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Malawi Begins Classes in World's First 3D-Printed School

Malawi Begins Classes in World's First 3D-Printed School
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Malawi Begins Classes in World's First 3D-Printed School

Adifu Maulana quit school in 2014 to escape punishment she often received for arriving late.

She had to walk 7 kilometers to attend classes held under a tree because of Malawi’s shortage of classrooms.

But thanks to what is being called the world’s first 3D-printed school, constructed by joint-venture group 14Trees, Maulana has resumed learning. The Swiss-British group says the fast construction of computer-built schools could help alleviate a shortage of classrooms in countries like Malawi.

Maulana said she is happy because she can realize her dreams of becoming a teacher. The school is near now, she said, so she won’t arrive late at school, and her lessons are going smoothly.

The aid project 14Trees is a joint venture between Swiss cement maker LafargeHolcim and the United Kingdom’s development finance institution, the CDC Group.

The project aims to quickly construct affordable housing and schools in African countries like Malawi, which has a shortfall of 36,000 classrooms according to the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“Our estimate is that with conventional construction methods, it would take more than 70 years to build so many classrooms,” said Francois Perrot, managing director for 14Trees. “And we think that 3D printing can bring a lot of speed to the construction process and reduce time needed to build those schools to 10 years or even less.”

The 3D printing technology allowed the Malawi school to be built in just 18 hours; Perrot said building by hand would have taken about three weeks.

“The other advantage is that you can reduce drastically the quantity of the material that you need when you print,” Perrot said. “And this has an effect on affordability; meaning that the building becomes more affordable and also [carbon emission] is reduced, which in Malawi is up to 70% that is emitted per building.”

But even though 3D printing could transform construction around the world, its high cost is a challenge.

While the school cost about 15% less to print than to build, the 3D printing machine costs about $500,000.

“Now the other thing that we want to consider at this point will be: if this is a welcome development, who will own the 3D printing machine?” said Khumbo Chirwa, a representative of the Malawi Institute of Architects. “Will it be the local contractor, or the government will buy it and then start printing all these classrooms all over the place? Maybe that’s the discussion for another day.”

But the project implementers say costs will go down as materials begin to be locally produced.

Meanwhile, 14Trees plans to continue demonstrating the power of the technology by printing more schools and houses in Malawi as well as in Kenya and Zimbabwe.