brothers and they built a flower box for us to plant our bougainvillea vine – a symbol of our promise to increase access to education growing stronger over time. And we have an on-the-ground volunteer team in Madagascar led by an incredible woman and friend, Ella»

Learning on site: being humble and strong

While «the vision has remained the same» it was before starting to build the first prototype, other aspects developed. «On the field, I learned how important it is to trust your team» says Grout.

Some things can only be learnt through experience. Building has both imaginative and very concrete aspects: «the incredible resilience of people who gathered around to do the hard work in bringing the vision to life».

Grout is twenty-two, which means having more energy and idealism, but also sometimes struggling more to be taken seriously: «Some days I was the only woman and youngest person on site, I had to learn construction management and earn their respect while overcoming language barriers».

She speaks of empathy and youth as «qualities often perceived as a negative, » but «turned out to be the greatest strength because I developed relationships and the loyalty of my team»

Thinking Huts: plans for the future

Honeycomb campuses of multiple connecting Huts to serve ages four to sixteen are the next step on the roadmap. It makes sense on a business level as well: «this will allow us to make progress toward reaching economies of scale and serving a greater number of students to ensure they make it past primary and secondary to attain higher education».

Differences from community to community will also be considered. Each community may have different needs and the design will adapt accordingly: «the honeycomb vision for design shape will stay intact with the number of Huts and features adapting as we are able to continue building schools».

The long-term vision is to create local jobs on a larger scale with 3D technician training programs and growing native teams: «we have an opportunity to create an ecosystem that serves multiple generations and it is an impact that does not happen overnight»


A 501(c)(3) nonprofit building a future that increases global education access through innovative, humanitarian-driven technology solutions. Its goal is to address barriers to education, such as travel distance and overcrowding, through sustainable education infrastructure.

Leveraging 3D printing, Thinking Huts is on a mission to close the global education opportunity gap. founded in 2015 by Maggie Grout, a 22-year old social entrepreneur whose origin story as an adoptee from China shaped her desire to empower those with similar origin stories, born into underprivileged communities, by expanding access to education


Non-profit organization which strives to turn empathy into actions for those in need through technology and a global network of volunteers. We are a group of design professionals, including architects and designers operating at the intersection of vision and reality

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

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check and buy on Prototipo Store
item collections in limited edition
crafted according to our editorial search

Hemp / made in Italy
Lampoon is working to restore
Hemp production in Italy
as hemp is the one and only
natural vegetal fiber sourceable in the country
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