Mushrooming Solutions: How Mycelium is Cementing an Eco-Friendly Alternative

By |2024-06-13T16:49:39+02:00June 13th 2024|Housing and Construction|

Are we all going to live in mushrooms soon? Alexander Jachnow explains how fungi-based construction could be the solution to make building practices more sustainable.

Living in a house made from mushrooms might sound futuristic or straightforwardly crazy. It might be, though, a brilliant idea for solving some severe problems that have been created by current urban development. For some years, advancements in mycelium-based construction materials have brought this future closer to reality. Now, the first major milestone has been reached.

From Spores to Structures: Fungi in Construction

Mycelium, the root structure of fungi, can be used to develop sustainable and versatile building materials. In Namibia, the first fully functional house has now been built by MycoHAB, using mycelium technology developed for the US space agency NASA. The pilot project uses edible mushrooms to turn waste into building bricks. To create the substrate that feeds the mushroom, the ecologically destructive encroacher bush is harvested and ground down. After harvesting the mushrooms, the substrate that contains the mycelium gets compacted, baked, and turned into structurally sound building materials.

A man points to the mushroom building blocks.

The pilot project uses edible mushrooms to turn waste into building bricks. © Alexander Jachnow

The new approach does not only produce carbon-negative building materials for housing provision but also helps create jobs and generate income, as gourmet mushrooms are sold to local retailers, while the inedible by provides a viable option for affordable housing. In addition, the circular and decentralised concept can be scaled up and applied in the most diverse contexts as mycelium-based materials can be grown using agricultural waste anywhere and are biodegradable.

Mushrooming Circular Urban Economies

Companies and organisations worldwide are already experimenting with the potential of this material, for instance, working on hybrid materials that meet building codes and safety standards. The progress made in mycelium technology suggests it could become a practical and environmentally friendly option soon. Moreover, it could be an incentive for harvesting invasive aquatic weeds, both floating and submerged that threaten aquatic ecosystems worldwide. Some of these weeds – such as water hyacinth, alligator weed, water lettuce or giant salvinia –, although relatively minor problems in their native range, have become major invasive weeds of aquatic habitats when introduced to other parts of the world. Hence, using these weeds for fungi substrates could create income and support the cleaning of infected water bodies.

In addition to their systemic advantages, the physical properties of mycelium-based materials are outstanding: just like concrete, which can be poured into casts of different shapes, mycelium can be shaped into flexible forms, allowing for creative and organic architectural designs. Furthermore, mycelium offers excellent thermal insulation properties and can be engineered to be fire-resistant, making it a viable option for building safe and energy-efficient homes. Mycelium can also be combined with other substances to enhance its structural integrity, and it can be moulded into various shapes and sizes, enabling architects to explore new aesthetics and functional possibilities.

Cementing an Alternative?

These promising experiments with fungi provide hope as we must find an alternative to cement very soon. Around eight per cent of global CO2 emissions, which account for 2.8 billion tonnes of CO2, are released by cement production alone. This accounts for more than three times of air traffic’s global emissions. Despite the industry’s various vociferous attempts, ‘green cement’ remains an oxymoron. Given that even EU-based, multinational companies continue to produce below EU standards, it is unlikely that the industry will change in the near future. The material that characterised the 20th century will hardly ever become carbon neutral, even though this is the global target for 2050. Like the sugar in our daily diet, it seems impossible to avoid.

Mycelium, the root structure of fungi, up close.

Mycelium, the root structure of fungi, up close © Alexander Jachnow

However, given the urgent need to reduce CO2 emissions, continuing cement production at current levels is like someone with severe diabetes consuming large amounts of sugar. What once looked like the perfect material for fast, affordable, and durable construction will soon become very expensive, both economically and environmentally. Even if standards were lowered again, which is not unlikely given recent political developments in the EU and elsewhere, cement would remain cheap but weaken all efforts to combat climate change. This will ultimately lead to increased costs for the global community. Every ton of CO2 emissions contributes to global warming and causes immeasurable damage to cities and settlements. Thus, it is clear that the only way forward is to move away from cement as far as we can.

Fungal Innovations: Pioneering Sustainable Housing for All?

If fungi are to be used in construction, further testing is essential. At the same time, this new building technique requires awareness that working with living organisms can affect ecosystems if alien to the local environment. Research and development of initiatives and companies such as MycoHAB, Corecelium, or MY-CO Space, to name a few, aim to improve its properties and ensure the mainstreaming of this eco-friendly construction for sustainable living environments, which is also discussed online.

Still, more local, decentralised research and development requires funding, to make it commercially viable for widespread use. There is no denying that this remains a difficult task: changes are needed in building regulations, economic policy, and general perceptions. Their development needs the support of sectors and institutions which are usually dominated by path-dependent forces which often resist change.

Currently, an initiative to promote the material is looking into furnishing a booth at the next World Urban Forum in Cairo with mycelium-based materials to offer a haptic experience to visitors.

Alexander Jachnow