April 12, 2022

The magical world of fungi (part 2)

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

The magical world of fungi (part 2)

Fungi are amazing in so many ways, and after learning that they could be used to build habitat on Mars, we had to have this bonus episode. Did you know that fungi can be used for building materials in low resource environments? Or that they could decrease the carbon in our atmosphere? Or that they could bring extra income for low-resource communities? Chris explains that he has been using mushrooms to make building materials in low-resource environments in Namibia. These materials prove even better than concrete.

Join Dodi and Conor for this episode on a truly amazing use of biology to solve our problems.


CONOR: Dodi, remember our 50th special episode when we had Christopher Maurer on, the principal architect from redhouse studio, and he took us into space to Mars with mycelium structures.

DODI: I do remember it and it was pretty out of this world.

CONOR: Okay, all right. Okay. This is a pun-free episode.

DODI: Oh no.

CONOR: Okay. But look, I promised at the end of the episode, we'd have more on mycelium because what's not to love about more mycelium? When I spoke to him, we ran over time because there was just so much to talk about when it comes to this extraordinary organism, or this group of organisms, that are fungi.

DODI: And we figured that you are like Conor, and you cannot get enough so here comes your bonus fungi episode.

CONOR: For all you shroom heads out there: 'Fungi part two'.

CHRIS MAURER: So, I came across some projects that were starting to develop this concept of mycotecture.

CONOR: This, as we know is Chris Maurer principal architect at redhouse studios.

CHRIS MAURER: In 2009, an artist named Phil Ross did an installation in Germany where he built a very small structure inside of a gallery that was living mycelium blocks. And there were reishi mushrooms growing from the blocks, and then they would actually harvest these reishi mushrooms and make tea in the gallery while this exhibit was going on, so it was functional, it was experiential, and it was performative in the sense that you could actually have a bolstered immune system from this experience in the gallery. So, I've spent a lot of time working abroad. I worked in Africa for a number of years, both in Malawi and in Rwanda. I was a director of MASS Design Group, which is a humanitarian architecture organization , and all of the projects that we've done there I think we've done well to really work with unlimited resources. So, in many cases, we were literally building from the earth below us. We were turning that earth into block and converting that into building material, and you know, making buildings directly from the earth so is a very sustainable way of building.

DODI: Okay, so this touches on what Chris said in our space episode, that mycelium is an excellent material in areas where there are scarce resources.

CONOR: Exactly earn in this case of Namibia. That's the real issue, right? The lack of sustainable resources. So, Chris looked literally at what was lying around that could be repurposed, and there is a bush that encroaches on land that needs to be used for agriculture, and so, you know, bush encroachment.

CHRIS MAURER: In the case of Namibia, we're taking this waste encroacher bush, and then milling that, turning that into fodder for growing mycelium, which then produces mushrooms, and then the mushrooms are taken to market. And then the waste product from that is what's turned into the block. So, we have this vertical chain here where we're producing food and then thereby doing that, we actually can, you know, feed people but also possibly export that create profits from that and that would subsidize the work of doing, in our case, the humanitarian houses.

DODI: Oh, wow. So, this isn't just a possible source of housing. But this is something that could be used for food and creating an economic ecosystem.

CONOR: I know, it's the integration of another organism into our system of living. It's, I mean, it's amazing. The more I learn about mycelium and fungi, I just can't believe that there's just more to learn.

DODI: Well, you're the first one to say it 'every day’s a school day'.

CONOR: Exactly. And you know, this process of finding the best materials to work with mycelium that's a lesson in itself.

CHRIS MAURER: So, we always pair up the substrate and fungal species depending on what the project is, in the case of Namibia, they have this encroacher biomass that needs to be utilized. So, we have that as the substrate and then what we decided would be the best fungus to grow is actually the oyster mushroom. So, this is a gourmet mushroom, it's delicious. You can utilize it in almost any dish as a meat substitute. And interestingly enough, it uses the least amount of water to produce the amount of protein of any food there is really. Even meat goes toe to toe with that because meat requires so much water to produce the amount of protein it is. So, in a desert environment like Namibia, we have this waste resource that we can utilize. And then we have this food material that is going to augment food security but also help to address water security.

