Could 3D printed construction be the answer to the global education gap?
Over 290 million students globally are prevented from attending school every year due to overcrowding, the distance to the nearest school, or lack of infrastructure. We spoke to founder and CEO of Thinking Huts, Maggie Grout, who is on a mission to close the education opportunity gap with 3D printed schools.
What prompted you to take action?
“I strongly believe that where you are born and live should not limit your whole life trajectory. I was adopted from a rural village in China when I was 18 months old. I know the different path my life could have taken, and this has shaped how I see the world. With the opportunities I obtained because of my education, I can act and make an impact.”
Maggie’s innovation, created with the help of architects Bruno Silva and Yash Mehta of Defining Humanity, a hybrid design taking inspiration from the beehive, where campuses end up looking like honeycomb. Combining 3D construction printing and locally sourced materials.
“In developing countries, such as Madagascar, there is a large need for infrastructure and this technology allows us to fill the need in a fraction of the time, just a matter of days.
We also create jobs, hire and train local workers, while partnering with local businesses to source our construction materials. Trusted partners supply our teachers, oversee operations and maintain the schools.”
The 3D printed walls are made of a proprietary cement mixture and the roof, door, and windows are locally sourced. The local materials will change based on what is available and most cost effective while maintaining the structural integrity as we adapt the design for each project.
“Though cement is a large polluter, 3D printing limits carbon emissions by reducing the construction waste due to the precision of the extrusion process and the walls are hollow with steel reinforcements.
When thoughtfully applied, technology such as 3D printing allows for communities to leapfrog innovation and address a real need with an adaptable solution that is scalable.”
What has the reception been like in the communities you’re building Thinking Huts?
“The reception has been very welcoming and filled with pride. It was important to ensure this would be an accepted and celebrated solution for it to be successful in the long term.
I have warm memories of meeting people from the community in Fianarantsoa, Madagascar and while 3D printing is quite novel, many reactions were hopeful for the potential it has.
The lasting impact is hope. Hope for a brighter future and seeing that education is how one will unlock more opportunities that result in generational change.
I often receive messages from the students who pass by and take photos near the kingfisher picture (which is the Thinking Huts logo printed at the entrance of the school). There were a few messages that were especially touching. A young father named Herman told me that his dream is for his children to have the education they need to succeed in their lives. A teacher named Angelo told me he was very touched by our initiative, our shared values, and the ambition of the project.”
How do you identify a location for a school?
“There are many factors, the main being if the school can grow with the community’s needs and is in a location that is both accessible for our equipment and centrally located to be closer to the communities.
Sourcing a team is determined by the relationships developed and who we trust to deliver on the quality of construction.”
What have you learned along the way?
“I learned that perseverance, grit, and the ability to wear multiple hats is crucial when growing a charity. I also learned how to become an international project manager and to go with the flow because many things are unpredictable. For example, the pandemic significantly altered the timeline for our first school in Madagascar. The ability to be nimble and embrace change was my greatest lesson.
My biggest personal challenge has been asking for help while leading in a non-traditional manner. I learned to see my honesty, kindness, compassion, and idealism as more of a strength rather than what is usually perceived as weakness.
As a young, Asian woman, I’ve found that the largest business challenge has been for people to see beyond that and rather see me for the impact that has been made, along with the experiences and new perspectives I hold. In the beginning it felt like I had to prove myself, but now I look back and must remind myself of the accomplishments that have been made.”
What does the next few years look like for Thinking Huts?
“We will be building campuses for primary and secondary age students to strengthen the pipeline for students to reach higher education. By constructing multiple Huts in one construction period, we will also get closer to reaching economies of scale – the end goal being when we print more, the less expensive it will be. The speed benefits are clear but for it to be more easily supported as a global solution, it must be significantly less in cost.”
How can people help?
“We are interested in partnering with value-aligned brands and companies on creative philanthropic campaigns, collaborations, or annual corporate sponsorship through CSR initiatives. Whether that be a percentage of profits from a product, pro bono services, or multi-year commitments to support our honeycomb campuses.”