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The House That Spores Built

Phil Ross may have discovered the building material of the future.

Phil Ross may have discovered the building material of the future. It's sturdy, resilient, and environmentally sustainable—practically inexhaustible, in fact. It can withstand everything from extreme temperature to a hail of bullets, and once it's no longer useful, it can be easily composted.

There's only one problem: Some people might not be ready to live in houses built from fungus.

Ross has been experimenting with fungi in his art practice for almost two decades. By introducing mushroom tissue into molds filled with pasteurized sawdust and allowing the fungus to digest the material, he's built fungal sculptures that have been exhibited in art galleries and museums around the world. He's grown mushroom side-tables and lounge chairs. But it wasn't until he built a small teahouse from Reishi mushroom bricks at the Kunsthalle Düsseldorf—and then boiled the bricks themselves into tea for gallery visitors to drink—that he realized this material might have life beyond the museum walls.

The teahouse, Mycotectural Alpha, was Ross' first proper piece of "mycotecture." A blobby brown building not much taller than a person, it looked more Cronenberg than Le Corbusier. But the fungal bricks used to build it were so strong they broke nearly all of Ross' woodworking tools. In subsequent art shows, lectures, and projects, he refined his process, and it wasn't long before companies began to approach him to help develop fungal materials for industrial uses. 

Ross, who teaches art at the University of San Francisco and calls himself a "bad capitalist," saw the potential of his very specific skill set. He decided to double down. He  filed for patent and co-founded a startup of his own called MycoWorks.

He almost exclusively refers to his mycelial bricks and components as "the material," which lends an eerily science-fictional tone to his enterprise. "The cultural acceptance of the material is very critical," he explains. "Fungus poses a lot of specific challenges in the West, because we associate fungus with houses that get mold, or shoe fungus—these are primary ideas of fungi."

Indeed, it may seem a little batty, even repulsive, to build with fungus. But, as is often the case with new technologies, it just requires a cultural paradigm shift before it begins to look completely reasonable. Fungal mycelium—the vegetative part of a fungus, a mass of branching, thread-like filaments—is a biological powerhouse. It can net, spread, propagate, and convey nutrients over great distances, in biological networks that  mycologist Paul Stamets has compared to the human Internet and the physical structure of the Universe itself.

We're closer to fungus than we think

We're closer to fungus than we think. The topsoil of our planet is practically held together by a global network of fungal mycelium, and even though the animal kingdom branched off from its fungal counterpart some 600 million years ago, we still share over half our DNA with fungi. Historically, culturally, and biologically, we are incredibly close to mushrooms. 

That closeness can be exploited to our benefit: many powerful antibiotics against bacteria come from fungi, while anti-fungal antibiotics tend to harm us, precisely because of our interlinked relationship with mushrooms.

All it takes to build one of Phil Ross' fungal bricks is some organic matter, like agricultural waste or sawdust, and a tiny piece of mushroom. As the fungus consumes the nutrients in the sawdust, the fine threads of its mycelium wind into a solid block of cells, which can be formed into any shape so long as they remain alive. Put two living fungal bricks next to each other, and they will fuse together in an unbreakable bond within a matter of hours. Cure the material to stop the fungus' growth, et voilà: bulletproof mushroom slab.

Although Ross has never seen the show, he's told his MycoWorks lab is more than a little evocative of Breaking Bad. "In some ways," he says, "it's sophisticated, and there's very advanced machinery, but it's held together with duct tape and plastic sheeting."

That being said, MycoWorks is on the forefront of what's poised to be a huge industry, transforming agricultural waste, with a little fungal assistance, into robust biomaterials capable of meeting the sustainability challenges of our insane century.

MycoWorks is a young company. It already has some competition from  Ecovative Design, based in New York, who produce biodegradable mycelium-based packing materials for shipping, among other shroomy stuff. This year, Evocative partnered with architect David Benjamin to build Hy-Fi, a fungal tower in the courtyard of MoMA PS1 in New York. Built from 10,000 mycelial bricks coated in a reflective film, the glistening white structure—which looks patently inorganic, but is entirely compostable—has done a great deal to educate, and inspire the public to the possibilities of building with mushrooms. 

We can build a house right now

Ross is more artist than businessman, and is mostly jazzed on the increased visibility. "We're about to see a proliferation of even more fantastic objects into the world that are made out of this stuff," he tells me.

Speaking to Phil Ross, I found myself completely seduced by the idea of living surrounded by this formidable fungal material. How marvelous to build in collaboration with nature—to allow the strength of a living thing to forge the walls and floors of a place meant for living. When might I be able to grow my own home? I posed the question to Ross. Surprisingly, the answer is: soon. 

"We can build a house right now" says Ross. "We know how to build the structures and forms to do it. We can plan, from what we know about the material, and make engineering drawings based on its physical qualities."

The real stumbling blocks aren't technological as much as logistical—in order to receive recognition from the building industry, the material needs to be comprehensively tested, and the effects of weather need to be better understood. MycoWorks and its competitors will have to publish extensively and forge partnerships with educational institutions and perhaps, as in the case of the Hy-Fi tower at MoMA PS1, art museums, to demonstrate their viability to the public. Resistance to the material must give to acceptance, and then enthusiastic support.

It's not unreasonable. These days, when Ross and the MycoWorks team show prototypes of their material to the public, he senses a greater acceptance from people, a greater willingness to engage with ideas of nature, than he has in the past. People are "feeling the armageddon at the door," Ross suggests. "I don't know if it's a change, or this is a mutation, but the zeitgeist of nature is happening."