Grow your own building

Words:
Pamela Buxton

An installation at RIBA North in Liverpool shows how fungus can be grown into modular panels

Hack The Root, an installation by Mae-ling Lokko at RIBA North as part of the Liverpool Biennial. To the right is the grow chamber.
Hack The Root, an installation by Mae-ling Lokko at RIBA North as part of the Liverpool Biennial. To the right is the grow chamber. Credit: Thierry Bal

Anyone for fungal architecture? As growing your own building products goes, fungus has quite a lot going for it, especially if you don’t have much time to spare. In just a few weeks of nurturing, mycelium – the vegetative part of fungus rather than the mushroom-like ‘fruit’ – can be grown into modular biomaterial building panels with particular potential for insulation and acoustic purposes.

That’s the message of Hack the Root, a new installation commissioned by RIBA North and the Liverpool Biennial as part of the 15-week contemporary art festival. It's the work of Accra and New York-based Mae-ling Lokko, a building scientist who trained as an architectural historian and material technologist and works on the upcycling of agro waste into high performance building material systems.

Designed to showcase the potential of mycelium for local, non-toxic and decentralised modes of production, Lokko’s Hack the Root project enlisted the help of 200 participants from primary school children to University of Liverpool students and urban farmers to produce the panels that make up the experimental installation. In doing so, they can be seen as ‘hacking’ conventional systems of building material manufacturing.

As well as the two walls of completed panels that form the entrance structure of the exhibition, the manufacture process is demonstrated by a grow chamber in the gallery and a film describing the production.

‘It was essential to bring the grow process into the gallery,’ says Lokko, who is something of an evangelist for the potential of bio-adhesive materials and hopes that such installations will help spread the word.

  • Mae-ling Lokko (right) at a workshop with Squash Liverpool and Windsor  Primary School, part of the Hack the Root project commissioned by RIBA North and the Liverpool Biennial.
    Mae-ling Lokko (right) at a workshop with Squash Liverpool and Windsor Primary School, part of the Hack the Root project commissioned by RIBA North and the Liverpool Biennial. Credit: Brian Pilkington
  • Workshop preparing the grow trays with Squash Liverpool and Windsor Primary School.
    Workshop preparing the grow trays with Squash Liverpool and Windsor Primary School. Credit: Brian Pilkington
  • Grow chamber at Hack the Root.
    Grow chamber at Hack the Root. Credit: Thierry Bal
  • Taking the mycelium panels out of the moulds inside the grow chamber.
    Taking the mycelium panels out of the moulds inside the grow chamber. Credit: Thierry Bal
  • Wall of interlocking mycelium panels grown as part of Hack the Root.
    Wall of interlocking mycelium panels grown as part of Hack the Root. Credit: Thierry Bal
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‘I do think there’s a lot of potential but [the challenge is] finding the right application in the building sector that could lead to its proliferation,’ she says.

‘There’s a lot happening in terms of green building bio-adhesives at the moment – mycelium is just one example. Architects are early adopters of risky technologies. As they have a large influence on what goes into buildings, having them advocate for such materials is really key.’

For Hack the Root, Lokko used a strain of mycelium from the biomaterials company Ecovative. This was covered and fed in grow trays for three to seven days with an agrowaste food source containing cellulose such as a hemp. When the cover comes off, the mycelium dries out as it is exposed to air. It is then suitable for use either as insulation or can be pressed to form panels as strong as plywood, with the potential to embed texture for optimum acoustic performance. But as with all experimental materials, cost, and quality control, is an issue.

Lokko is also working on creating high performance panels from soya and from coconut pith.

Other architecturally linked contributions to the Liverpool Biennial include a series of benches at the Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral Plateau, made by artist Ryan Gander in collaboration with local schoolchildren from building blocks created from a dissected model of Frederick Gibberd’s modernist cathedral.


Hack the Root, until 28 October, RIBA North, part of Liverpool Biennial