Did you know that according to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), humanity will see a surge in new global temperature records in the next five years? With increasing global temperatures coming hand in hand with human-induced greenhouse gases that bring about more ocean heating and acidification, and more extreme weather conditions that induce faster-melting glaciers and rising sea levels, humanity has been pushed to adapt quicker. Especially when it comes to the communities we live in. Abroad, architects, interior designers, and engineers use biomaterials in their projects–materials made from animals, plants, and fungi. Here are just some of the few popular and slightly unusual materials that they use:

  1. Hemp

For buildings, hemp is often used as hempcrete–a composite of hemp fibers and lime that when combined, make a durable product that’s also great at insulation and resistant to molding. Though hemp is a type of cannabis plant and is under the same umbrella as marijuana, hemp has very low levels of psychoactive tetrahydrocannabinol (THC.) Hemp has a quick growth rate and is more effective than trees at closing off carbon. Architecture-wise, hempcrete is formed from the plant’s woody inner part which is mixed with lime, water, and sand to create a material with excellent thermal and acoustic insulation.

hempcrete in The Flat House in Cambridgeshire.
The Flat House in Cambridgeshire, England was constructed using hempcrete panels. Image by Oskar Proctor.
  1. Mycelium

The vegetative part of a mushroom, mycelium is extremely popular in the fashion industry as an alternative to leather. Fast-growing and cultivatable in industrial bioreactors, mycelium can feed on low-grade agricultural waste and closes off carbon stored in the biomass as it grows. Utrecht-based designer Morgan Ruben for one used this to design the leaf-shaped Folium lamp which was grown in a leaf-shaped aluminum cast mixed with hemp fiber. By letting the mycelium grow in between the hemp fibers for about one to two weeks, a light-colored or marble-colored leaf would be produced.

Morgan Ruben’s Folium light is made from mycelium and if left to grow longer than two weeks, would grow actual mushrooms. Image from Morgan Ruben.
  1. Algae

Often processed into bioplastic polymers which can be used as a replacement for fossil plastics, algae is a relatively new sustainable material for the industry. Considering that algae (which includes seaweed and kelp) are important sources of oxygen in the water and are responsible for closing off more carbon than land plants, algae has been used as a minor element in architecture for projects like the renovation of Le Magasin Électrique– a historical building in the Parc des Ateliers.

These algae-stained plaster prototypes line the bathroom walls of Le Magasin Électrique. Image by Laurens Bekemans.

Related read: Biomaterials in Le Magasin Électrique’s Eco-friendly Workspace

  1. Cellulose

A structural compound typically found within the cell walls of green plants, it’s a material that can be extracted from various plants including trees, and is usually used to create fibers. These days this material is used in fashion, the food industry (in packaging), and in architecture and construction like Barcelona-based startup Hontext which developed a construction board derived from a combination of enzymes and cellulose harvested from the waste streams from making paper. Instead of letting them go to the landfills, the firm used these as interior partitioning or cladding. Aside from being lighter, more flexible, and possessing of greater sound absorption, the cellulose board’s production method also makes the board emissions-free since they’re produced using gas and electricity generated from Vacarisses’–a village in the province of Barcelona, Spain– digestion of the town’s waste.

Hontext’s cellulose boards are products of cellulose residue taken from cardboard and paper waste generated at paper mills. Image by Alga Studio.

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