Ooh, What’s That? ‘Bio-Builds’ Around Grounds Are Part of an Architecture School Expo

March 31, 2022 By Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu Matt Kelly, mkelly@virginia.edu

University of Virginia students may have noticed the addition of some unusual structures around Grounds this spring, some of them sculptural and artsy, but all making a greater point about what can be done with innovative or underused materials.

The Biomaterial Building Exposition, with installations outdoors and in the School of Architecture’s Elmaleh Gallery, examines organic-based building materials – everything from salvaged lumber to mycelium, a fungal structure not unlike the roots of plants.

Organized by UVA assistant architecture professors Katie MacDonald and Kyle Schumann, the expo features the creations of visiting scholars, biomedical engineering researchers and UVA students.

“It is both old-school and new-school,” MacDonald said. “A lot of the work we are doing is looking at source material like vernacular architecture – building traditions that are pre-industrialization. But we’re also looking at how new technology allows us to use grown materials in new ways.”

MacDonald and Schumann began organizing the expo last year. They brought to Grounds several visiting scholars who are experimenting with different materials for a January term course on biomaterial building, and they matched the scholars with students who acted as managers of the displays for the expo.

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A woman and a man stand in front of a concrete stairwell
Assistant architecture professors Katie MacDonald and Kyle Schumann organized the Biomaterial Building Exposition around Grounds.

In addition to finding ways to reuse dimensional lumber (2x4s and other traditional, measured cuts of wood), the exhibitors are focused on the strength and versality of mycelium and soy wax flakes, both of which can be formed into building blocks.

“There are new developments, like photogrammetry and other types of machine visioning, that allow us to digitally understand the complex forms of trees in new ways,” MacDonald said. “One of the projects deals with, ‘How do we use the whole log instead of just dimensional lumber?’”

There are multiple displays of logs sawn into thin slices from both ends, but still connected on those ends, with the wood spread out and held apart by threaded steel rods bolted into place and spaced with rubber washers to form a panel. One display on McCormick Road, by the HANNAH design studio at Cornell University, uses the technique to build a curving structure with a bench.  

“With the UNLOG Project outside the Physics Building, they had come up with the technique and used it previously, but never deployed it on a large scale as they are doing in this installation,” Schumann said. “The form and location of each of the pieces are angled to align with the trees on the site so there is a dialogue between the cut trees in the installation and the existing trees on the site.”

A wooden structure with curved pieces of wood attached to triangles under a tree in front of a brick building
The HANNAH design studio at Cornell University used logs in new ways to create building panels.

Fourth-year architecture student Abigail Hassell, who worked on the UNLOG project, said students were able to experiment with techniques they learned from guest professors during a January-term course titled Biomaterial Building, which helped with the build strategy.

“There is an unmatchable satisfaction with being a part of the whole design process; from the initial iteration to the prototyping to the fabrication process,” Hassell said. “I’ve learned that with design-build projects, the tendency is for unexpected issues to arise. With this, I’ve learned that I thrive in situations where I need to rapidly adapt and problem-solve. These full-scale fabrication projects have brought me close to the work I do at UVA’s Architecture School, and I have really appreciated it.”

The expo also features multiple examples of mycelium blocks molded into various shapes, including displays by Jonathan Dessi-Olive, assistant professor at Kansas State University and director of the Myco Matters Lab, and Benay Gürsoy Toykoç, assistant professor of architecture at Pennsylvania State University and director of the ForMat (Form and Matter) Lab.

“The area around mycelium, the root structures of fungi, is quite new,” MacDonald said. “Growing mycelium for construction was not something that was happening in pre-industrial times, either. Several companies and universities have recently refined the process of growing mycelium at scale into units. There are a few different species that scholars in the field are working with.”

A wavy structure made of distressed white and brown blocks
An installation of mycelium blocks by Jonathan Dessi-Olive, assistant professor at Kansas State University and director of the Myco Matters Lab.

Schumann said that one of the installations on Grounds is constructed from mycelium taken from reishi mushrooms, cultivated for their properties and grown in a controlled environment in the shape of blocks. They’re subjected to heat to stop the growth process.

“Despite its inherently lightweight nature, mycelium has a stronger pound-for-pound ratio than concrete, the world’s second-most-used industrial resource,” fourth-year architecture student Annabelle Woodcock, who works with mycelium, said. “It is also fireproof, non-toxic, partly mold- and water-resistant, and can trap more heat than fiberglass insulation.”

