For most of us, mushrooms are just a food – something we add to our pasta dishes and risotto. But to mycologist Philip Ross they’ve become something else completely – a building material that can be used to manufacture furniture, tableware and even entire buildings. So how is this organic material that literally lies beneath our feet being harnessed as a robust and durable building material? Through mycelium.
What is mycelium?
Mycelium are the rootlike fibers of fungi which grow beneath the surface of the ground, appearing as a frost-like growth beneath leaves and bark and growing into a dense network for sprouting mushrooms. Mycelium holds together large amounts of the planet’s topsoil and has already been used to create powerful antibiotics. As humans, we actually share more than half of our DNA with fungi, making them a much closer relative than most would think.
Although not particularly tasty, when dried Mycelium can form an incredibly strong material that is not only water-resistant, but also fire and mold-resistant. Mycologist Philip Ross discovered that it can be grown and transformed into building blocks of different shapes that are 100% organic and compostable, with a consistency that is stronger than concrete when compared pound for pound.
All you need is some organic matter, sawdust waste and a small amount of mushroom, and as the fungus consumes the sawdust nutrients, its mycelium grows into a solid block of cells which can be confined within particular-shaped molds. If you place two living fungal bricks alongside one another, they will fuse into an unbreakable bond within a few hours – a process that can only be halted by drying or curing the material, effectively killing the mycelium so it doesn’t continue to grow and resulting in a rigid material.
Once dried, this mycelium-built material can then be sanded and painted to resemble other building materials and used for commercial purposes. Not only is it sturdy, resilient and bulletproof, but it can withstand extreme temperatures, and when it’s lifetime of use is over, the material can be easily composted.
Where did the idea come from?
Philip Ross has been experimenting with using fungi and mycelium in his art installations for around 20 years, introducing mushroom tissue into different molds filled with pasteurized sawdust, then leaving the fungus to digest the material. A mushroom teahouse he built at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf titled Mycotectural Alpha was his first real piece of what has been dubbed “mycotecture”, made from Reishi mushroom bricks which he later boiled down into tea for visitors to the gallery to drink. Companies began to approach him about this environmentally sustainable and surprisingly sturdy building material, and Ross realized that mycelium building blocks may have a greater use outside the world of art installation.
Ross has since filed for patent on the mycelium material and has started his own company named MycoWorks. This creative team of engineers, designers and scientists are experimenting with transforming agricultural waste into durable and robust bio-materials, all using a little help from mushrooms.
What are the challenges of building with mycelium?
Although mycelium has some incredibly attractive properties as a building material, the fact that it is a living, growing organism means that it also has a mind of its own and attempting to “tame” it is not always successful. Students at Philadelphia University, Merjan Sisman and Brian McClellan, experimented with different growing conditions to discover the most pliable material and found that more moisture and less air resulted in a denser material. Another challenge is ensuring that these often resilient mycelium are dried sufficiently, because if not, your new building block may just start sprouting new mushrooms! This is one of the aspects that is deterring designers from using the material and limiting its potential use.
The word “fungus” itself also brings up all sorts of connotations in people’s minds (particularly that of mold), and whether the world is ready to live in houses built from fungus is yet to be determined. There would need to be a dramatic shift in the way we think about mycelium building if it was ever going to really take off. New York City-based company Ecovative Design took a big step in the right direction during their recent partnership with architect David Benjamin, building the award-winning Hy-Fi Mushroom Tower pavilion at the Museum of Modern Art PS1. This project, made from 10,000 bricks created using mycelium, had enough inorganic allure to see people view fungus as a potential substitute for petroleum-based plastics.
But there’s also the logistical challenge of having it accepted by the building industry, which requires extensive testing, publishing and partnering with educational institutions so that mycelium’s viability can be showcased to the public.
What is the future of mycelium as a building material?
While Ross has primarily used mycelium blocks as a material in his artistic works, its potential as a commercial building material has an exciting future. Numerous companies are testing its properties, particularly as a substitute for styrofoam, as well as its application in the automotive industry and the manufacture of surfboard.
But perhaps public opinion is the biggest determinant of mycelium’s future as a building material, and Ross thinks the current state of the world is driving that already. He says people are “feeling the armageddon at the door…I don’t know if it’s a change, or this is a mutation, but the zeitgeist of nature is happening.” He also recognizes the expansion of interest in mushroom technology and that his vision is shared by many: “There are so many people doing stuff with mushrooms right now. It felt lonely for a while being this insulated mushroom weirdo, so in some ways it’s a huge relief. Right now there’s just a profusion of mushroom stuff that crosses over between practical technology and the fantastic” .