There’s always going to be a need for construction, whether that’s homes, hospitals or offices. But, the environmental impacts of construction materials such as concrete are alarming. It’s time for the construction industry to be revolutionised to keep up with global targets of reducing emissions. This is a realistic goal too, as alternative sustainable materials already exist. 

Creating mush-less-room for concrete 

So, what’s the issue with our most commonly used construction materials? Well, concrete is the predominantly used material in construction, with over 70% of the world’s population living in concrete structures. A key component to concrete is cement, which is devastating for the environment. Cement contributes 2.8 billion tonnes of CO2 every year, which is about 8% of global CO2 emissions. This means that if the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest CO2 emitter in the world

Graph showing the amount of cement produced by countries and the CO2 emissions released from this process. Source: BBC.

To keep in line with the Paris Agreement’s goal of keeping global warming well below 2°C, carbon emissions from cement production need to be reduced by at least 16% by 2030. There’s been a few suggested alternatives to concrete such as green concrete or embedding carbon inside cement. But one of the most innovative and lets be honest, just quite cool, is mushrooms!

Mouldable mushroom materials

Firstly, it’s important that we understand what mycelium is. Mycelium is the invisible foundation of mushrooms – they’re an underground web-like network of threads called hyphae. Check out our previous article on mycelium to read more about this. 

Mycelium bricks only require two ingredients; organic waste and mycelium. The bricks are grown by filling a mould with agricultural waste and infusing it with mycelium tissue. The mycelium fibres grow and strengthen by weaving together to form a dense surface. In only 5 days, a brick-like object is formed.

Mycelium vision brought to life

Mushroom buildings aren’t just a groovy idea, they’ve been successfully used in construction. 

In 2014, New York architects ‘The Living’ built a mycelium brick tower called the Hy-Fi, designed as part of MoMAs Young Architects Programme. The team created 10,000 compostable bricks and constructed a tower 12 metres tall. After three months, the tower was disassembled and the bricks were composted into fertiliser. Check it out in the picture below. 

Hy-Fi tower. Photographed by Kris Graves, source: MoMA

Mycelium bricks have many benefits

1) Low-energy

Mycelium bricks hugely reduce the reliance on fossil fuels as the growth process of the brick occurs at room temperature. This eradicates the need for energy-intensive processes during the manufacturing process that occur with materials like concrete.

2) Safe

The bricks are naturally water, mould and fire resistant.

3) Versatile

They can be easily moulded into any shape that is required. 

4) Zero-waste

The bricks are 100% biodegradable, so their use eradicates any building waste left behind at the end of their life cycle.

5) Upcycling 

Because growing mycelium bricks requires organic waste, they offer an excellent opportunity for upcycling agricultural waste into an affordable, sustainable and biodegradable construction material. 

Early stages of innovation

Although innovative, mycelium bricks are still in the early stages of experimentation. Because they’re a fairly new idea, there can’t be total certainty regarding the longevity of the bricks. As a result, it’s currently thought that mycelium bricks can only be used for temporary structures, as over time they could potentially have a decreasing resistance towards water, humidity and mould growth

This doesn’t mean that in their current stage of development mycelium bricks can’t be used in construction. It’s been suggested that mycelium bricks could help provide disaster relief in the form of temporary housing. A process referred to as ‘biocycling’ would combine demolished construction material with mycelium, forming a brick. It would then be possible to build temporary, habitable structures to last a few years, which could be composted when no longer needed.

Building blocks of the future

It’s certainly important that creative ideas like this are explored to help us find a solution to the environmental impacts of construction materials. Mycelium bricks are just one way of achieving this, but it’s an exciting thought that with further research and experimentation, mushrooms could be the building blocks of the future.

Be curious