An American non-profit organization built the first 3D-printed school in Madagascar

Thinking Huts intends to increase access to education.
Deena Theresa
Thinking Huts
3D printing a school.

Thinking Huts 

Maggie Grout, who was born in a rural mountain village in China, was adopted rather young. "And I think that largely shaped my outlook through the rest of my life – knowing what poverty looks like, and how it impacts the opportunities you're able to achieve in life. Having that allowed me to see more clearly what my purpose was in life - helping children gain access to education in underprivileged areas in the world," she tells IE in an interview.

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Founder and CEO of Thinking Huts, an American non-profit organization that uses additive manufacturing technologies to build sustainable schools, Grout and her team unveiled their first project - a 3D-printed school in Madagascar – earlier this year.

Why Madagascar?

According to a UNESCO report, the country has an adult literacy rate of 64.5 percent and a youth literacy rate of 64.9 percent. In addition, according to the World Bank, around 97 percent of Malagasy children at the age of 10 do not possess the reading comprehension required to read and understand a short, age-appropriate text – 16.2 percentage points lower than the average for sub-Saharan Africa. The estimated number of schools needed in Madagascar to improve these figures sits at around 22,000.

"Because of its architectural scale, [3D printers are] a lot different than a desktop-size printer, as well as the materials that are extruded. I started to consider if it was really needed because it's a huge component and you need to impact local communities. So I started talking to grassroots nonprofits in several countries. And I was eventually drawn to Madagascar – I could relate to a lot of the children and young people there, and how the geography is sort of aligned with China - the rice fields, the villages, and how a lot of people may have to walk quite a bit to go to school," she says.

From there, it was sort of "serendipitous."

An American non-profit organization built the first 3D-printed school in Madagascar
Maggie Grout
Geoffrey Gaspard

When Thinking Huts met Defining Humanity

Grout began the organization when she was 15. "I founded Thinking Huts after becoming interested in the potential of technology, 3D printing specifically, to create architectural solutions." She tells IE that the technology would "be like Moore's law. As you get it to be replicated, the costs will go down, and it'll be more widely used. So I thought this could be a huge opportunity to solve a real problem in the world," she says.

To construct the school, Thinking Huts partnered with 14 Trees, a company experienced in 3D-printing buildings that has already completed similar projects in Kenya and Malawi. As for the creation of the architectural design, Yash Mehta and Bruno Silva of Defining Humanity were put to the task.

"Defining Humanity joined hands with Thinking Huts in March of 2021. We worked together to make Thinking Huts, starting by understanding their vision, along with the requirements of the community and local materials available, plugging in the workability of the 3D printer to provide an integrated design solution. Within a year, we were breaking ground for the pilot project and completed it on April 14, 2022," the team tells IE in an interview.

Thinking Huts also partnered with the university Ecole de Management et d’Innovation Technologique, in Madagascar, as well as local construction company SECOA. While the school's walls were 3D-printed with a cement mixture that could withstand environmental pressure, the roof, door, and windows were made with locally-sourced materials. Local manufacturers were involved in the construction and were taught 3D operational skills.

"The material choices were quite deliberate. The printer used concrete which is specially used for printing, it is modified so that it cures/solidifies enough for the next layer to be printed on top. The roof is timber which is a light weight, reducing our structural loads to make it more economical. The wooden texture also provides warmth to the aesthetics of the building. Both Thinking Huts and Defining Humanity are big advocates of local material and labor to help the economy," say Mehta and Silva.

The school, which measures around 700 square feet (65 square meters), currently functions as an Innovation Startup Centre and can hold up to 30 students at a time.

An American non-profit organization built the first 3D-printed school in Madagascar
Source: Andry Niaina via Thinking Huts

Focus on community building

The design of the school structure drew on inspiration from the shape of a honeycomb because it makes "more sense economically to print multiples in one construction period. And also, our work is focused on community-building," says Grout.

To what extent does a 3D-printed school differ from a school made of conventional materials such as wood or bricks and mortar?

"With 3D printing, you're allowed more creativity and flexibility. Though we'll still keep the honeycomb look for schools in the future, the community will be asked for their input. You can be flexible and easily incorporate community feedback that way. It can also be built a lot more quickly, solving a gap immediately because a lot of kids don't have a school to learn in to begin with. So I think that's where the main advantages would be," explains Grout.

Grout also adds that 3D-printed schools can also have an impact on the students. "The students at the first school were really inspired and excited about the potential of this technology. I think that is something that will definitely influence them beyond a traditional building," she says.

An American non-profit organization built the first 3D-printed school in Madagascar
Source: BOTO Friddet via Thinking Huts

Do we really need more schools?

In recent years, there has been criticism around international agencies building schools in lesser-developed countries. Some argue that a school is much more than a building, that buildings are easy and relatively cheap to construct, but without a larger investment in resources and teachers, it is difficult to make lasting improvements. In addition, it's not always necessary to build a structure in order to provide an education - sometimes, a structure can be counter-productive. Others feel that it is better to use all local materials, designs, and labor - adding to the local economy, rather than parachuting in materials and technology.

Those who build schools also need to make sure they engage with the community at different levels - it's essential to talk to the people who will be using the schools and their government to make sure parents are able to send their children to school, that there is financing for maintaining the school, and to provide training for teachers.

Grout agrees. "With Thinking Huts, we ensured that we had local partners to fill in those gaps - like having teachers and maintaining the school. We see ourselves as more a developer and to make sure the project will be successful in the long run. We ensured that we had other resources ready for the school, and it will continue to be so, in the future," she says.

So, what's next?

"We'll be focusing on fundraising and growing the team. Creating jobs is a huge component of why we're doing this. The next project, the honeycomb campus, will be in 2023. We will be serving more villages with that one. Several people are involved - you start with getting approval from the chief of the village. And we have a local partner, who has donated the land and will act as a middleman, getting input from students and parents," says Grout.

She believes that 3D printing could blend architecture, construction, sustainability, and humanitarian efforts.