As New York green contractors, we’re always interested in emerging innovations, but take special interest in locally-developed technologies because we believe that green solutions should have a local focus. An effective way to build green is to ensure that each building make the best use of the environment in which it’s located.
In New York state, for example, we have hot summers and cool to cold winters. Insulation is important for keeping homes at a comfortable temperature while minimizing energy costs. We also have farmland and woodland…which means mushrooms.
Ecovative Design started out as two RPI students’ mutual fascination with mushrooms. A class project resulted in growing a mushroom-based composite that could replace synthetic materials like Styrofoam. Rather than lessening the impact of traditional synthetics, Ecovative is introducing radical materials in un-heard of ways. The innovative start-up is currently growing into one of the most promising manufacturers of green building and packing materials.
We’re mostly interested in their mushroom insulation.
It’s not quite the same as the mushrooms we buy at the supermarket: Ecovative makes their materials out of a mycelium composite. Mycelium is the thready part underground; fruiting bodies are the parts we see and eat.
Filling your walls with fungus might not sound like such a great idea, but let me tell you why it’s amazing.
Mushroom materials are as safe and sturdy as traditional insulation. They won’t melt in the rain. They achieve a class 1 fire rating without needing toxic fire retardants and have very few volatile organic compounds or none at all. There is no need for toxic adhesives like formaldehyde. They can be touched and handled with no special protective gear. There are no spore or allergen concerns, since materials are heat-treated after growing.
That’s right, growing. Ecovative grows their materials out of farm junk and mushrooms, an upcycling process that reduces waste. They start with agricultural byproducts, which are then inoculated with mycelium and grown to the exact shape needed by the client. They’re basically made from an unappreciated waste product (seed hulls, husks, etc) and a renewable resource (live mushrooms). When you’re done, they can be composted like any other organic material, leaving behind neither chemicals nor waste.
The humble mushroom is a powerhouse. In Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World, Paul Stamets describes the potential for “mushroom ecoremediation,” in which we take advantage of mushrooms’ natural digestive abilities to clean up organic pollution. Mushrooms can eat through all kinds of trees and houses like nobody’s business, but they can also digest complex organic particles found in petroleum and other messy contaminants. Stamets describes an experiment where he watched oyster mushroom mycelia absorb brown gunk, slowly return to its original white, and send up robust fruiting bodies. In other words, the mycelium ate our garbage, and made extra big mushrooms–more food for us!
But back to mushroom as a building material. Mushroom materials can benefit builders, clients, and the environment. They’re efficient by building and safety standards. They become increasingly cost-effective as petroleum and plastic prices rise with oil prices. Their production, use, and recycling leave no mark on the environment.
The major downside to mushroom insulation is that you can’t have it yet. Ecovative’s building materials are currently under development and are not yet for sale. As green builders, we eagerly anticipate the debut of a locally-developed material that offers homeowners an affordable, safe, and eco-friendly alternative to current methods.