DODI: Oyster mushrooms! I know somebody who grows those.

CONOR: Yes, we are a big fan of oyster mushrooms. They'll eat pretty much anything, and they are delicious.

DODI: Okay, but aside from taste, the fungi could also play provided a water resource. And with climate change, rising temperatures, this is so important. We've spoken about this before, and you know, nature is wonderful in fixing the problems that humans often create.

CONOR: If only we could just stop making these damn problems.

CHRIS MAURER: Most of the times when folks are making materials, they use the reishi mushroom. Because the mycelium is the strongest with that or tends to be very strong with any polypore. But reishi is a really accessible one to grow and creates a product that is good for either medicinal use, or for augmenting your coffee or tea with a little bit of immune boosting chemicals.

DODI: Extraordinary. So, sounds like it's incredibly promising. But if we could steer this back to building materials, it also sounds like there are all kinds of technical difficulties and complexities.

CONOR: Yeah. So, when you're thinking about construction and getting people to use mycelium as a construction material, you know, of course, it's a big challenge. If you turn up to the site and present your client with a few mushrooms and saying, "Hey, these little guys will be strong enough to hold up your house...."

DODI: You'd call them crazy and say, "Be on your way".

CONOR: Yeah, exactly. But these mycelium-based materials are stronger than concrete.

CHRIS MAURER: With our project in Namibia, we started a large store of the bricks that we're making. And you know, one of the bricks that's made from the waste of mushroom cultivation, bricks like these that we've tested in our laboratories, have a compressive strength of about 26 mega pascals. It's more than two and a half times what a normal concrete block would be. So very, very strong. And it's the same weight as a concrete block. It's, you know, similar volume, ours are solid, where concrete blocks have cores or holes in them. But that's just because the material is so heavy.

DODI: Wow. Well, that sounds like it is quite similar to concrete block.

CONOR: Yeah, uh, yes. But no...

CHRIS MAURER: It provides food and it stores carbon. And it's actually much better impact resistance.

CONOR: This is just brilliant, right? So, Chris is saying, there's a potential here of using these blocks as a carbon sink.

DODI: Whoa, these blocks sound like they really tick all the boxes for a low resource environment.

CONOR: It's great, isn't it, you think you've heard it all. But there's more!

CHRIS MAURER: This multifunctional material that, in most cases actually, can sequester carbon. So, not only is it structural, and insulative, and fire resistant, and sound attenuating, and all these things that most building materials can't check all of those boxes, this is something that they can take waste resources, actually make food while converting it into something that's of use. So, it's just oozing with all these possibilities and all of these byproducts that are exactly what we need. If we continue to build the way that we're building now that is emitting carbon, buildings are responsible for about 40% of the world's carbon emissions, imagine a scenario where he turned that on its head, in the production of building materials actually storing carbon. All of those things came together for me and kind of excited me about the material. And having had this experience working in Africa and knowing that you have to leverage materials for A, B, and C, you have to get all of these things out of the resources you use. That's what really inspired me to put that into practice.

CONOR: So, Chris also talked about how these building materials could tick another really important box, especially in countries like Namibia, they can actually generate an income through payments for ecosystem services.

CHRIS MAURER: And those are ways of saying okay, now if you're taking this product, and you're actually storing carbon, in that, we realize that you're not going to be able to compete with the huge carbon emitters, but we can pay you for that carbon storage. So, that can go all the way from the farmer that actually thins the bush, that regenerates the wildlife refuge, and then that goes all the way to the person that makes the block at the end of the process too. And then we say instead of letting this deteriorate and turn back into CO2, either in the form of burning it or letting it decompose, you're going to store lock this away for decades in your brick. So, there's going to be a carbon sale offset on that, that we can actually pay you for and sell that as a carbon credit to the developed world that is doing the emitting. So, that they should start paying for, you know, their emissions and the folks that are actually doing the good work of storing carbon should start getting paid for doing that.

