Phil Ross uses fungus to make bricks and furniture

Far from a fairytale, a San Francisco professor and artist is defining fresh adaptations of lowly fungi to the needs of a modern society

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 June, 2013, 4:53am

Once upon a time, an avant-garde senior citizen, being way ahead of the design curve, lived in a shoe. Another occupied a house that eschewed concrete, bricks, tiles and glass in favour of gingerbread and gateaux. And an artist and erstwhile chef decided it would be an environmentally engaging idea to grow a house from mushrooms.

Without wishing to challenge the veracity of the world's bootmakers and confectioners, the first two tales may not be entirely true. Not only is the third genuine, it could also be the shape of things to come.

Scepticism, however, seemed critics' default position when artist, professor, designer and radical thinker Phil Ross was still in the early days of his experiments with fungi. Such were the mid-90s. Today, attitudes and opinions are less hostile.

Ross, 47, conducts research and fashions practical items from fungus in a studio near San Francisco. And while the idea of fungus as a basic building material may seem outlandish, the psychological foundations for its widespread acceptance have already been laid.

"People are willing to consider it beyond a freaky thing," says Ross. "There has been a cultural evolution - a maturity now that means it doesn't have to be classified as hippy technology."

His creations, some realised with the judicious addition of wood, have included architectural models, walls made of lingzhi bricks, baskets, stools, easy chairs and a simple, arched "teahouse", which lived up to its name in a literal sense: at the 2009 Eat Art exhibition in Dusseldorf, Germany, the structure was slowly boiled down into tea and served to visitors.

Ordinarily, durability poses no problem: an item will serve its purpose for "as long as you want it to", says Ross. "A piece sealed with shellac will last as long as hardwood furniture if you treat it appropriately."

Ross, a professor of art at the University of San Francisco, could be forgiven if he saw little beyond the dollar-generating potential of what could turn out to be one of those planet-saving technologies for which green activists are forever searching.

Fungus feasts on cow dung, which is a contributor to greenhouse gases; "components" used by Ross grow organically in the wild and have little impact on the environment.

He also points out that making mushroom bricks requires less energy than, say, churning out plastics; and his raw materials are biodegradable. It's all organic and carbon negative, so you might wonder what's not to love.

Yet there are those still to be convinced: Ross' mushrooms are cultivated on materials such as corn cobs and sawdust.

"Everything is already covered with fungus," argues Ross. "And it's inside everything. You don't want green or black fungus on your walls though."

Despite the non-believers, Ross was fortuitous in his choice of home when it came to tolerance and understanding of his "bio-techniques".

"I came to San Francisco in 1988. I didn't mean to stay but I never left," he says. Ross was a student at the San Francisco Art Institute, which was "very radical in its approach".

Ross, originally from New York, soon found his ideas accepted in the less conventional pockets of the Bay Area. Medical marijuana had yet to be legalised but could be obtained in west coast "pot clubs". Ross was working shifts as a hospice assistant and would collect the drug for terminally ill patients.

He also found himself among supporters and practitioners of alternative medicine, which resulted in his discovering the healing capabilities of the lingzhi mushroom - a fungus with which Ross was familiar thanks to his work in New York's kitchens. "Its medicinal uses dovetailed with my cooking skills," he says. "I'm not a chemist … just curious."

He picked wild specimens for cooking and making medicine, then turned to cultivating his own. It quickly became clear that the consistency of fungi, as well as their colour and texture, were affected by the size and shape of the containers in which they grew and environmental factors, such as temperature.

City art galleries came next, as Ross, who describes himself as a "junior mycologist", took what he calls "mycotecture" to the masses.

In San Francisco there was free exchange of information and a do-it-yourself culture even before the internet.

"The tools of biotechnology [such as the air filters essential for the untainted growth of Ross' fungi] are prohibitively expensive, but people were figuring out how to make their own technological solutions. There was a really interesting technological counter culture," he said.

He adds that carefully cultivated, mushrooms can be used to create most parts of a house, and lingzhi fungus is especially suitable as an environmentally passionate (never mind friendly) raw building material.

Cultivation seems to draw on Ross' previous-life skills: pasteurisation follows the steam cooking of the plant dry matter, to which living mushrooms are added. The fungi eat the cellulose and produce chitin, a fibrous substance from which fungal cell walls are made and which give Ross' pliant creations their strength.

A mushroom brick, for example, will then spend roughly two years in a container of a shape determined by Ross and emerge adaptable, resilient - and capable of stopping bullets.

As Ross told online magazine Motherboard, .38-calibre rounds shot at point-blank range in dynamic-resistance tests were absorbed by a brick grown on sawdust.

There is, of course, a commercial aspect to this work - one of Ross' mushroom stools might cost you US$300 and an armchair US$3,000. He has filed an international patent on fungal building materials but isn't ready to go corporate just yet.

"Am I interested in being a billionaire? Yes!" he says, laughing. "But I don't think I'm your standard biotech CEO.

"I've been approached by people interested in knowing more and the amazing thing about it is that designers I end up working with - their minds explode when they find out fungus can do this, and this! There's been an active transformation: people understand that this is the future."

Although they aren't clients of Ross, the enlightened include consumer-goods conglomerate 3M and Ford, which have applied for their own patents in areas of interest.

Ford, for example, is investigating the possible use of fungus in car engines to reduce poisonous emissions.

As Ross has expressed it, the question is not, "What can fungus do?" but "What do you want it to do?" And all this without recourse to a single magic mushroom.

Fungus: earth's saviour. Not just something that grows between your toes.