A set of white benches located outside the campus bookstore at the University of British Columbia would fit in with any collection of contemporary furniture made from concrete or sturdy plastic, with one notable difference — depending on the weather, these could one day sprout lovely fruiting bodies from their sides. The surface of the honeycomb-shaped bricks that make up each structure might look and feel like some sort of synthetic polymer but they actually represent the creative use of a familiar fungus: oyster mushrooms.

The design and construction of these pieces has been led by Joe Dahmen, an assistant professor in UBC’s School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. Dahmen is quick to point out that there are a few firms attempting to develop mushroom-based materials but he is eager to showcase this approach in a highly public way. “As a design object, we were interested in maintaining it alive to see if it would actually produce edible mushrooms, in order to play with people’s assumptions about architectural materials,” he says. “It’s an exciting time to be operating in architecture or across technologies as we see things like biotechnology coming on in a big way. We’re actually using the biology to hold the thing together.”

Dahmen acknowledges that this approach comes with its own set of challenges. The raw material is formed by inoculating alder sawdust with mushroom spores, which are left to grow and then shredded before being packed into moulds. “As you try to mould larger and larger pieces, the environmental condition that fungus wants to grow in is the same thing that favours microorganisms like bacteria that will outcompete the mushroom spores,” he says. Beyond a certain size, he adds, the bacteria will take over the material.
Despite such limitations, the result demonstrates the viability of turning to natural products for even the most modest of building products. And while these products might be criticized for having shorter working lives than mainstream building materials such as plastic or concrete, that also means they will readily break down into little more than compost upon disposal. “The average age of commercial buildings in North America is around 40 years and yet we’re still building as though we expect them to last for 500 years,” says Dahmen. “People are so receptive to these alternate technologies and there’s a hunger for it. They really want solutions.”