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Students use 3-D printing to create model community for homeless people

Alexandria Country Day School project was about technology but also about empathy.

Alexandria Country Day School sixth-graders Luke Wazorko, 11, and Sean Campbell, 12, work on a miniature village created with a 3-D printer and tailored to the needs of people who have been homeless. Outdoor spaces where residents can meet help give them a sense of belonging. (Ann Cameron Siegal)

As Alexandria Country Day School’s sixth-graders created miniature 3-D printed villages to address homelessness, they learned lessons far beyond technology.

“It Takes a Village” began as a project for a science class — inspired by life-size 3-D printed homes built by Austin, Texas-based technology company Icon, whose mission is to make dignified, affordable housing available to everyone.

No strangers to classroom 3-D projects, the students were fascinated by Icon’s use of a similar process to create homes made of inexpensive concrete-like material. Unlike standard construction methods, the process of building interior and exterior walls of these durable homes takes just a few days.

While creating their mini 3-D buildings, the students explored how such technology allows design freedom and quick changes. Mathematical conversions helped get the proportions right. For example, a real 25-foot-by-20-foot one-bedroom house would be printed as 40-millimeter-by-32-millimeter (about 1½ inch by 1¼ inch) for their mini village.

Salwa Seman, 11, said that getting the dimensions and settings correct before construction began was challenging as she created a curved-wall amphitheater.

“If the temperature of the printer is too hot or cold, or if the printed walls are too thin, the structures might fail,” she said.

“You learn from your mistakes and make adjustments,” said classmate Zoe Mandel, 11.

Innovation and collaboration

The tech-focused project quickly evolved into “an exercise in empathy, innovation and collaboration designed to bring about lasting change,” said science teacher Alison McDonald.

“When most people think of helping the homeless, they think of food and clothing drives,” said Juliet Galicia, 11. While necessary, those are temporary fixes. Even housing by itself is not a complete solution.

In designing their leave-homelessness-behind neighborhoods, priorities were shelter, food stores, schools, and health and religious centers.

But to build a sense of belonging and purpose, the miniature communities also emphasized areas for frequent interaction among residents.

“We wanted to include extras that would make it feel more like a real community,” said Luke Wazorko, 11.

A community garden, a place to raise chickens, an amphitheater for shared events, bus stops for access to jobs, and infrastructure for WiFi and cellphones to help in job searches were important features to offer formerly homeless residents.

A real community for the homeless

“They get it!” said Amber Fogarty, president of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit organization tackling homelessness in Austin, after learning about the sixth-graders’ project.

“The biggest cause of long-term homelessness is a catastrophic loss in family relationships,” she said. “Housing alone will never solve homelessness, but community will. People need a place where they are known, nurtured and loved.”

Mobile Loaves & Fishes’ creation, Community First Village, offers tiny homes, stationary recreational vehicles and a few 3-D printed homes as affordable, permanent housing options to end chronic homelessness.

That community’s design and those created by the Alexandria sixth-graders emphasize walkability and interaction with others. Each incorporates ponds and green space on the edge of the community, for fishing and quiet moments, and “makerspaces” for creating products to sell.

Delighted with the students’ practical priorities, Fogarty noted that Community First also includes front porches on each of its housing styles to encourage daily connections between people.

Referring to such student projects, she said, “Imagine the possibilities. How can you use your brains and hearts to solve problems?”

Future of 3-D printed houses

Many companies around the world are experimenting with this technology.

So far, only interior and exterior walls are
3-D printed. A team of three to four people complete that task using a computer app operated by a tablet or smartphone and monitoring the process. A nozzle squeezes out the concrete mix in a preprogrammed pattern, building up layers until a basic house structure is formed. Roofing, doors, windows and finishing still need carpenters, plumbers, electricians and painters.

Designs are adaptable to individual preferences.

Mobile Loaves and Fishes’ Amber Fogarty said, “It’s a journey of discovery. We don’t know what the future holds for this new technology, but we’re excited about the innovative possibilities.”

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