A mushroom grow room. Image: Phil Ross
Phil Ross's love affair with mushrooms stems from a place where so many great ideas are surely born: San Francisco's pot clubs. It was the 1980s, when the AIDS epidemic was taking off, medicinal marijuana hadn't been legalized, and pot dispensaries were fewer and farther between.
Ross, then a college student at the San Francisco Art Institute in his early twenties, was pulling shifts as a hospice worker, shuttling to and from the clubs to pick up batches of buds for people suffering terminal illnesses. The clubs, Ross tells me, "were like health bazaars where people who practiced alternative medicine would be sharing their information -- a really rich environment."
During a visit to one of the underground apothecaries, Ross had what he calls his "big aha!" A middle-aged woman who was an expert in traditional Chinese medicine told him about the healing powers of the reichi mushroom, a fungus with which he had some experience years earlier as a chef. The reichi, sometimes referred to as the "Mushroom of Immortality" in Chinese translations, is one of the oldest mushrooms to be used in Chinese medicine for its benefits to the human immune system.
Ross began picking wild ones in the forests across the Golden Gate Bridge, just north of San Francisco, for eating and making medicine. When the day trips became too arduous, Ross built a shroom room in his art studio and starting toying with specimens. He found that wood chips were great for manipulating mushrooms, because they provide a source of food and a structure for the fungus's growth.
Ross lecturing during one of his mycotecture workshops. Image: The Workshop Residence
Changes in temperature, the size and shape of the vessel, and other habitat factors produce variances in mushrooms’ texture, color and consistency. Ross began showing his creations at galleries around the city and soon had developed a reputation in the art scene as a kind of craft mycologist. Ross told me that for one exhibition, he re-created, to scale, the fuselage, wings, and cockpit of a 747 using wood-fed oyster mushroom bricks, although unfortunately the pictures have been lost.
"The question isn't, 'What can fungus do?'" Ross said. "It's, 'What do you want it to do?' Fungi are transformative agents in the truest sense of the word."
Fast-forward 25 years to the present. Ross, now 46, is on a mission to put his creations to use. Just about every part of a house, from the bricks to the bed frames, can be fashioned from mushrooms if they're grown and cast correctly, Ross says.
Molded fungi growing in the shroom room. Image: Phil Ross
To prove it, he filed for an international patent on fungal building materials last year. (It's still pending.) His innovative method "provides a fungal substrate which could be molded, and easily and cheaply preprocessed to precise geometric specifications," according to his patent application . A single fungal organism might comprise miles of fibrous strands fanning beneath the surface of the forest; Ross concentrates them into a dense, load-bearing mass.
The latest creations to emerge from Ross's mushroom mold are easy chairs, which he sells for $3,000 apiece. He built them during an eight-week residency at The Workshop, an industrial work-space in San Francisco that hosts independent builders and designers for two month stays. During his stay, Ross produced four easy chairs -- one which he cast in a wheelbarrow as an aesthetic twist -- as well as 20 small stools ($300 each) and six cylindrical basket-like pieces ($350 each).
"Furniture is something that people who don't know anything about the building potential of fungus can understand intuitively," said Braden Weeks Earp, the director of The Workshop Residence, who helped Ross forge the furniture. "They live with it everyday, so they have a sense of the performance requirements."
Chair seats waiting for backs and legs. Image: Phil Ross
Fungal building and design -- Ross calls it "mycotecture" -- is "totally unchartered territory," said Weeks Earp, which can make it a tough sell to people accustomed to ridding their homes of mold. The typical association we have with fungus is that it's bad and harmful, Weeks Earp says. "If you're trying to get people to embrace these ideas, you have to start with something they're familiar with."
Spinning mushrooms into useful materials is a relatively new idea pioneered by a few fringe innovators, like Ross, who believe it is a breakthrough in sustainable building and a path to transcend the universal use of plastics.
Other innovators of the shroom revolution are pushing the product as a substitute for products we don't necessarily think about, let alone ones we interact with as intimately as an easy chair in the living room. New York-based manufacturer Evocative Design, which Motherboard produced a video about last year, is leading the charge to persuade companies to swap Styrofoam packaging materials for mushroom-based equivalents. Evocative's objective is couched in the idea that a transition to mushroom materials can be made seamlessly. Ross, on the other hand, is determined to rub the fungus in our faces.
The final product. As you can see, mushroom building blocks are still limited to being, well, blocky. Image: Phil Ross
"It's an amazing modern adaptation of something organic and natural, and it's even comfortable to sit on!" said Chris Ospital, a San Francisco shopkeeper who visited Ross's furniture showing at The Workshop and walked away with one of the $300 shroom stools. Ospital keeps the stool in her living room. It was the topic of conversation at her Thanksgiving dinner. "It's taking composting to the next level," she said.
The practical applications of fungus are more varied than you might think. Easy chairs and packaging materials are the tip of the iceberg, Ross says. There's also potential for mushroom alternatives for home insulation, car bumpers, structural foundations, surfboards, vinyl -- the list goes on.
The shock-absorbing capacity of Ross's bricks is extraordinary. The dense network of fibrous strands make for a unique kind of dynamic resistance that dissipates intense force. For example, Ross's bricks are soft enough to allow you to create an impression with your fingernail, but they are tough enough to stop a bullet. In one of Ross’s tests, a .38 round shot at point-blank range stopped cold five-inches into a brick grown on sawdust.
"We expected it to blow out the other side or blow the whole thing up," Ross said. In the interest of science, Ross emptied the chamber into the brick. "Holy Mackerel, it kept stopping the bullets,” he said.
Today, Ross teaches art classes full-time at the University of San Francisco and is taking his first steps towards building a business. The pending patent is part of that bigger picture. When asked what the future of fungus looks like, Ross offered an anecdote.
About five years ago, he visited Australia. The country was in major drought, and the water table began pumping salt water into kitchen faucets in households in Melbourne. The government expanded its search for alternatives to include more radical ideas outside the mainstream. Apart from imposing stricter rationing, officials looked into ways to use recycled water and composting toilets, technologies developed by people trying to cut their reliance on the traditional systems used by society at large.
"Suddenly, those people moved from the periphery into the center because of their practical knowledge," Ross said. "I think we're a little bit at out point where the weirdos at the edges are starting to move into the center and the notion that this is 'hippie technology' is gonna go away.”
Humans getting back to nature with mycotecture. Image: Greg Thomas
While some might argue the U.S. isn't facing such a dire environmental catastrophe, Ross sees a zeitgeist of enviro-consciousness building in places like the Bay Area. And while Ross is the first to admit that he didn’t get involved with mushrooms to solve any particular environmental problems, using fungus as a building material is one way to cut down on waste.
For instance, fungus feeds on cow dung, which is a greenhouse gas contributor. Manufacturing mushroom bricks, Ross says, requires less energy than pumping out plastics, and the materials are biodegradable. At one of his exhibits in Germany, Ross cut up one of the reichi mushroom bricks, steeped the pieces in hot water, and made tea for viewers to drink.
The point then isn’t that building our houses and furniture out of mushrooms is going to save the Earth on its own. For Ross, it’s that taking an outside look at even our most mundane processes can yield solutions we’d otherwise never thought of.
“If you spend the time to look at what nature is doing all around you, the efficiencies are mind-blowing. Nature is not wasting anything,” Ross said. “We haven't yet tapped into the potential that's all around us."