Walls of fungus: Architecture students create grow labs to explore alternative building materials

Plastic structures in Bosco Plaza on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Dessi-Olive)

On Tuesday, architecture students displayed 15-foot-tall plastic tents in Bosco Plaza as part of an innovative project exploring alternative housing structures.

“What we’re doing is we’re creating these inflatable structures that become grow labs for a construction material called mycelium,” Lawson Endicott, senior in architecture, said. “Mycelium is basically a fungus, that when in a formwork, will grow into a structure.”

Jonathan Dessi-Olive, assistant professor of architecture, said the projects were part of a class focused on shell and space structures.

“We combine aspects of structural design with making in the digital age, there’s a really big disconnect between how we design and how we make,” Dessi-Olive said.

The project is giving them unique experience before going into the real world, he said.

“It’s rare in architecture school that a student will design something and actually step inside,” Dessi-Olive said. “Make a design, construct it, have to actually understand it from a structural standpoint, from a geometrical standpoint, but then also experience it at the end. And that’s something that we don’t really get to do much in architecture school.”

Although there will be some logistical issues to get through, Dessi-Olive said the idea is that these are the first step of a series of structures. Mycelium is sensitive in terms of getting infected, and the bubble is an attempt to create a sanitary space.

Dessi-Olive has done projects like this before, using mycelium, corn husk and mushroom roots to make hard structures. This time though, the bubbles would act as a shield and keep the materials from getting infected.

A former project of Dessi-Olive's at Georgia Tech in 2018. (Photo courtesy of Jonathan Dessi-Olive)

“Because we’re talking about a biological organism that is basically being our glue, we have to be sensitive to how it wants to grow and all that,” Dessi-Olive said. “Mycelium, when it grows, although it grows underground, it happens to love the exact same environments that dangerous molds and other dangerous fungi [love] that you wouldn’t want growing in your building materials.”

There is a larger, intentional idea behind this project, Dessi-Olive said.

“In my opinion, one of the largest problems the earth is going to face is the movement of people,” Dessi-Olive said. “That’s going to be for any number of reasons, being both geopolitical climate, but also climate change. Right now we’re encountering refugees, and when we think about, refugees are living in tents that are made to be there for only a few weeks and now they’re lasting years.”

With this idea, the plastic bubble and the mycelium structure can both be used to create a living space.

“If we need to go somewhere, and there’s nothing and we have a field of corn and we have a little petri dish of mushroom strain, what do we need to do to be able to make our building?” Dessi-Olive said. “The proposal here is that first you can make a plastic bubble, and you can then have a safe place to grow building parts.

“You pull out the building parts and then at the end of the day, you could have both a bubble in which you could live in certain parts of the year and then another structure that would be made of mushrooms,” he continued.

I'm Pete Loganbill and I'm the News Editor for the Collegian and host of the Collegian Kultivate podcast! I spent two years at Johnson County Community College, and I am now a senior in Public Relations at K-State. I believe constant communication leads to progress, no matter how difficult a comment may be for me or anyone to hear. Contact me at ploganbill@kstatecollegian.com.