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The Building Materials Of The Future Are . . . Old Buildings

Just add mushrooms.

Every year, more than 530 million tons of construction and demolition waste like timber, concrete, and asphalt end up in landfills in the U.S.–about double the amount of waste picked up by garbage trucks every year from homes, businesses, and institutions. But what if all of the material used in buildings and other structures could be recycled into a new type of construction material?

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That’s what the Cleveland-based architecture firm Redhouse Studio is trying to do. The firm, led by architect Christopher Maurer, has developed a biological process to turn wood scraps and other kinds of construction waste like sheathing, flooring, and organic insulation into a new, brick-like building material.

Maurer wants to use the waste materials from the thousands of homes in Cleveland that have been demolished over the last decade or so as a source to create this new biomaterial. Now, the firm has launched a Kickstarter to transform an old shipping container into a mobile lab called the Biocycler, which Maurer and his team can drive to these demolished homes and begin the process of turning their waste into materials to build new walls.

If the project is funded, Maurer hopes to use the lab to build an agricultural building for the nonprofit Refugee Response, which puts refugees in the Cleveland area to work on an urban farm.

[Photo: Redhouse Studio]

The biological process entails using the binding properties of the organisms that create mushrooms, called mycelium. Once the waste is combined with the mycelium, it is put into brick-shaped forms, where it stews for days or weeks, depending on how much mycelium is added. When bound together into biomaterial, the material has the consistency of rigid insulation. Then the team compacts them to make them sturdy enough to be used as a structural material.

The building for Refugee Response will act as a proof of concept, as Maurer hopes to eventually be able to help people in disaster-stricken areas using the technique. An added bonus? When allowed to grow, the mycelium will flower and mushrooms will sprout, creating a source of food that could also be helpful for humanitarian reasons.

Maurer has experimented with mycelium for years–and he isn’t alone, as startups and architects alike are also focusing on the stuff. He admits that it is a somewhat magical process: After turning an organic material like wood chips into sawdust and pasteurizing it to remove any organisms, a small amount of mycelium is added. Without any other life to challenge it, the mycelium grows like crazy. It secretes enzymes that dissolve the cellulose in the wood and replaces the cellulose with its own organisms, which are full of chitin–a material found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans and shells that happens to be the strongest natural polymer that exists. “The composite of the woody and polymetric mass is great building material–strong and rigid but also flexible, based on how much you compact it,” Maurer says.

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[Photo: Redhouse Studio]

Once the process has started, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for the mycelium to turn sawdust into this building material, depending on how robust the mycelium is. Then, the architects compact this organic, mycelium substrate into bricks. Maurer believes the material could replace framing, insulation, and fire boards and has done tests at MIT laboratories that show the material is superior to concrete in every way–except for compressive strength. Mycelium can last for thousands of years, and the material could theoretically last just as long (as long as it doesn’t get too wet). When it is time to retire it, it could be composted.

Wood is the ideal base to use in the process, but Maurer says that his team will often mix different types of woods–like lumber, timber, sheathing, and flooring–with other building materials like organic insulation and drywall. While metal can’t be recycled using this method, masonry rubble can be turned into new building material using a different type of bacteria–though for now Maurer is focusing on recycling wood waste.

There’s certainly plenty of wood and organic waste to go around on the 9,000 homes that have been demolished in Cleveland over the past 11 years. Maurer believes his team can recycle this material and build the shed for Refugee Response–designed to be a place for the organization to grow mushrooms, of course–in six to eight weeks.

[Photo: Redhouse Studio]

But Maurer has bigger ambitions for the material, particularly in disaster zones and in the developing world where he has worked extensively through his career. The idea is to create a “bioshelter,” or a mobile lab that could travel to disaster areas and create shelter–and even food via mushrooms–out of rubble. “We can promote food security, water security, and provide shelter at the same time using those methods,” Maurer says.

There are even grander applications as well. Maurer is in conversations with an astrophysicist at NASA, who is interested in using this recycling method to build on Mars. “We could go into space with a small amount of biology, a photosynthetic organism that can rapidly produce, and some of this mycelium, and paired together they can make this biomaterial,” Maurer says. “A couple petri dishes on a rocket ship could become thousands of pounds of building materials just by adding water.”

Mushrooms, it turns out, are something of a wonder material. In recent years, designers have also used them to create fantastical furniture–and they could even become the backbone of cities.

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About the author

Katharine Schwab is an associate editor based in New York who covers technology, design, and culture. Email her at kschwab@fastcompany.com and sign up for her newsletter here: https://tinyletter.com/schwabability

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