Your final resting place could be a coffin made of mushrooms
If we can use mycelium composites to build structures that change the way we live on this planet, Hendrikx began to think we might also change the way we leave it. The traditional ways of disposing of the dead – burial in wooden and metal coffins, or cremation – leave an indelible mark on the planet, polluting the ground or the air. A coffin of mycelium, Hendrikx thought, would in theory allow the dead to enrich the soil, turning polluted graveyards into thriving forests.
The Living Cocoon is more than a coffin. For Hendrikx, this is the first step in establishing a mutualistic relationship between humanity and nature. Alongside the mycelium coffins, he is working on growing seed pods which he believes could one day be enlarged for humanity to inhabit. In theory, these rooms, buildings – or possibly even entire colonies – could be turned into compost after their useful life, returning their nutrients and disappearing without a trace as quickly as they were grown.
“We miss many opportunities by killing intelligent organisms and turning them into shoals. This ancient species, we have transformed it into a piece of wood; that’s what we do well,” Hendrikx told me as we packed a fully grown Living Cocoon into the back of his van. “Nature has been here for billions of years, and we’ve only been here a few thousand years. So why do we insist on working against it? »
Hendrikx’s appreciation for design began with his father, Paul, who runs his own construction company and spent Hendrikx’s childhood expanding and expanding their family home in central Eindhoven. As a child, Hendrikx was in love with the skyscrapers of New York, and he later decided to become an architect, eventually studying at Delft University of Technology.
As a postgraduate student, Hendrikx became interested in the impact of traditional building materials. Construction is responsible for about a tenth of global CO2 emissions, more than shipping and aviation combined; cement production alone is thought to produce 4-8% of man-made carbon emissions. If nature has been growing things for billions of years, thought Hendrikx, why can’t she also grow our houses?
For his thesis, Hendrikx studied “living architecture”: organisms such as coral and algae, or materials like silk, with which one could theoretically grow a house. But the star was the mycelium, which is cheap, plentiful and grows quickly. Mycelium composite structures also have excellent sound and heat insulation.
According to Dirk Hebel, one of the architects behind the MycoTree design, mycelium composites could one day directly replace concrete in some construction projects. With the right substrate, growth conditions, and post-production, Hebel’s team at the Karlsruhe Faculty of Architecture grew mycelium composite bricks with brick-like compressive strength. of fired clay. “About 80% of our buildings around the world are only one or two stories high, so the majority don’t need super high-strength materials,” says Hebel.
NASA is also investigating how mycelium composites could “revolutionize space architecture”, says Professor Lynn Rothschild. Since 2017, Rothschild, leading a team funded under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, has been testing how this material might react to Martian and lunar conditions. “Any time you can reduce your lift mass — the mass you have to launch against Earth’s gravity — you save a huge amount on mission costs,” Rothschild says. “If we can save 80% of what we expected to take for a large steel structure, that’s huge.”