Photo by Krista Jahnke
Photo by Krista Jahnke

It’s hardly a surprise that grow-op ’shrooms are booming in British Columbia. What is surprising is what they’re being used for. Vancouver transdisciplinary design firm AFJD Studio, headed by UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture assistant professor, Joe Dahmen, and his life partner, Amber Frid-Jimenez, Canada Research Chair in Design and Technology at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, has recently installed mushroom-based seating in a public square at the heart of the UBC campus.

The seats – light-coloured, hollow blocks topped with clear acrylic – are made from mulched-up alder sawdust and living oyster mushroom spores. Such so-called mycelium biocomposites (MB) boast the same properties as polystyrene foam; however, they are much healthier for the environment since they are capable of rapidly induced biodegradation into organism-friendly compost (unlike obdurate Styrofoam that could take up to a millennium to decompose). This über-green technology may soon be coming to a store near you – literally. Swedish retail giant Ikea has just inked a $10-million deal with a U.S. firm to provide it with MB-derived protective packaging. Beyond packing peanuts, the substance’s future points to several projected building trade applications, including featherweight acoustic panelling and core construction materials.

With the assistance of students and staff at UBC’s social ecological economic development studies (SEEDS) sustainability program, Dahmen and Frid-Jimenez jumped the major hurdle of extending the scale, and thus the utility, of mycelium biocomposite products. Given the risk of mould and bacteria contamination if the material exceeds a half-metre in thickness, Dahmen developed a process for shaping it into hexagonal honeycombs. His Robert-the-Bruce moment arrived when he examined an old wasps’ nest found in the greenhouse deputed to house his project and made note of its chambers’ spatial efficiency and inherent strength.

The added bonus of the blocks’ hollow centres has to be watching the occasional delicious fungus sprout to fruition.