Fungi is one of the Earth’s earliest biological forms, although it’s younger than it appears.
In reality, these sophisticated creatures are at the heart of many of today’s most cutting-edge technological breakthroughs. Mushrooms appear to be sprouting up everywhere these days, from high-tech meat replacements to future fabrics, and the realm of construction materials is no exception.
In recent years, lab-grown fungi has been utilized in a number of applications, including acoustic paneling and flooring, thanks to increasing research on fungi’s unique characteristics as a highly renewable material. All of these uses are created from the same base: a portion of a fungus called mycelium.
Martina Eandi, an architect and researcher at Critical Concrete, a materials research institution in Portugal, recognizes the rising interest in mycelium as a building material. She also sees what the future may hold for this fascinating lifeform as the construction industry moves toward more environmentally friendly materials.
Fungi may be found almost anywhere. In the air, on the sea, in our bodies, in the trees, in our bathroom ceilings, and underground. They can be mushrooms (edible, medicinal, hallucinogenic, or extremely deadly), or they might be molds.
They can cause diseases, but they can also create antibiotics like penicillin and aid in the fermentation of delicious cheeses and breads. Could they be the future of packaging and construction materials as well?
One of the first persons to see mycelium’s potential as a building material wasn’t even in the construction industry. The artist and inventor Philip Ross, who plays with the potential of fungal materials in design and construction, was one of the first researchers to examine the usage of mycelium-based materials.
The visible section of a fungus, like an iceberg, merely reflects a minuscule percentage of its total size. Mushrooms, for example, produce long thread-like roots called mycelium under the surface. These are incredibly thin white filaments that spread in all directions, producing a complicated web that grows fast.
The mycelium of the fungus acts like glue when it is transplanted in a proper location, cementing the substrate and converting it into a solid block. Sawdust, ground wood, straw, different agricultural wastes, or other similar materials that would otherwise go to waste can be used as this substrate.
The finished product may be molded to make insulating panels, furniture, accessories, textiles, packaging materials, and even bricks, depending on the mycelium strain and substrate utilized. The final product has high thermal and acoustic properties, as well as robust fire behavior.
According to scientific studies mycelium-based materials have physical and mechanical properties that are similar to expanded polystyrene (commonly known as Styrofoam), but with a higher level of biodegradability. “The properties of a mycelium-based biocomposite are highly influenced by the selected fungal species and their continuous development, in addition to the lignocellulosic substrate. As a result, the substrate’s composition and structure have an impact on the mycelium’s consistency.”
Ecovative Design is a pioneer in mycelium-based design today, creating items such as packaging with this unusual material. The substrate and fungus are mixed together in a solution and injected into molds to create these things. The substance solidifies into the required shape after about 5 days of development in suitable conditions (enough temperature, humidity, and light).
The item is then placed in an oven to kill any remaining germs, allowing it to be utilized as regular packaging. Companies as huge as IKEA and DELL have already started utilizing this 100% biodegradable packaging.
After winning the MoMA’s Young Architects Program in 2014, the Living studio in New York collaborated with Ecovative Design on the Hy-Fi Project, a pavilion that was erected in the MoMA PS1 yard. Mycelium bricks were designed using ARUP’s structural assistance and grew in less than a week in prismatic molds from the residue of chopped maize stalks.
The bricks were used to build a structure that stood around 12 meters tall. The tower was demolished at the end of the two-month display, and the bricks were transferred to composters to make use of their inherent biodegradability.
Carlo Ratti Associati created an architectural structure made of mushrooms in conjunction with the energy firm Eni, which was unveiled during Milan Design Week. The “Circular Garden” is a series of arches made up of one kilometer of mycelium in which spores were inserted into organic material to begin the development process.
Jardim Circular, unlike many temporary exhibition pavilions, has a more ecological approach, with its constituent mushrooms, ropes, and shredded wood chips being returned to the earth when the show is over. The Shell Mycelium Pavillion, a partnership by BEETLES 3.3 and Yassin Areddia Designs, also uses temporary buildings to illustrate alternative eco-conscious design.
Coconut marrow was used to cover a wooden building that harbored the fungus. The mycelium developed and produced a snow cover over the building after a few days of care. Due to sunlight, the upper layer of growth perished and hardened, producing a shell that protected the bottom levels.
Mycelium has the potential to be used in thermal and acoustic insulation in addition to architectural constructions. Live mushrooms packed between wooden panels can make an efficient insulating wall, according to another Ecovative effort.
The mycelium develops and solidifies loose particles in three days, creating airtight insulation while adhering to the wooden boards and producing what is basically a very strong sandwich. The end solution looks like a structural insulating panel but without the thermal bridges. According to Ecovative, the mushroom insulation gradually dries out and becomes inactive after approximately a month.
However, European computer scientists, biologists, and architects  went a step farther. They suggest utilizing sensory fusion and fungal decision making to create mycelium-based electronics by developing a structural substrate using living fungal mycelium, nanoparticles, and polymers.
“Computationally active mycelium networks will give rise to entirely new biologically-based features for architectural artifacts and materials, such as self-regulation, adaptation, decision-making, growth, and autonomous repair—adding new advantages and value to architectural artifacts and the environment, and providing a radically different paradigm to “state-of-the-art smart buildings.”
Despite the fact that we can condense certain efforts into a single article, the usage of mycelium has just touched the surface of its possibilities. Almost all scientific papers on the issue finish with the assertion that in order for a material to have the efficiency, competitiveness, and industrial quality required for mass usage, it must undergo extensive study and testing.
However, experts believe that the material has tremendous promise in a variety of fields. Mycelium represents a paradigm shift in the way we think about building materials acquisition, usage, and disposal. Mycelium-based materials have huge, but unexplored potential since they are 100 percent biodegradable, abundant on the globe, can be “grown” from trash, and have great functional properties.
Above all, mycelium demonstrates that significant breakthroughs don’t always necessitate new technology or complicated materials. It’s possible that they’re closer than we realize.