The organic brick created by The Living, an architectural firm based in New York City, doesn’t feel anything like clay. If anything, this brick — which is made of mycelium (the vegetative part of a fungus) and organic waste — has the feel and heft of a piece of Styrofoam.
Unlike Styrofoam, it isn’t the least bit toxic to the environment.
In the mind of David Benjamin, the architect and founder of The Living, materials that are “bio-designed” have the potential to become commonly used building materials.
“We are a small architecture firm that explores the future of buildings and cities [by creating] prototypes, and we’ve been interested in new and different kinds of materials,” says Benjamin in an interview with Blueprint, presented by CBRE.
His firm regularly collaborates with biologists to come up with new ways to manufacture materials, including using bacteria to generate sheets material to be used as building envelopes or interior partitions, among other applications.
Last year, Benjamin made headlines when his Hy-Fi tower, a 40-foot structure that was entirely organic and compostable, was the winner of the Young Architects Program at the Museum of Modern Art and MoMA’s PS1.
The tower itself was bio-designed using load-bearing organic bricks, giving it a style that was both technically innovative and visually striking.
“What we wanted to do was create a really large-scale outdoor architectural example of this material,” says Benjamin.
The living bricks
Ecovative, a material-science company based in Green Island, NY, has championed the use of mycelium as an alternative to more environmentally harmful materials like Styrofoam and petrochemical-based products.
By industrializing the process of creating organic materials, Ecovative has been manufacturing material for conventional items like packaging and engineered wood applications.
The company is in the process of developing its own Mushroom® Insulated Sheathing, Acoustic Panels and Ceiling Tiles (which have “ultra” low VOC emissions).
“We’ve started to build relationships with folks in the building industry, and we’re getting to the point where we expect to see our building materials being incorporated in new structures sometime soon,” says Eben Bayer, CEO and co-founder of Ecovative.
Once Benjamin came up with the “crazy” idea of building a tower made of grown material, he reached out to Ecovative for help in developing a structural material that was both load-bearing and weather-resistant.
Together, they mixed various types of organic waste with specifically formulated mycelium. This mixture was then placed into a mold, where over the course of a few days it solidified into a brick.
Our building, unlike a lot of buildings, was designed as much to disappear as it was to appear.
“It’s probably a little more like wood in that respect, but not as hard as wood,” says Benjamin. “As a material it’s familiar and at the same time completely unusual.”
At the Carleton Strength of Materials Laboratory at Columbia University, Benjamin and his team tested the structural strength of these bricks by subjecting them to different weights of pressure.
The bricks of the Hy-Fi tower were also designed to have a “triggerable decay.” When the Young Architects Program competition was over, the Hy-Fi tower’s bricks were disassembled and broken up into little pieces, with the resulting material being mixed with bacteria, worms and food scraps for composting.
“Our building, unlike a lot of buildings, was designed as much to disappear as it was to appear,” says Benjamin.
The new brick?
The mycelium brick is not nearly as strong as the clay brick or any other traditional material. Whether it ever will be remains to be seen.
“We’ve been expanding the specification criteria in terms of building products for some time. Newer materials are being introduced that have, for example, lower carbon emissions,” says Brendan Owens, chief of engineering for the U.S. Green Building Council.
“As the importance of these newer material attributes becomes more understood, I think we’ll see shifts between conventional and innovative building materials,” he adds.
Benjamin concedes that there isn’t a “magic” bio-designed material that will supplant steel and brick in all applications.
“As the importance of these newer material attributes becomes more understood, I think we’ll see shifts between conventional and innovative building materials.”
“Some of these older materials might start to get phased out gradually with materials that are more sustainable in some way,” he adds.
One of the biggest takeaways for Benjamin from this experience is the concept of “embodied energy.” This, says Benjamin, is the calculation of the energy required in every facet of the building process, from extracting the raw materials from the earth to discarding these materials after a building is demolished. (Construction and demolition debris — like asphalt, gypsum and glass — make up nearly 40 percent of landfill space in the U.S.)
‘That’s something that’s difficult to calculate, but I think there’s growing interest from designers, architects and even clients in working with materials that have low embodied energy,” says Benjamin.
The Living is working on developing Living Glass, “a breathing building skin” that uses the same technology and practices as projects that work with “the internet of things,” says Benjamin. In the meantime, Benjamin, whose firm was purchased last year by Autodesk, a software company, will continue to find more substantial uses of organic materials in permanent structures.
“We had in mind that if this open-ended experiment went well, then it would be a good step in the direction of making single-story buildings out of organic materials,” he adds.