Graduate student recognized for exploring sustainable building alternatives
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — The built environment accounts for more than 39% of gross annual carbon emissions worldwide, according to the World Economic Forum. Statistics such as this have motivated some Penn State researchers, including architecture doctoral candidate Ali Ghazvinian, to pursue research that explores sustainable alternatives to building materials — including living materials as alternatives.
During his time in the College of Arts and Architecture’s Stuckeman School at Penn State, Ghazvinian has worked on the relationship between form, matter and performance, with a case study on mycelium-based composites for architecture. Mycelium is the vegetative root structure of a fungus consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae.
Ghazvinian, who focused his doctoral studies on design computing in the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing (SCDC), was recently recognized by the Graduate School for his research with the Alumni Association Dissertation Award.
According to Ghazvinian, he developed two prototypologies to advance the use of a sustainable alternative to construction materials and address some of the gaps in coping with uncertain materials in the building industry.
Mycelium’s ability to biodegrade made it a particularly interesting element to work with, Ghazvinian said.
“It’s better [for the environment] to go with mycelium-based composites,” Ghazvinian said. “And Pennsylvania is producing more than two-thirds of mushrooms nationwide, so we have resources here that we can use.”
Ghazvinian has been able to collaborate with his advisor Benay Gürsoy, assistant professor of architecture in the Stuckeman School, and other SCDC researchers in Gürsoy’s Form and Matter (ForMat) Lab.
Gürsoy said due to the “constraints and affordances of the cultivated mycelium-based composites,” the research team developed “compression-based structural systems using computational form-finding techniques, generative design and optimization methods.”
“While this research introduces new opportunities for a sustainable design culture, it also presents a novel design paradigm where architects design and compute with living things, despite all their inherent uncertainties.” — Benay Gürsoy
Gursoy also described Ghazvinian as an “exceptionally mature” and “outstanding” collaborator.
After researching what had already been explored about mycelium in the last decade, Ghazvinian said he and Gürsoy worked on finding and addressing gaps and problems regarding using this material in architecture.
“We found that [mycelium] is a great sustainable material that is being shaped by the most unsustainable material — plastic,” Ghazvinian said. “Our goal was to get rid of the plastic, or at least decrease the amount of plastic used, to shape this material.”
Ghazvinian said this goal also led to brainstorming on how to decrease the number of mechanical elements used in compacting mycelium.
“This material is living, and it needs to breathe,” Ghazvinian said. “Sometimes we need to add complex systems to inject air into the material.”
Ghazvinian, who earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from the University of Tehran, and a master of architecture from the same school in Iran, said his background was helpful in learning how to best utilize and handle mycelium.
However, working with a living material like mycelium presented times in the research that were “challenging and uncertain.”
“There are advantages and disadvantages,” Ghazvinian said. “Because it’s a living material, there are other living organisms that fight for the resources that this material is using. If there’s another organism that takes over, our material does not cultivate.”
The challenge of cross-contamination with other living organisms was the problem that led Ghazvinian and his colleagues’ first large-scale trial to be unsuccessful. The prototype, dubbed “MycoCreate,” collapsed after less than an hour after it was constructed in the Stuckeman Family Building Yard due to contamination.
“We had eight people working [on that prototype,] and everyone was upset, but I was laughing because if it hadn’t collapsed, I wouldn’t have learned how to work with contamination,” Ghazvinian said. “I thought, ‘It worked, it just got contaminated, so now we have to learn how to work with that.’”
After working with different prototypes to try to replace the wood elements being used, Ghazvinian said the research team was successful in making a final prototype. The “MycoCreate 2.0” project, which was awarded funding by the American Institute of Architects, was a spatial structure with 64 unique load-bearing components made of mycelium-based composites. The structure measured approximately 10 feet long, 8 feet wide and 6 feet high.
The structure was on display at the Biomaterial Building Exposition at the University of Virginia in April 2022.
The ability to take risks with materials was largely the reason Ghazvinian decided to come to Penn State to pursue his doctorate in 2018.
“I had a lot of crazy ideas about working with different materials that others are not comfortable working with, because [the materials] are uncertain,” Ghazvinian said. “I was coming from a civil engineering background — I had little experience in design. There were just a couple of people and universities who trusted me to start a Ph.D. program, and one of them was Penn State.”
Once Penn State “took a chance” on him, Ghazvinian said he knew he had the resources to thrive due to the collaborative culture he found at the university.
“People here are open to collaboration. When we first started, it was a team of two — just Benay and me,” Ghazvinian said. “After two or three semesters, we had a team of more than 12, developed from several different departments and colleges.”
In addition to the College of Arts and Architecture, some of those who collaborated with Gürsoy and Ghazvinian on their research come from the College of Engineering and Eberly College of Science. Ghazvinian was also able to connect with researchers outside of Penn State, including with a researcher at North Carolina State University, and one from the University of Calgary.
Looking ahead, Ghazvinian said mycelium-based composites are starting to be commercialized for different reasons. Some startups are using the mycelium-based composites as synthetic leather.
In addition to noting the nearly 40% of carbon emissions being produced by the built environment, Ghazvinian said he believes this environmental problem will worsen without alternatives as more buildings are predicted to be built in the next two decades.
“We have to make a lot of habitats to account for the number of people in this world in the next 20 years, and if we want to build with the same materials that we are using right now, we will end up in a disaster.” — Ali Ghazvinian
Ghazvinian pointed to other sustainable materials from the agricultural industry, such as sawdust and hemp, that are biodegradable and will not only not contribute to the waste but can be recycled.
“That’s the idea of the circular economy, and I believe [mycelium] shows very well how it can be used in the building industry,” he said. “I would say in the next 10 to 15 years, with the progress that we can make, we can make [mycelium-based composites] even better for being used in the building industry.”
Ghazvinian, who successfully defended his thesis and will walk at graduation on May 7, said he thinks mycelium will be utilized more in the future as research and collaboration, such as the kind he experienced at Penn State, continues to grow.
“This openness on everyone’s part at Penn State gave me, and gave us, a chance to do this research,” Ghazvinian said. “[The Alumni Association Dissertation Award] is now being awarded to me as the front man, but it’s the efforts of more than 15 people. If I could start this again, I would choose Penn State 100 times.”
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