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Can construction find alternative, sustainable and even living, growing materials

In the race to find sustainable construction materials, increasing numbers of architects are experimenting and searching for alternative, sustainable and even living, growing materials.

Architect Dirk Hebel and engineer Philippe Block, for example are experimenting by using fungi to build self-supporting structures.

Hebel leads the ‘Sustainable Construction unit at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology’. He and his partner have created a tree shaped structure that consists almost entirely of mycelium.

The natural material is formed from the root network of mushrooms and could in theory provide both the structure and strength for a two storey building: “We want to show that there might be alternative construction materials that don’t get us into trouble in our world”

Let’s imagine our future construction being grown rather than made.

Kirsty Hammond Kirsty Hammond Editor of Specifier Review

Grow your own fungi

Mycelium has already been used in several building projects, to form a roof of a pavilion in India and was made to form bricks for a MoMa pavilion. But it has yet as a material been manipulated successfully to create a structural framework.

In order to do this the mushroom spores are combined with a food mix of sawdust and sugarcane.

As the fungi consumes the nutrients it begins to form a dense mass that can then be transferred to brick shaped moulds. Once the spores have fully developed the mycelium will naturally form a thick skin. Then dehydrated the mass can be used as a successful building block.

Each block is strong, water, mould and fire resistant. It is completely biodegradable and can be used as a soil. Each block also absorbs carbon dioxide and makes a credible material for future construction.

Biodegradable plastics

Another exciting advance is in Bioplastics and fabrics.

Bioplastics have many more positive qualities than the plastic that accumulates in our oceans. They break down more rapidly than our over used synthetic plastic, more in-line with paper in fact.

One of the main ingredients of bioplastic is a soy based adhesive that aids carbon reduction and also reduces the use of formaldehyde, a carcinogenic pollutant.

Soy bioplastics have until now been used for disposable food containers and bin bags but with increasing research we certainly expect to see potential for biodegradable plastics to be used in the future of construction.


Some of the most radical new ideas in construction involve the harnessing of biological organisms. If we can utilise their natural strengths the impact on the world of construction will be great.

Bio-receptive concrete is an interesting concept that highlights this. Building owners throughout the world spend time and money keeping their structures free of moss.

BiotA lab looks to challenge this idea. What if we cultivated these micro-organisms instead?

They have developed a receptive concrete that is designed to promote the growth of moss.

Large scale green-walls could be developed thus reducing the need for costly maintenance. The spores would react naturally with the weather and re-grow as our climate continually changes providing increased carbon capture, insulation, protection and a greener more pleasant environment.

Hydrophilic design could allow us to take advantage of plants, increasing the absorption of C02, and pollutants, all the while emitting more and more oxygen.

Microbial cellulose

Many laboratories have been looking into ways of growing microbial cellulose. This material is a symbiotic mixture of bacteria, yeast, and other microorganisms.

Research is developing ways to manipulate the microorganisms into forming layered structures, to form a bioplastic.

Practical uses for buildings and the construction industry are still some way off, however imagine the possibilities if microbial cellulose could be incorporated into our homes in the form of tiles and flooring, doors and surfaces.

If we turn our attention to our natural world there could come a time where it is possible for us to imagine our future construction being grown rather than made.

Kirsty Hammond is publisher and editor of Specifier Review