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Mycelium Fungi as a Building Material

By Maria Saxton Rise Writer
Feb 13, 2020

Mycelium is a natural fungi material with industrial-level strength that has been explored in recent years as a potential building material. This emerging material could be used as the building blocks (literally) for future homes!

Grow Your Own Kit. Photo Credit: Ecovative Design

What Is Mycelium?

The mycelium of fungus refers to the fragile root-like fibers of fungus that live underneath the ground. Mycelium is 100% organic, compostable, and biodegradable. When it is dried, it becomes incredibly durable and resistant to water, mold, and fire.

To date, mycelium has most often been used for packaging purposes. One company, Ecovative Design, has discovered ways to use mycelium for more than packaging. They are creating alternative meat products, animal-free leather, skincare products, and more. With their fabrication process, they can control the texture, strength, and porosity of mycelium-based products.

What sets mycelium apart from other materials is its ability to regenerate at a quick rate. It can even be used for 3-D printing and is non-toxic, insulating, and all-natural. Mycelium has the potential to create a new paradigm for design in the building industry.

Why Would We Want to Build Homes With Fungi?

This concept sounds strange, but it may grow on you! (pun intended)

With the ever-rising environmental impact of buildings, the industry is uniquely positioned to explore cutting-edge technologies. When we hear the term 'technology,' we typically assume it refers to the technology within a building like HVAC units or smart thermostat controls. However, there are endless opportunities to discover innovative technologies that may influence future construction standards.

Standard building materials like concrete and steel are significant contributors to the building industry's sizeable environmental impact. To achieve ambitious environmental goals in the building industry, research into unconventional materials must be explored. Mycelium, in brick form, is one of the most promising new materials currently being investigated.

Although mycelium has been researched as a potential building material by many from a theoretical standpoint, few examples of it are used to construct a building. Here we will walk through a few case studies where mycelium has been used for state-of-the-art projects, illustrating the range of applications for this new material.

The Living Hy-Fi Exterior
The Living Hy-Fi Exterior. Photo Credit: The Living New York

Case Study: The Hy-Fy

In 2014, The Living Embodied Computation Lab, commissioned by Princeton University, created a building called the Hy-Fy in Queens, New York. The project went on to win the 2014 Young Architects Program Competition at MoMA PS1 in New York.

The Living Hy-Fy Exterior.
The Living Hy-Fy Exterior. Photo Credit: Cecil Barnes V

Here's how it worked: Low-valued crop waste (such as corn husks) was harvested from farmers then chopped up into small pieces. This waste was then combined with specially-formulated mycelium and packed into molds the shape of bricks. Over a few days, the mixed material self-assembled into a lightweight solid object. The team created 10,000 compostable bricks that they constructed into a 13-meter-tall tower, which they left assembled for three months. Then, the team disassembled the structure and composted the bricks, giving the resulting soil to local community gardens.

This ability to create building materials from naturally-forming fungi that were then regenerated back into the Earth shows how mycelium produces a low-impact solution for buildings.

Growing Pavilion Door
Growing Pavilion Door. Photo Credit: Dezeen, Erik Melander

Case Study: The Growing Pavilion

As evidenced by its name, the Growing Pavilion was built with naturally-forming fungi that can self-assemble. This temporary structure was erected for Dutch Design Week and was host to multiple events.

Growing Pavilion Exterior
Growing Pavilion Exterior. Photo Credit: Architectuur NL

This structure, made entirely from bio-based materials, integrated mushrooms, mycelium, timber, and a bio-based coating originally developed by Inca people around the 12th century. The timber frame was built first, then panels made from mushrooms and mycelium were attached to the frame. These lightweight panels could be removed easily and repurposed for other uses.

The Growing Pavilion aimed to be a temporary structure for Dutch Design Week. Due to the project's success, the team who designed it is now working on a pavilion design that will last outside, in the elements, for multiple years.

Bioterials Diagram. Photo Credit: Redhouse

Case Study: "Biocycling" Old Homes with Mycelium to Build New Ones

An architecture firm in Cleveland is working on a technique to demolish derelict homes and combine fungus with demolition debris to form new building materials. This process is called "biocycling," where demolition waste is broken down and combined with mycelium to add industrial-level strength that binds the material as it grows. Then, the combined elements are compressed to create new building materials. These materials can then be cut into bricks or used as insulation. This approach could help combat housing issues in North America by affordably recycling older homes into newer ones.

Design firms, such as Redhouse Architecture, believe that this process could even be used for disaster relief housing. It could provide homes that may last for only a few years and then be composted at the end of their useful lives. In addition, it may be a solution for communities in developing countries.

The Shell Mycelium. Photo Credit: Krishna & Govind Raja

Case Study: The Shell Mycelium Installation 

Mycelium was used to create another temporary event space in southwest India. Their project had two goals. The first was to promote mycelium as a building material. The second endeavored to show how it could create temporary venues for major public events (such as international sporting events and world expos).

Using an organic material like mycelium for major events could prove to be cost-effective and much more sustainable. The necessary infrastructure for an event like the Olympics costs countries incredible sums of money. For example, Sochi invested over $50 billion for the 2014 Winter Games. Mycelium offers an affordable solution that is much more environmentally conscious than conventional construction.

The Shell Mycelium Installation offers a fresh, organic approach to mycelium construction. The project used a triangulated timber framework, which gave the end product a striking, otherworldly aesthetic.

Myco Tree
Myco Tree. Photo Credit: Mycotech

Case Study: MycoTree

An architect and engineer teamed up to discover ways that mycelium could be used to provide the support for a building, rather than for cladding purposes. They optimized geometry to design a tree-like mycelium-based structure that could provide the base of a two-story building. This approach allows mycelium to be used as the integral structural framework of a building rather than for exterior walls that provide some support, but not all. 

To create their mycelium mixture, they combined mycelium and a food mix consisting of sawdust and sugarcane. The structure of the MycoTree took about two weeks to 'grow.' The team showcased this concept at the 2017 Seoul Architecture Biennale. 

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-10-25T23:21:27+0000
Maria Saxton

Article by:

Maria Saxton

Located in Roanoke, Virginia, Maria Saxton holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Design and Planning from Virginia Tech. She works as an Environmental Planner and Housing Researcher for a local firm specializing in Community Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, and Historic Preservation. Her dissertation explored the environmental impacts of small-scale homes. She serves as a volunteer board member for the Tiny Home Industry Association.