Mycelium is also biodegradable, weathering and decaying depending on the conditions to which it is exposed. Woodcock’s thesis involves designing and building a mycelium bench to be placed at the University’s Morven Farm where, over time, it will break down and replenish the soil.  

Woodcock also noted mycelium’s aesthetic qualities.  

“The outer skin of mycelium can mold to just about any texture that it is grown into, meaning that there are endless possibilities as to what form the material’s surface can take,” she said. “These naturally occurring invulnerabilities make mycelium an unconventional, yet opportune contestant for a newfound building material.”

A 3-dimensional grid made of lumber under blooming Bradford Pear trees
A wood structure designed by Somewhere Studio, operated by Jessica Colangelo and Charles Sharpless, both from the University of Arkansas.

Woodcock sees many applications for mycelium, such as replacing plastic foam packing materials.

“Additionally, ‘myco-leather’ is currently being produced by companies such as MycoWorks,” Woodcock said. “This leather-like material is rendered from thin sheets of mycelium and is an eco-friendly replacement for leather made from animal skin.”

She sees mycelium as playing a role in rethinking the longevity of architecture.  

“Why do buildings need to endure for hundreds of years, when we change the language of buildings habitually?” she said. “What if we were given the opportunity for continuous readjustment in the built environment according to our current wants and needs?”

“There are a lot of innovations happening with these materials at different scales in the different installations,” Schumann said. “One of them is using a process called myco welding, where they are growing large bricklike units out of mycelium and then fusing those units together using a kind of living mortar of mycelium instead of gluing or adhering pieces together.”

Visiting scholars came from the University of Arkansas and Rice University, as well as the aforementioned Kansas State, Penn State and Cornell, to work with UVA students. They also connected architecture students with UVA biomedical engineering researchers who are experimenting with growing tissue.

“One of the goals is to bring together innovative research in biomaterials in architecture and bring the people who are doing that kind of work across the country to UVA to work with students here,” Schumann said. “And we are also trying to bring together voices from disciplines across the University through the gallery exhibition to see how people are using different materials and technologies in new ways to generate dialogue between disciplines across the University.”

One such dialogue is with biomedical engineering.

“I was struck by the similar challenges that we face when we’re using biomaterials – whether we’re using them to build structures or create spaces, or using them to build living tissues,” said Shayn Peirce-Cottler, a professor of biomedical engineering and a Harrison Distinguished Teaching Professor who is co-director, with George Christ, of UVA’s Center for Advanced Biomanufacturing.

She added, “One striking difference is that most of the architects’ biomaterials do not have to be alive to perform their intended function, whereas the bioengineer’s designs have to stay alive to carry out their function, which poses additional challenges when we work with the biomaterials – namely, we can’t kill our cells.”

Both disciplines are working with natural substances that have unique form and specific characteristics.

“Each material is composed of sub-structures at the cellular level that have a certain shape, size, squishiness or strength,” Peirce-Cottler said. “As designers, we have to fashion these substances into something that has never existed before, which takes tremendous creativity and a deep understanding of the material’s attributes to pull that off successfully.”

Bioengineers and architects are working on different scales, however. 

“What impressed me most about the exhibit was the diversity of applications for biomaterials across many length scales – from microns to meters,” Peirce-Cottler said. “And the artistry of the creations – with their natural beauty recrafted by human designers – they were both visually stimulating and thought-provoking.”

A rectangular wooden structure encloses two trees
Liz Gálvez, a visiting critic from Rice University, devised a structure from milled logs.

MacDonald has been working on finding new homes for the exhibits after the expo is done.

“The UNLOG exhibit outside the Physics Building is made of several modules that four to seven people can lift and can fit on a trailer,” she said. “So there is a team dimension of the installation, and it is transportable. We have already received inquiries from people who would like to give those a second home.”

MacDonald said the exposition involved serious student engagement.

“Students today really want to see how they can make an impact on the world, and so it was nice to see how some of the themes and ideas from the expo resonated with them,” MacDonald said. “It gives me a very optimistic outlook because they are so interested in seeing how they can apply their design skills to larger goals.”

Schumann added, “I was struck by the sense of optimism from all the groups in terms of being really enthusiastic about the materials and processes with which they are working. We hope to demonstrate ways in which these systems can scale up or grow through future research and really start to inform how we produce buildings in the built environment.”

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications