Surfaces: Focus - Grow your own

Could fungus provide the construction industry with a new supply of eco-friendly natural materials? FX takes a look.

Words By Kay Hill

UNTIL RECENTLY, the last thing anyone wanted to find inside their home or office was fungus. But with the search on for materials that are kinder to the environment, humble relatives of the mushroom could be taking centre stage.

Mycelium is a dense network of fungal micro-filaments called hyphae that in the wild would form a tangled mass of threads beneath the ground, a kind of root structure that nourishes the visible fungus. It has been farmed commercially for food since 1985, when Quorn was launched on to the market, but entrepreneurs are now discovering the potential of various strains of mycelium for a wide variety of structural uses, ranging from insulation blocks to furniture and textiles.

Frank Melendez is a partner in bioMATTERS, a London and New York-based company specialising in 3D printing and robotic fabrication techniques for mycelium, which gained considerable interest at the 2023 London Design Festival, Material Matters exhibition. An architecture graduate of Yale University and associate professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York, Melendez set up bioMATTERS with co-founder and partner Nancy Diniz, a practising architect and course leader of the Masters in Biodesign at Central Saint Martins, UAL.

Using the unique patterns and structures contained in mycelium has allowed for an appreciation of fungus as a source for making furniture and harvesting it for materials

‘We’ve been working with mycelium for years now,’ says Melendez. ‘There are a lot of people who recently started working with it, as it’s a pretty new and exciting area to be exploring. One of our main interests is growing mycelium to make products that are biodegradable, minimise waste, and promote a circular economy. The building industry contributes so much waste to landfill and is a big contributor of greenhouse gas emissions, so the industry is really focusing on looking at replacing plastics and other non-biodegradable products. Mycelium is a natural living organism that’s abundant and can be grown.’

At bioMATTERS, Melendez and Diniz are developing interior tiling and panelling systems, modular screens and partitions, and decorative items. Now, after an initial phase of R&D, they are looking for investors and commissions to expand into larger scale furniture, interior installations, and architectural uses. They believe that the market is finally ready to embrace a material that, for some, still evokes a bit of a ‘yuck factor’. ‘We received a lot of positive feedback at the Material Matters exhibition. People said our pieces were really beautiful, some at first glance thought they were ceramics, but when they looked closer and discovered it was mycelium, that is when their interest really sparked. Previously, mycelium has been perceived as rather an ugly material, possibly because a lot of other companies promoting mycelium for things such as insulation and packaging, are using larger granular substrates that are not as aesthetically pleasing,’ Melendez explains. ‘We are developing our own substrates, and combining mycelium with other bio-pigments, to develop a new bio-aesthetic that people really like and are embracing. It’s a cultural change that needs to happen; as more bio-materials are coming into the public realm, and people gain a better understanding of their environmental benefits, they will become more open to seeing them as beautiful rather than being put off by them. Climate change means we need to make that cultural shift.’

Using the unique patterns and structures contained in mycelium has allowed for an appreciation of fungus as a source for making furniture and harvesting it for materials

While traditional construction materials revolve around energy-intensive processes like quarrying and smelting, mycelium grows swiftly and is happy to feed on waste. At bioMATTERS, organic domestic and industrial waste-based substrates are inoculated with spores and 3D printed or robotically fabricated into shapes, then in just a fortnight the spores multiply and spread through the material, binding it together and strengthening it like a natural glue, as well as creating a distinctive soft bloom on the surface. Natural colourings from algae and bacteria bio-pigments can be introduced to produce different colour effects.

‘After two weeks it is dried out. Mycelium needs specific nutrients, moisture levels and environmental conditions to live, so when you dehydrate it, it remains bound together but is no longer alive. It has a soft, white, tactile surface, a unique haptic quality similar to velvet,’ says Melendez. ‘It will slightly yellow over time and eventually it will biodegrade as it’s an all-natural material. We don’t know quite how long that will take, we are doing tests that will give us the answer.’

While bioMATTERS is concentrating on solid surface uses, other companies are exploiting mycelium’s potential to make foams and textiles. For example, Ecovative and Bolt Threads worked together to create Mylo, a fabric that is grown from fungi in vertical sheets in a facility powered by 100 per cent renewable energy, then dyed and textured to resemble leather – Stella McCartney has already used it to make her distinctive Frayme handbags. Bolt Threads describes it as: ‘Soft, supple, and less harmful to the environment – Mylo is everything you love about leather, without everything you don’t.’ Although it is a cleaner and less energy intensive process, Mylo vegan leather-alternative is not fully biodegradable as it does contain some plastics. Ecovative continued to innovate independently, however, and its Forager pure mycelium ‘hides’, which grow in just nine days, are completely plastic-free and biodegradable.

Innovators are not just turning to the forest floor to look for new materials, but into the ocean as well, with the properties of algae also under the microscope. While, so far at least, products made from mycelium lack the innate strength of bricks or concrete, Prometheus Materials has developed a zero-carbon bio-cement and bio-concrete that can act as a direct replacement for Portland cement. Using ‘biomineralising microalgae’, the company says its ‘patent-pending photosynthetic biocementation process results in the production of biomineralized composites suitable for construction in less than one day’. Better still, these helpful microorganisms can be grown using only sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. Pre-cast microalgaebased concrete masonry units (CMUs) are already on the market in North America, with ready-mix products to follow shortly.

Using the unique patterns and structures contained in mycelium has allowed for an appreciation of fungus as a source for making furniture and harvesting it for materials

Multi-disciplinary practice SOM worked with Prometheus Materials to demonstrate the real-world use of this novel material by creating the Bio-Block Spiral, a pavilion at the recent Chicago Architecture Biennial. By using the ‘home-grown’ material rather than traditional concrete blocks, the designers estimated that a tonne of carbon emissions were eliminated from the construction’s footprint, demonstrating the algae-based construction material’s potential to revolutionise the industry’s carbon footprint.

So while Prime Minister Rishi Sunak may have eased his foot off the pedal when it comes to the very crucial race to achieving net zero, it seems that entrepreneurs are finding that nature itself is giving them a helping hand towards more planet-friendly architectural materials anyway.

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