Critical (bio)mass

U of M project hopes to turn fungi, moulds into walls, insulation to address First Nations housing shortage


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Mercedes Garcia-Holguera walks up the front steps of a white shed in the southwest corner of the University of Manitoba’s Fort Garry campus. It’s among many other structures scattered throughout the area, next to a gravel road, with no signs or windows hinting at what might be inside.

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Mercedes Garcia-Holguera walks up the front steps of a white shed in the southwest corner of the University of Manitoba’s Fort Garry campus. It’s among many other structures scattered throughout the area, next to a gravel road, with no signs or windows hinting at what might be inside.

“Prepare your nose,” she says, opening the door.

A pungent smell, sour and thick, hits immediately. The air is hot and humid, like the inside of a school gym on a 30 C day.

“That’s the only thing that we can control in this room. We can control temperature,” she says.

Garcia-Holguera, assistant professor at the University of Manitoba’s department of architecture, is in what’s called the growth chamber. Inside are clear rectangular containers filled with a thick brown film called bacterial cellulose. Next to them are bags holding moulds of mycelium, networks of fungi roots.

These are biomaterials — materials made from living things — and one day, they might be used as the walls and insulation of a home in Manitoba’s north.

Extreme weather, limited infrastructure, and rising inflation has made housing in northern Canada costly to build and maintain, contributing to a lack of housing and poor housing conditions.

Remote Indigenous communities in particular struggle to access adequate housing. Twenty-two per cent of Indigenous households in the Northwest Territories, for example, said their homes are unaffordable, unsuitable, or inadequate according to a 2021 Canada Mortgage and Housing Corp. report.

However, by building homes using materials grown on site, Garcia-Holguera said isolated northern communities will be able to build more reliable, sustainable housing.

“If they can grow their own materials, and they don’t have to pay enormous amounts for shipping or wait an enormous amount of time for delivery, then they have more control of their own… lives,” Garcia-Holguera said.

The project began in March 2021, when Garcia-Holguera and her research group, called BIOM_Lab, started experimenting with the materials at the U of M’s Sustainability in Action Facility (SiAF).

But her idea to use biomaterials to house northern communities started taking shape when she moved to Winnipeg three years ago, after finishing her PhD at McGill University.

“When I was in Montreal, I never… perceived that being a topic of interest for anybody,” she said. “Nobody in my academic environment or in my personal environment would ever mention Indigenous topics.”

Talking with her colleagues at the U of M and becoming more aware of Indigenous issues in Canada led her to the idea, she said.

“Biomaterial on its own, I think it’s relevant anywhere in the world, but I think in the case of northern communities, it addresses more than just the environmental issue,” she said. “It addresses also these, I would say, more political issues.”

Her team makes the bacterial cellulose out of tea, sugar, and the bacteria found in kombucha. Mixed together, a thick membrane forms on top of the liquid. Once wrung out and dried, it becomes a leathery material that Garcia-Holguera hopes can be used as walls for a home.

Garcia-Holguera isn’t doing it alone. She works with students, such as Dominico Obmerga IV, a fourth-year environmental design major who’s been helping Garcia-Holguera for about a year and a half. He works in the SiAF building every Friday, ensuring the materials are grown properly.

“It’s gratifying to know that you’re working as part of a bigger whole,” he said. The project has also opened his eyes to the type of work he can do with his degree.

“There’s much more you can do with what you get out of the environmental design program or even like an architectural degree. It doesn’t always have to go into working in a firm and creating projects. It can go to other things like material research and working with communities,” he said.

Garcia-Holguera said they still have a lot of work to do. Right now, they’re researching each material’s properties and how they react in different climates.

Since March, for example, 10 different samples of bacterial cellulose have been braving the cold in Churchill. Another 10 other samples are outside their facility in Winnipeg.

“The designs of those houses, of those buildings, are made normally in southern communities. So, we are not acknowledging the specific conditions and climatic conditions of those regions.”

Garcia-Holguera also hopes to secure a better lab.

“Our lab space is not up to the ideal standards,” she said.

The team has several workspaces spread across campus, and not all of them can be controlled the way the team would like. That is, the team can’t always adjust the lab’s humidity, airflow, and temperature levels. Some labs also aren’t big enough to grow large samples.

“Everything is very… improvised in that we are using what we have available,” she said. “It’s all very much like kind of a ‘do it yourself’ type of approach because that’s what we have access to.”

But there may be an upside. Garcia-Holguera said the current setup mimics real northern conditions. “These communities, they won’t have access to a proper, clean biolab,” she said. “That’s why we think that it’s also very relevant.”

Garcia-Holguera said her team hopes to have a prototype — a small liveable shelter made with bacterial cellulose walls and mycelium insulation — by 2024 or 2025.

“This is just the very beginning,” she said.

— Rachel Ferstl is a senior journalism student in Red River College Polytechnic’s creative communications program. This story is a product of a class assignment

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