Turning fungi into ‘bricks’ for buildings

Spore rooms: A 2014 installation in New York, with the structure made up of 10,000 mushroom bricks designed by architectural firm The Living. — The Straits Times/ANN

A HOUSE or building made of mushrooms may sound far-fetched and fragile, but do not underestimate the strength of the mycelium, a hardy component of the fungi.

Researchers in Singapore and Switzerland are now studying the use of mycelium as a sustainable building construction material.

Mycelium is the vast underground root network of fungi.

The mushroom one sees is merely the fruiting body, making up just a small part of the fungus. The bulk of a fungus grows underground.

In a 2019 documentary titled Fantastic Fungi, it was reported that there are 480km of mycelium under every step one takes in the forest.

When cultured in the lab, a mass of mycelium looks like white fluff.

Although delicate-looking, this “fluff” is being turned into “mushroom bricks” for construction as part of a research project.

The branching threads are made of substances such as chitin and cellulose that are known to be strong, said Assistant Professor Hortense Le Ferrand, a co-investigator in the project under the Future Cities Lab Global programme.

The programme was launched late last year at the Singapore-ETH Centre – a collaborative research centre between Singapore institutions and university ETH Zurich.

The research on using mycelium for building construction is one of eight projects in the programme focusing on enhancing the sustainability of cities.

Buildings and construction generate about 40% of planet-warming carbon dioxide, according to the 2019 Global Status Report for Buildings and Construction.

Between 2016 and 2019, construction and demolition generated the largest amount of waste in Singapore – between 1.4 million and 1.6 million tonnes a year. This is where mycelium comes in handy.

Mycelium cannot turn into an eco-friendly building block on its own. It needs plant-based waste or food waste such as sawdust, bamboo or coffee grounds as a medium.

When a fungus is grown on a bed of sawdust or corn stalks, the mycelium branches out and snakes through the fragments of waste, binding to them. It takes three to four weeks for the mycelium network to grow and bond with every fragment of waste.

The mass is then cast into a mould to be shaped into a mushroom brick. Once the material has lived through its lifespan, it can be composted instead of filling up landfills. — The Straits Times/ANN

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