Image: 123rf

Image: 123rf

A few years ago, a fellow in the French village where we live showed us his old family house and business. The large stone building, dating back to the early nineteenth century, was in two side-by-side sections. On one side, the spacious restaurant; on the other side, a three-story rustic home. The structure had been empty since the restaurant had closed eight years earlier. The family had moved up the street to a modern home years before that.

Like all empty buildings, the structure hadn’t remained uninhabited at all. Most of the floors of the old residence had been chewed away by rodents and insects, cats had the run of the place. But there was one kind of resident that took us all by surprise.

The door to the large wine cellar hadn’t been opened in at least five years. And when our acquaintance opened it to show us the cellar, we found that the entire room, from top to bottom, was blanketed in white foam. Every surface, all the wine shelves, the floor, the walls, everything with the exception of a couple of forgotten wine bottles and the light bulbs that lit the place, was covered in thick white fungus. Some of it had hardened. The neighbor quietly shut the door on the secret ecosystem and gave us a look of dismay. “I’ll have to gut the cellar,” he said. “Can’t just clean that stuff up.

Fungal blocks created by Phil Ross

Fungal blocks created by Phil Ross

He could have instead decided follow the path of several researchers, architects, material developers and artists, and use the fungus as a building block.

Mycelium, mushroom root material, can be grown to fill almost any shape or mold. Once dried and hardened, the organic building blocks display a number of features we ask of our best building materials: They insulate, they are carbon-neutral in their manufacture, they are fire and water resistant. Fungal blocks grow themselves and once we are done with them, we can compost them to make more.

Queens, New York, will host an architectural installation made of fungal building blocks this summer. I’m not sure how people will take to wandering in a mushroom tower, but if these building blocks really do fulfil their promise, your next house might just be fungal.

The Hy-Fi self-growing tower designed by architect David Benjamin, to be installed at MoMA PS1 in Brooklyn. Watch a film of the installation here.

The Hy-Fi self-growing tower designed by architect David Benjamin, to be installed at MoMA PS1 in Qieems.
Watch a film of the installation here.

The Big House

I’ve written before about the housing boom in our region of France, with thousands of units going up every years, carpeting what were fields and forests when we moved here in the 1990s.

I’ve also noticed that many single-family houses of the suburban developments are much smaller than those in the United States.

Average floor space per capita. Source: ShrinkThatFootprint

Average floor space per capita.
Source: ShrinkThatFootprint

As it turns out, expectations are vastly different between countries when it comes to the amount of space required for a dwelling. Not surprisingly, the countries with more space and natural resources at their disposal tend to build bigger.

Not only do larger houses use more resources in the making, they require more in the maintaining – more heating and cooling, more furnishings, more products in long-term maintenence, more waste when they are removed.

Over on ShrinkThatFootprint, Lindsay Wilson put together some graphics that illustrate just how far apart our ideas of the right size house are across the globe. (Click through the graphic link for the graphics in sq. ft.)

Average floor space per capita Source: ShrinkThatFootprint

Average floor space per capita
Source: ShrinkThatFootprint

I’ve lived in countries where having enough space to actually go through a door in your own home that didn’t lead to the bathroom or outside was already considered a major achievement. I’m not sure our dreams are any smaller when the rooms aren’t as big as they can possibly be. In general, the trend seems to be towards increasing size, even as we struggle to figure out long-term solutions for providing power and water for what we already have.

But at what point does bigger stop being better? Is it the size of the home that is hemming our ability to grow, or our own desire for more?

Alice outgrows a house. Credit: Tenniel via