Her final resting place could be a coffin made out of mushrooms

If we can use mycelial composites to build structures that will transform how we live on this planet, Hendrikx began to believe we could also change how we leave it. Traditional methods of disposing of the dead – burial in wooden and metal coffins or cremation – leave an indelible mark on the planet, polluting the soil or the air. A mycelium box, Hendrikx thought, would theoretically allow the dead to enrich the soil and turn polluted cemeteries into thriving forests.

The Living Cocoon is more than a coffin. For Hendrikx it is the first step in establishing a mutual relationship between man and nature. In addition to the mycelial caskets, he is working on growing pods, which he believes may one day be enlarged for humanity. Theoretically, these rooms, buildings or even entire settlements could be composted after their useful life, giving back their nutrients and disappearing without a trace just as quickly as they grew.

“We miss a lot of opportunities by killing intelligent organisms and turning them into a bank. We turned this thousand-year-old species into a piece of wood; We’re good at that,” Hendrikx told me as we loaded a full-blown 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 tackling it?”

Hendrikx’s appreciation for design began with his father Paul, who ran his own construction company and spent Hendrikx’s childhood expanding and expanding his family’s home in central Eindhoven. As a child, Hendrikx was fascinated by New York’s skyscrapers, later he set out to become an architect and eventually studied at the Technical University of Delft.

As a postgraduate, Hendrikx was interested in the effects of traditional building materials. Construction is responsible for around a tenth of global CO2 emissions2 emissions, more than shipping and aviation combined; Cement production alone is thought to account for 4-8 percent of man-made carbon emissions. If nature has been making things grow for billions of years, Hendrikx thought, why can’t it make our houses grow too?

For his diploma thesis, Hendrikx researched “living architecture”: organisms such as corals and algae or materials such as silk, which could theoretically be used to grow a house. But the standout was mycelium, which is cheap, plentiful, and fast-growing. Mycelial composite structures also have tremendous sound and heat insulation.

According to Dirk Hebe, one of the architects behind the design of the MycoTree, mycelial composites could one day directly replace concrete in some construction projects. With the right substrate, the right growth conditions and the right post-processing, Hebe’s team at Karlsruhe’s Faculty of Architecture has grown mycelial composite bricks with a compressive strength similar to that of a fired clay brick. “Around 80 percent of our buildings worldwide are only one or two stories, so most of them don’t need super-high-strength materials,” says Hebe.

NASA is also studying how mycelial composites “could revolutionize space architecture,” says Professor Lynn Rothschild. Since 2017, Rothschild, who leads a team funded under the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, has been testing how such material might respond to Martian and lunar conditions. “Any time you can reduce your upward mass — the mass you have to launch against Earth’s gravity — you save tremendously on mission costs,” says Rothschild. “If we can save 80 percent of what we planned for a large steel structure, that’s huge.”

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