President Donald Trump has signed directives calling for the building of a wall along the US-Mexico border, and engineers and designers are taking a look at how feasible Trump's vision really is.

Chris Wiltz

January 27, 2017

5 Min Read
How to Actually Build Trump's Controversial Border Wall

Donald Trump's proposed wall along the Mexican border, if not quixotic, is at least an interesting engineering challenge and thought experiment. As of January 25, President Trump has officially begun to make good on one of his most controversial campaign promises. On Wednesday the President signed directives to build the border wall and to also strip funding from US cities that shield illegal immigrants.

"We are in the middle of a crisis on our southern border: The unprecedented surge of illegal migrants from Central American is harming both Mexico and the United States," Trump said in remarks reported by Reuters. “And I believe the steps we will take starting right now will improve the safety in both of our countries. ... A nation without borders is not a nation."

Trump said that planning for the wall will begin immediately and that construction could start in as soon as a few months.

But is such a thing even feasible? Despite all evidence to the contrary, the President has notions that Mexico will foot the bill for the roughly 2,000 mile wall (Though to be fair, Trump has adjusted the wall size down to 1,000 miles from his initial proposal) – taking on costs that an analysis done by Politico estimates would total at least $5.1 billion US (not including annual maintenance costs). According to Politico:

"Those estimates come from a 2009 report from the Government Accountability Office [GAO], which found that it costs an average of $3.9 million to build one mile of fencing. About 670 miles of fencing is already up along the 1,989-mile southern border, so finishing the fence that’s already there would cost about $5.1 billion.

But the actual cost is likely much higher, according to experts. The vast majority of the existing border fence is single-layer fencing near urban areas, which is considerably easier to build. Much of the remaining 1,300 miles runs through rough terrains and remote areas without roads, so it’s fair to assume the per-mile cost of finishing the fence would be on the higher end of the GAO’s estimates, which was $15.1 million per mile."

But even setting costs aside, one has to wonder if such an enormous project could even be accomplished in any reasonable amount of time. The last time humans tried something like this – The Great Wall of China – it took centuries of slave labor to make it happen. In a September 2015 article for The National Memo, a structural engineer, writing under the pseudonym Ali F. Rhuzkan took on the challenge of mapping out the logistics of constructing Trump's wall.

Ali F. Rhuzkan's rendering of an elevation view of the proposed border wall (Image source: Ali F. Rhuzkan / The National Memo)

Rhuzkan writes: “A successful border wall must be effective, cheap, and easily maintained. It should be built from readily available materials and should take advantage of the capabilities of the existing labor force. The wall should reach about five feet underground to deter tunneling, and should terminate about 20 feet above grade to deter climbing.”

Rhuzkan concludes that building the wall is not impossible, but if done would be an unprecedented feat of engineering.

According to Rhuzkah, assuming the wall would be constructed using pre-cast concrete (cast in a factory, then shipped to the construction site) building a wall to the necessary specifications to meet the President's demands for a roughly 2,000-mile border wall would require about 12,600,000 cubic yards of concrete. “In other words, this wall would contain over three times the amount of concrete used to build the Hoover Dam,” Rhuzkah writes, “Such a wall would be greater in volume than all six pyramids of the Giza Necropolis … That quantity of concrete could pave a one-lane road from New York to Los Angeles, going the long way around the Earth...”

And this is just the concrete. One also has to factor in the amount of steel needed to reinforce such a structure – about 5 billiion pounds by Rhuzkah's estimation – as well as the labor, production, and shipping costs of all the pieces. Not to mention the wall would have to be built and regularly maintained by workers that would ideally be paid and not slaves.

If you need a visual of what such a wall would look like, a group of interns at  Estudio 3.14 —a design firm based in Guadalajara, México have created a conceptual rendering that they've dubbed the Prison Wall. Estudio 3.14's concept envisions a wall that crosses multiple terrains (hills, desert, a river, even the city of Tijuana) and also includes a built-in prison to detain those seeking to cross the border illegally, as well as a shopping mall and a viewpoint for tourists. By its renderings the studio estimates the wall could employ up to 6 million people. As for why it's pink, the studio said in a statement that, “Because the wall has to be beautiful, it has been inspired by Luis Barragán's pink walls that are emblematic of Mexico.”

Estudio 3.14 said it created a concept of the border wall to "imagine the policy proposal in all of its gorgeous perversity.” (Image source: Estudio 3.14) 

Estudio 3.14 said its interest is three-fold: To give the general public a clear visual of what Trump is proposing; to test the potential of architectural images to have impact in mass and social media; and third, “it addresses the operation through which language, as the instrument of thought, delineates referents in space and time...

“We hope that these visuals will allow the public to imagine the policy proposal in all of its gorgeous perversity.”

Alternatives have also been suggested. Writing for the Huffington Post environmentalist Homero Aridjis suggests that a border wall made entirely of solar panels would be a much more worthwhile project for both the US and Mexico. Perhaps someone can crunch the numbers on what this would cost?

Chris Wiltz is the Managing Editor of Design News

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