According to a 2014 factsheet on Advancing Sustainable Materials Management, over 530 million tons of timber, concrete, and asphalt used in construction end up in landfills across the U.S. In Cleveland, Redhouse Studio, a humanitarian architecture firm, has decided to make use of this construction waste by mixing it with bio-materials to form bricks and other construction elements.
By mid-century, climate change is expected to displace as many as 200 million people every year. This statistic inspires Redhouse Studio to do what they do. “Current modes of building, with their high embodied carbon footprints, will only exacerbate the climate refugee crisis,” Founder and Principal Architect at Redhouse Studio, Christopher Maurer, tells progrss. “We believe bio-materials may hold a partial solution to [this] crisis.” To do so, Redhouse Studio made a machine and called it BIOCYCLER, which basically uses mushrooms to turn old buildings into new ones.
“That sounds crazy but when we take it step by step you’ll see that it is possible,” Maurer says before he walks us through the process that the BIOCYCLER uses to produce new buildings out of old materials. The engineers take construction waste that has organic material like wood and insulation and grind it up into a pulp. The pulp is then put into a hot bath to kill the microbes and mold growing in it. “We introduce our own microbes and fungi that bind together the pulp by branching between the pulp fibers, fusing at a cellular or “nano” level. After the organisms are fully grown, we press the materials and treat them for moisture resistance,” Maurer explains.
The first time Redhouse Studio was introduced to mycelium – the vegetative part of a fungus – was with the help of chef and artist Philip Ross, who started a company called MycoWorks. Maurer tells us that Ross has been the major force behind Mycotecture, a term Ross coined to refer to building with mycelium. “His installation in Dusseldorf, Germany in 2006 is the first instance – that I know of – in modern history of shaping the built environment with fungal materials,” he says.
As their first project with recycled mycelium-bound construction materials, Redhouse Studio is looking to provide a building for a refugee-run urban farm in Ohio City brought together by the Cleveland-based initiative The Refugee Response. However, they need a base estimate of $25,000 for an insulated and water-proofed facility with passive heating. With about $50,000, the building can be fully wired with solar power and plumbing.
According to the Redhouse team, not only will the farmers benefit from the mushrooms that will grow on the building’s walls thanks to the mycelium, but the infrastructure from Redhouse will also give a significant advantage to The Refugee Response’s program. “In 2017, The Refugee Response lost all federal funding, [which] put us in a position going forward to be more targeted in our efficiency and productivity on the farm,” The Refugee Response’s Executive Director Patrick Kearns tells progrss. “The infrastructure from Redhouse would provide a much needed storage and work station on the north end of the farm, where [we are currently] unable to house equipment.”
Last year, The Refugee Response provided full-time seasonal work for 15 refugees who resettled in Cleveland. The group was aged between 24 and 53 years old, including nine women and six men employed on the Ohio City Farm. They came from Afghanistan, Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and South Sudan.
The Refugee Response’s urban farm is a for-profit social enterprise that runs a robust range of products and services for restaurants, individuals, and local residents. These include CSA memberships, restaurant sales and delivery, farm stand sales, and a range of social and cultural events hosted on the Ohio City Farm.
The Ohio City Farm sold 22 tons of produce last year. This was between the months of June and November, with the highest volumes from July to September. The farm grows 65 different items, which include a range of greens, root vegetables, herbs, peppers, gourds, vine ripening crops, and a variety of ethnic specialty crops.
Redhouse Studio has broadened its collaborations as well. While the firm traditionally worked with structural and mechanical engineers, it has now opened its arms to biologists, chefs, and farmers. Even though Maurer believes that there will be many challenges in getting bio-materials to market, he can still name a few groups that are beginning to commercialize bio-materials, including MycoWorks in California, Ecovative Design out of New York, and BioMason in North Carolina. “As architects, we feel that we can help by innovating using their materials and promoting the processes behind them,” he says.
“Although all scientific studies suggest these [bio-materials] are safer than current building materials, there are many regulatory hurdles to get through, many lobbies to overcome, and much public sentiment to win over,” the architect concludes.