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UBC’s mushroom benches are taking eco-building materials to the next level

By RYLEY WHITE | AUG 02 2016

At the University of British Columbia, you can now take five on a toadstool – or rather, mellow out on a bench made of mushrooms.

Outside of the UBC bookstore, the university has installed six benches made from a combination of sawdust and mushrooms. The project is one of several intended to showcase UBC research initiatives during the institution’s 100th anniversary.

Joe Dahmen, an assistant professor of landscape architecture who worked on the project, says the benches take alternative, environmentally-friendly building materials to a new level. “The bench is actually alive,” he says. “At some point, it’s possible that they’ll produce a whole lot of edible oyster mushroom fruit – like the [mushrooms] you can buy in the supermarket.”

The mushroom-based material – a mycelium biocomposite – has similar properties to polystyrene, a common material used in packaging and building insulation. Like polystyrene, the material is lightweight, reasonably strong, and has high thermal resistance. Unlike, polystyrene, the mycelium blend is biodegradable.

“You can imagine some of the suggested possibilities of some of these more natural materials,” Mr. Dahmen says.

The process took about six weeks in which the team grew mycelia (the root structures of mushrooms) in sawdust then fed the whole thing into a wood chipper before packing it into bench moulds. (Graduate students in architecture and landscaping were then invited to a “moulding party,” where they packed and shaped the material in the bench moulds.) Once the mix hardened, the moulds were covered in Saran Wrap and clear acrylic. The result is a group of hexagonal benches that look something like a cross-section of a beehive.

One of the benches. Photo courtesy of UBC.
One of the benches. Photo courtesy of UBC.

While American biomaterials company Ecovative provides its sustainable Mushroom Packaging to a few companies like Dell, Mr. Dahmen, says the mushroom benches are “one of the first uses of structural mycelium biocomposites in Canada.” While mycelium hasn’t seen much use in Canadian buildings just yet, he expects that to change soon.

“We’re far more aware of the negative impacts of a lot of the materials we use to make buildings now, and I think it’s making people receptive to some of these more natural alternatives,” he says.

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