Looking Forward to 2014: Growing the Built Environment

Sarah Lott | January 06, 2014

This blog post, originally shared in the Pharos Signal, includes information about parts of Pharos that are no longer available. Please use it for historical reference and for the other useful information it contains.

Thinking back on this last year we added a lot of new products to Pharos (approximately 400!).  As I think about all of the new products and different types of materials we might add to Pharos in 2014, an exciting and innovative new building material comes to mind: mycelium.

Mycelium is the root-like part of a mushroom or other fungi which “eats” plant material through the secretion of enzymes to decompose plant material and absorb nutrients. Mycelia in the natural environment are not only important for decomposing organic materials and making nutrients available in soil ecosystems, but are also key components of soil structure because they bind soil particles together, forming a large, sticky web.

I first learned that mycelium could be grown into building materials at Greenbuild this past November, where the New York based company Ecovative showcased their latest building products: Myco Foam Insulation and Myco Board.

Myco Foam Insulation is a natural, compostable alternative to foam board insulation. The manufacture of these products is simple, only utilizing the natural growth of the mycelium and heat. First, plastic molds are filled with moist agricultural waste, such as corn stalks or hemp, sourced from local farmers. Next, the mycelium is added and grows to form a dense matrix. Heat is then used to dry out the mixture and stop growth of the mycelium, creating a rigid board product that Ecovative calls Mushroom® Material. Since this material grows inside a plastic mold, the possibilities for shape and application are endless.

Standard foam board insulation often contains toxic flame retardants and blowing gases, potent greenhouse gases, which are released over time and deplete the R value of the insulation.  Myco Foam insulation contains no blowing gases or flame retardants while achieving a constant R-value of 3.6 per inch (higher than most cellulose or fiberglass products) and a Class A fire rating. Also unlike standard foam insulations, Myco Foam boards require no additional processing to decompose in the natural environment.

However, this also means that users need to be wary of moisture build-up during use, which could cause premature degradation and lead to rot or mold growth. I contacted Ecovative to see how they are dealing with this issue.  While some internal testing has been done on the Mushroom® Materials’ moisture resistance, Ecovative is partnering with the Oak Ridge National Laboratory to further investigate the hygrothermal properties of their material. While no preservatives are currently being used in their material formulations, Ecovative is aware that some mold resistant treatments may be needed in more humid environments and has developed treatment options.

In addition to foam board insulation, Ecovative is also experimenting with an alternative to spray polyurethane foam (SPF) insulation with their Grow-In-Place Mushroom® Insulation. This Mushroom® Insulation uses a building’s wall assemblies to act as the structural mold. The living Mushroom® Insulation grows into the wall space under temperature controlled conditions where it solidifies, sets, and dries out over approximately a month. Before drying out, the mycelium grows into the surrounding boards to create an airtight seal like SPF insulation without all of the toxic additives and emissions. Ecovative tested this innovative insulation last June in their prototype “Mushroom Tiny House”. They are continuing to test this insulation and are selling to those who are willing to experiment.

While Grow-In-Place insulation is still in testing, last November, Ecovative announced their partnership with Fortifiber Building Group to finalize product development of their Myco Foam Insulated Sheathing. They expect to launch a commercial product next month at the International Builders’ Show®.

Myco Board is an alternative to engineered wood products. Like Myco Foam this product is composed of agricultural waste and mycelium. With the mycelium to bind the fibers together, no synthetic binders, such as formaldehyde-based resins, are used to make this particleboard-like product. Myco Board has a similar strength to weight ratio as medium-density fiberboard (MDF), and, like Myco Foam, can be molded into any shape. By wetting the surfaces of this board product, the mycelium can be reactivated to grow into and bond wood veneers, which could provide future alternatives for furniture, cabinetry and engineered wood flooring. While, these products are not yet commercially available, Ecovative hopes to have a commercial Myco Board product on the market this year.

According to their website, other products in development include ceiling tiles and acoustic panels.

Ecovative’s innovative approach to providing commercial solutions to hazardous materials through natural processes is precisely the approach I would like to see more manufacturers take this year.

We at Pharos look forward to evaluating these Mushroom Materials in the Pharos system soon!

 

For more information on Ecovative and the development of their Mushroom® Materials visit their website or watch videos from their youtube channel.