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Some Questions About That 3D Printed School

Rendering of a potential 3D printed school [Source: Thinking Huts]

A new project hopes to 3D print a school in Madagascar.

Thinking Huts is a non-profit US-based corporation launched in 2015 that helps students in countries where education is lacking. They began by distributing “Think Boxes” containing school supplies to students located in Guatemala and Dominican Republic, but now they’re working on a far more ambitious project.

They’re intending on 3D printing an entire school, and after evaluating seven potential countries, selected Madagascar for this pilot project. The pilot project will:

“be used as a prototype to test the portability, and cost effectiveness of our design. We will use locally-sourced materials, remaining conscious of our environmental impact, and implement more additive manufacturing processes as the technology advances, adapting to each community’s environment.”

Concrete design for the 3D printed school [Source: Thinking Huts]

The design for the school is modular and includes a number of features:

“Initial plans call for solar power, internet access, desks, chairs, and tables. The Hut will have a secure door and operating windows. We are working on designs that accommodate additional students.”

Modular approach for 3D printed schools [Source: Thinking Huts]

Technically, the 3D printing is apparently being arranged through third parties, with Studio Mortazavi providing the architectural design and Hyperion Robotics providing the concrete extrusion 3D printing.

Curiously, in the list of partners on the project is LafargeHolcim, who readers might recognize as the global construction company that has been 3D printing buildings in partnership with COBOD. It’s not clear whether COBOD equipment is being used on the Thinking Huts project, as their material does not explain the 3D printing part in any detail, aside from mentioning Hyperion Robotics, who can 3D print reinforced concrete.

However, Hyperion robots do not seem to be part of COBOD’s offering, and if that’s the case, then COBOD’s African partner LafargeHolcim seems to be working with alternative construction 3D printer companies as well.

The Thinking Huts project includes not only construction of the school building, but also to provide “physical education infrastructure”, and “educational resources in various subject areas”. This includes an online student portal.

There are several advantages of using 3D printing in this scenario, as shown in their promotional video:

The climate in Madagascar will avoid any cold-weather issues associated with construction 3D printing, and the reduced labor requirement due to automation will reduce the need to hire skilled locals that are apparently in short supply. The project is said to use less concrete than conventional projects.

However, there are a number of aspects to this project that might be concerning.

Thinking Huts says this will be the “world’s first 3D printed school”, when in fact it is clearly not. A school was 3D printed in Malawi last year.

Using the phrase “3D printed school” misrepresents the technology; only the concrete walls are being 3D printed, and all remaining aspects of construction will be done using conventional techniques, which defeats the notion of using less labor: only labor for concrete work is reduced. Other parties using this phrase have done so solely for mass media notoriety, and I wonder if that is the case here, too.

All images presented by Thinking Huts are renderings of the building; it appears no work has started yet. It’s also unclear which construction 3D printing technology will be used, and that makes me nervous because there have been a number of questionable players in the space.

The design includes a “vertical farm”, which turns out to be a few niches in the exterior walls that might hold a few dozen small plants. This is hardly a farm and more like a decorative element, as the space provided by the vertical farm is likely less than empty space beside the structure. True vertical farms are actually useful at scale, particularly in inclement climates, but that’s not the case here.

The proposed structure is quite small, and would serve as a single room for a small class of students. That’s good, but to increase capacity they propose a modular design that could be expanded by adding more rooms.

The intent of the project seems to be to enable the locals to carry on with building schools, a noble idea, but I am puzzled as to how that may occur. To build the pilot structure a number of expert parties and firms are brought together to fundraise, design and execute the project. But are those parties still available after the project ends for future work? Who will pay for them? Who’s buying or renting the construction 3D printers after the project completes? Without seeing the cash flow for the project it’s not clear whether this project is truly financially feasible for the long term.

I’m hoping the project succeeds, as its goals are good for all, but I fear it may not. The Thinking Huts school project may end up as yet another experimental demonstration of construction 3D printing. It’s one thing to build a prototype, and quite another to create a self-sustainable operation for the future.

Via Thinking Huts

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