The world of fungi has attracted a lot of interest and seems to be becoming very fashionable lately. A new exhibition at Somerset House in London, for example, is dedicated to “the remarkable mushroom”.
No surprise: We are being promised that mushrooms may be the key to a sustainable future in fields as diverse as fashion, toxic spill clean ups, mental health and construction. It is in this last field that my own interests lie.
Climate change is the fundamental design problem of our time: Buildings are hugely complicit in the crisis. Together, buildings and construction contribute 39 per cent of the world’s carbon footprint.
There is evidently a real need for the construction industry to reduce the impact of its material and energy use and to take part in the transition towards a more sustainable economy by researching and using alternative materials. This is not an absurd ask; such materials already exist.
And yes, one such material happens to be derived from fungi, mycelium composites. This material is created by growing mycelium – the thread-like main body of a fungus – of certain mushroom-producing fungi on agricultural wastes.
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Mycelium are mainly composed of a web of filaments called “hyphae”, which acts as a natural binder, growing to form huge networks called “mycelia”. These grow by digesting nutrients from agricultural waste while bonding to the surface of the waste material, acting as a natural self-assembling glue.
The entire process uses biological growth rather than expensive, energy intensive manufacturing processes. Mycelium materials offer an exciting opportunity to up-cycle agricultural waste into a low-cost, sustainable and biodegradable material alternative. This could potentially reduce the use of fossil fuel-dependent materials.
The construction industry is faced with a choice. It must be revolutionised. If we carry on with business as usual, we must live with the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change.