Mycologist Philip Ross is seriously into mushrooms, but not as a food -- instead, he uses fungi as a building material. Beneath the surface of the ground, fungi form a wide network of thin, rootlike fibers called mycelium. That part of the fungus isn't particularly tasty, but Ross discovered that when dried, it can be used to form a super-strong, water-, mold- and fire-resistant building material. The dried mycelium can be grown and formed into just about any shape, and it has a remarkable consistency that makes it stronger, pound for pound, than concrete. The 100% organic and compostable material has even piqued the interest of NYC's MoMa PS1, where the award-winning Hy-Fi Mushroom Tower pavilion is currently being built.
We first discovered Ross’ unique mycelium material at The Workshop Residence in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood during the 2012 AIA SF‘s month-long Architecture and the City festival. There, Ross is erecting a small laboratory in which he will grow mushrooms that will be used to produce a series of chairs and stools. “I want to demonstrate how you can create this kind of fabrication using local agricultural waste,” Ross told Food Republic regarding his Workshop Residence furniture.
The lab was still under construction when we visited, but some of Ross’ completed works were on display. The exciting thing about mycelium is that it can be used to build virtually anything. In many of Ross’ creations he grows the fungus into a brick, which becomes super hard and surprisingly lightweight once it dries. For example, in Mycotecture, one of his most ambitious structures, Ross grew the fungus Ganoderma lucidum (or Reishi) into bricks at the Far West Fungi mushroom farm in Monterey, California, and stacked them into an arch. A variety of different lacquers and finishes can also be applied to the outer layer of the bricks to seal them and give them a glossy finish.
“It has the potential to be a substitute for many petroleum-based plastics. It’s left the art world and seems to have entered a Science Fiction novel or something like that,” explained Ross in a recent interview with Glasstire. “With this stuff it’s possible to go into regional production of biomaterials. For instance, here in San Francisco, we could start producing lots of local materials using this fungus and could create a pilot project of sorts.”
Ross also recently patented his own version of the mycotecture procedure; Evocative, the biomaterials firm behind NYC’s Hy-Fi Mushroom Tower, has also been awarded a patent for a similar procedure. Ross isn’t just interested in mycelium’s potential as a building material, though — he also uses it as a medium for fine art. His work has been on display at several at museums around the world, and he regularly debuts his other biomaterials works at events such as Maker Faire.