If we can use mycelium composites to build structures that change how we live on this planet, Hendrikx began to believe that we could also change how we leave it. Traditional ways of disposing of the dead – burial in wooden and metal caskets or cremation – leave an indelible mark on the planet, polluting the soil or the air. A mycelium coffin, Hendrikx believed, would in theory allow the dead to enrich the soil and transform 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 humanity and nature. Alongside the mycelium scrinters, he is working on growing pods, which he believes may one day be scaled up for human habitation. In theory, these spaces, buildings—or eventually, even entire settlements—could be turned into compost at the end of their useful life, returning their nutrients and disappearing without a trace as quickly as they have been cultivated.
“We miss a lot of opportunities by killing intelligent organisms and turning them into a bench. This thousand-year-old species, we turned it into a piece of wood; that’s what we’re good at,” Hendrikx told us as we packed up a full-grown Living Cocoon in the back of his van. “Nature has been here for billions of years, and we’ve been here for just a few thousand. So why do we insist on working against it?”
Hendrikx’s appreciation of design began with his father, Paul, who runs his own construction company and spent Hendrikx’s childhood extending and expanding their family home in central Eindhoven. As a child, Hendrikx was enamored of New York’s skyscrapers, and he later set out to become an architect, eventually studying at the Delft University of Technology.
As a postgraduate student, Hendrikx became interested in the impact of traditional building materials. Construction is responsible for around a tenth of global CO2 emissions, more than shipping and aviation combined; Cement production alone is believed to produce 4-8 percent of anthropogenic carbon emissions. If nature has been growing things for billions of years, Hendrikx thought, why can’t it also grow our homes?
For his thesis, Hendrikx researched “living architecture”: organisms such as coral and algae or materials such as silk with which one could theoretically grow a house. But the standout was mycelium, which is cheap, plentiful and fast growing. Mycelium composite structures also have tremendous sound and heat insulation.
According to Dirk Hebel, one of the architects behind the design of MycoTree, mycelium composites may one day directly replace concrete in some construction projects. With the correct substrate, growth conditions and post-production, Hebel’s team at Karlsruhe’s Faculty of Architecture has grown mycelium composite tiles with a compressive strength similar to baked clay brick. “About 80 percent of our buildings worldwide are only one or two stories, so most 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 has led a team funded under NASA’s innovative advanced concepts (NIAC) program, has tested how such material might react to Martian and lunar conditions. “Any time you can lower your boost 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 percent of what we planned to charge for a large steel structure, that’s huge.”