Microbiologist Han Wösten: how mushrooms can help create new buildings

March 23, 2021

"Structum" Editorial office.

portalas@structum.lt

Han Wösten sees fungi as a sustainable and eco-friendly alternative to plastics, wood and rubber. His work inspires artists and designers, who turn his fungus material into clothing, building materials, and furniture.

You are Professor of Microbiology at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. Yours research focus on microbiology, bio-art, environmental biology, mycelium design. Why did You choose the field of microbiology?

This was pure coincidence. I was studying biology at the University of Groningen and I liked different topics from endocrinology, genetics to microbiology. A teacher asked me to do an internship in his group and I was honored and so I ended up in the field of Microbiology.

Can You tell us more about yours researches?

Our group works on fungal growth and development. How do fungi colonize organic substrates like wood logs or straw and at which moment fungi decide to start to form reproductive structures such as mushrooms. Furthermore, are all cells in the fungal body the same or do they have different functions and properties. Clearly, these fundamental questions are also very important to realize fungal materials. In our lab fundamental biology goes hand in hand with applications in real life.

Lately we are hearing a lot of about alternative construction. Fungi is certainly good reason to drastically rethink construction. Can fungi really help?

Yes, fungi grow on low quality waste streams. Such waste streams are often set on fire on the fields worldwide releasing enormous amounts of CO2. By making fungal materials out of it we will retain CO2 in the materials. Moreover, our materials are biodegradable and recyclable. On top of this, their thermal and acoustic properties are similar to those on the market at the moment but that are not sustainable.

There are also challenges; how to prevent degradation when the material is still in use in a building (e.g. when exposed to humid conditions). How to make materials that have bearing capacity; so is it possible to replace concrete in the future.

What building materials can we get from mushrooms?

Acoustic panels, thermal isolation, chipboard and bricks to be used for e.g. room dividers that do not need high bearing capacity.

Is it realistic that one day houses will be made entirely of fungus? What could be advantages of such a building?

As mentioned if there is sufficient bearing capacity then it is possible to build houses. If the fungal material cannot meet this requirement we can use a framework of for instance metal. Such houses could be grown on site and would be easily to recycle.

Living mycelium can be a part of building construction too. How can the process take place in this case?

You can grow houses or interior on site in any shape since it is moldable. I have to stress that fungi need humid conditions to grow. As soon as the materials dry the fungus goes in a hibernated state. If a material is damaged repair may be induced by adding water and some nutrients.

How long a house from living mycelium can stay inhabited? What are advantages of such buildings?

Nobody knows at this moment. The materials are new on the market. Yet, I have a bowl of fungal material on my table for 10 years now and it is still in perfect shape. I feel that it can last for centuries as long as it does not get wet. Humid conditions will make other microbes degrade the material, as will happen when we dispose the material on a compost heap after use

Can we predict that mushrooms will be the most dominant building material in the future?

This is my dream. We are now also busy producing leather-like, textile-like, rubber-like, plastic like materials. So we hope to replace any material by mushroom materials in the future.

Han Wösten will attend at the conference about construction innovation on April 15th.

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