The community awoke in awe, gawking at the building that seemed to have sprouted at the end of the schoolyard in the middle of a November night.
Mcheza village in central Malawi, a country in southeastern Africa, were staring at the world’s first 3D-printed school.
“The night before, men were working on the site setting up equipment and, in the morning, a whole new school block was standing on the ground reserved for a school,” Senior Chief Kalonga told Zenger News on the sidelines of an event to hand over the classroom to the community on June 18, 2021.
The French firm 14Trees said it constructed the schoolhouse in less than 15 hours—literally overnight. It has yet to be named.
Mcheza village, in the lakeshore district of Salima, 62 miles west of the capital Lilongwe, mirrors a typical Malawian village: a few sparse homesteads sprung across the open veld surrounded by dry fields that come to life during the farming season.
Like in most villages, schools are far apart, forcing children to walk long distances every day.
Marita Feliat’s eight-year-old daughter Triza, one of the first students to register, gleams with excitement at the prospect of classes closer to home.
Triza, a second-grader, was born with a disabled left foot, rendering her unable to walk long distances on days when she’s in pain.
“Her last school was over 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) away, and it was challenging for her to attend classes on some days,” Marita told Zenger.
“So, with school in our village, I am delighted because my daughter will now be able to attend classes every day.”
Malawi needs to build more than 40,000 more classrooms to meet the demand, according to the United Kingdom charity Classrooms for Malawi.
“Based on our calculations, if we rely on conventional methods, it would take about 70 years to clear that backlog,” 14Trees managing director François Perrot told Zenger.
“To remove that backlog faster, we need to constructively disrupt the way we build and apply a cutting-edge approach that can bring speed, efficiency, and environmental performance at scale. This is what 3D printing technology achieves.”
During the handover ceremony, Juliana Kuphanga Chikandila, a primary education advisor representing the Director of Education in the Ministry of Education in Malawi, said she was impressed with the new building.
“Its durability and design provide the space and facilities that students did not have before; teaching and learning can now happen inside and outside the classroom,” she said.
“It is notably different from the other schools being built in the district. This school will attract more students, and those learners that had left will return.”
14Trees was co-founded by LafargeHolcim, a leader in building materials, and CDC Group, the United Kingdom’s development finance institution and impact investor, said Perrot.
Both have invested in the 3D printing technology and are bringing it to places where it is most needed.
“We believe the school infrastructure gap could be bridged in just ten years using 3D printing,” Perrot said.
Perrot said that with 3D printed pieces, the school’s walls were erected in less than 12 hours: “This method reduces the number of materials needed and decreases the carbon footprint of those buildings by up to 70 percent compared to conventional methods. Considering the volume of the units required to print, we believe that 3D printed buildings can be 10 to 20 percent more cost-effective than conventional methods soon.”
Catherine Sani, the recently-elected president of the Malawi Institute of Architects, said that while it seems fair and reasonable to say that Malawi will benefit from the technology given its lack of critical infrastructure, a transfer of skills could give people there new career options.
“It is difficult to comment whether the French firm has considered any local skills transfer and made any efforts to embark on the transference of skill,” she told Zenger.
“The speed of production by this method is beneficial, but one cannot look at speed alone from costs related with printing machines, technology transfer, and ensuring good design.”
Perrot said that 3D printing is still a relatively new technology, and 14Trees aims to make it 10 to 20 percent more affordable than conventional building methods in the next 12–18 months.
“We had to import the pilot school, but the ink we used to print the walls is now manufactured in Malawi. Manufacturing the ink on the ground will dramatically reduce the cost of the building for buyers and create local jobs in manufacturing. In addition, we now have an indigenous-Malawian team fully trained to operate the printer. We are confident that we can build schools that are more superior and improve on construction time, quality, environmental footprint, and affordability,” said Perrot.
“We are now working on 3D printed home projects in Kenya and Zimbabwe, with houses built by the end of this year. We also have school projects that we will build in Malawi and Madagascar, and Ethiopia. We have identified opportunities to deliver sanitation projects. We are proud that Malawi has been the first country to show 3D printing of social infrastructure is possible. We will leverage the competencies built by our team here in Malawi to roll out that technology, supporting the expansion across the region.”
This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.