DODI: But redhouse studios is based in Cleveland, Ohio, that's not an area that seems to be lacking in resources. So, how is fungi solving issues there?

CHRIS MAURER: We have a project in Cleveland where one of the waste resources we have here are actually abandoned homes. We've always had a problem with the city thinning out during the mortgage crisis in 2008. That became exacerbated and we you know; we have a group here called the Cuyahoga County Land Bank that demolishes around 175 houses every month. So, all of this waste materials are going to a landfill.

CONOR: So, like Chris says, he and his team are actually developing a way to take the waste material, the suburban and urban waste material that he's talking about and use mycelium to remediate and reconstitute it into new building products.

CHRIS MAURER: So, in this one, we're not using it to create a product like a mushroom, but we're using it to do a service like remediation. And the way that works is when the mycelium grows, it secretes enzymes, and those enzymes can break down petrochemicals that are already in the built environment. And along with the mycelium actually uptaking things like heavy metals, we had some other bio composites like biochar that can start to collate things like heavy metals, like lead, and cadmium, and arsenic, that are in the built environment. And so thereby you make a material that then is actually safe, and it's used but also safe in its disposal. We've done some tests where actually putting it through landfill-type characterization tests. It shows that the leachate that comes out of the materials after this process significantly reduced the number of metals that would go into the landfill itself and then into the water.

DODI: So, we've mentioned reishi oyster mushrooms. Does Chris have a favorite mushroom?

CONOR: Everyone has a favorite mushroom.

DODI: Sorry, stupid question.

CHRIS MAURER: I love the taste of 'chicken of the woods', I like cooking that. I grow almost exclusively reishi in my workshop in Cleveland, there's this mushroom in Namibia and we tried a whole bunch of things but it's actually good fodder for reishi or oyster, but you know, going to look towards food security, oysters are obviously a better bet. It's also very hard to find reishi spawn in that part of the world so we can get oyster spawn coming from South Africa.

DODI: I also have a favorite mushroom recently discovered it comes from Birch trees. Chaga mushrooms!

CONOR: Oh, chaga mushrooms have you been drinking chaga tea?

DODI: I have.

CONOR: And how do you feel?

DODI: Well, I haven't been drinking it regularly enough to feel the difference. But I believe that it's going to be a superfood. It's going to turn me into superwoman. Are you ready?

CONOR: Again? More Superwoman?

DODI: More superwoman. Well, this has been a super cool episode Conor.

CONOR: I know we talked about the applications of mycelium and space, which was seriously cool. But look, it has real world applications on the earth and that is also out of this world.

DODI: Okay, we're not going to do puns, and we're especially not going to do the same pun that I did at the beginning of this episode.

CONOR: Okay, so fair enough. But you know, I just get all excited about fungi.

DODI: But this work is also quite serious and important. So sure, we can look at space exploration we could look at poop on Mars, and mushrooms on Mars, and making things more sustainable. But the work that Chris is doing by looking at the sustainable building resources for Namibia and taking care of waste in Cleveland, Ohio, these things are crazy important.

CONOR: Yeah. And that's one of the criticisms that space exploration, especially by like multi billionaires often gets, it's like really, you're going to build a rocket to get away rather than spend your money fixing stuff here. But look here we have somebody who's you know, doing both and using research on one side to help inform work on the other so you know, hats off to Chris and the team.

So, thanks for listening. The executive producer of Discovery Matters is Andrea Kilin. It was produced with the help of Bethany Grace Armitt-Brewster. Editing, mixing and music by Tom Henley and Banda Produktions. My name is Conor McKechnie.

DODI: And I'm Dodi Axelson. Make sure to rate us on whichever platform you use. And if you're a Cytivan then we love to hear from you, so you know how to reach us on email. We'll see you when we come back with another episode of Discovery Matters.

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