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Charlotte Professor Breaks Architectural Boundaries with Myco-Materials

The mushroom man

Jonathan Dessi-Olive shows off his mushroom-based construction materials
Jonathan Dessi-Olive shows off his mushroom-based construction materials. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Jonathan Dessi-Olive sits at a small desk in the corner of a massive room. Between the brick walls and below the high ceilings lie the makings of a construction site — steel beams, tarps, and 17 white sheets, all 6 to 14 feet in length, an inch and a half thick, and made completely out of mushrooms and hemp.

“I’ll grab you a chair that’s not dusty,” he said when I arrived at his workspace on campus at UNC Charlotte. The assistant professor of architecture’s black hair curled over the sides of his glasses rims, and his burrito print socks peeked out from below his slacks as he sat with crossed legs.

About six years ago, Dessi-Olive began working with mushroom-based construction materials, called “myco-materials,” which are made out of a mushroom’s root — the part that doesn’t go on your pizza or salad. The live mushroom root acts as a glue that binds hemp wood chips together, forming the material he uses for his building projects.

Dessi-Olive told Queen City Nerve he was inspired to look into myco-materials after witnessing the destruction of a building in Atlanta, where he lived in 2017. 

“The Georgia Dome got demolished,” he said. “It was kind of weird to me, because I remember the Georgia Dome being built. I’m old enough to remember it getting built, at the time, only 25 years before. I mean, I was a kid when it was built, but I remember seeing it when I was watching the ’96 Olympics … And it really hit me at the right time.”

After seeing the Georgia Dome, a building that could potentially have existed for hundreds of years, get torn down only for a new one to be built across the street, Dessi-Olive began researching more sustainable building materials. 

“I saw the building go down and it was like, all right, we’re gonna start making buildings out of something that’s not gonna be a bunch of rubble in a landfill,” he said.

Myco-material is completely compostable and allows Dessi-Olive to build prototypes for projects and teach students hands-on without the guilt of contributing to the 800 million tons of construction waste created every year. 

Dessi-Olive loves working with students on myco-material projects, because it helps them realize that what they learn in school is not the limit of what is possible in their careers. 

“My entire architecture education we didn’t really talk about anything more than wood, steel, concrete, maybe a little plastic, glass, and carbon fiber near the end,” he said, “so for me it’s just seeing that sense of disbelief kind of go away in the student where you say, ‘We are gonna do something that sounds so ridiculous,’ because for those three years that they’ve been studying architecture, they’ve only been told X, Y, and Z and that’s the limit of their education. And the materials like this and kinds of processes that we’re using, the technologies that we’re incorporating into this room in order to make a lot of this possible are literally unbelievable to them.”

An up close look at Dessi-Olive’s myco-materials
An up-close look at Dessi-Olive’s myco-materials. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The first myco-material project he and his students worked on was a 9-by-9-foot singing pavilion. Since then, he and his students have completed a number of innovative projects. 

Students who had gotten their weaving badge in the Boy Scouts weaved a column filled with the material. They have made spiral staircases and screen walls. “We’ve made a bunch of what I like to call ‘house parts,’ but never the whole house. So we’re working on getting the parts put together [to do that],” he said.

But when we visited, Dessi-Olive and his students were working on more of an artistic endeavor, one that will be his biggest myco-material undertaking yet.

A collaboration for dys/connect

The 17 massive white sheets scattered across the floor when we visited Dessi-Olive’s workspace will soon be put together to form a structure that will hang from the ceiling during dys/connect, an upcoming performance showcase scheduled for Jan. 30 at Charlotte Art League (CAL) and hosted by UNC Charlotte’s Digital Arts Center. The structure will absorb acoustics in an echoey room so that visitors can focus on enjoying the art and music.

“There’s 11 vignettes that are happening, like little performance vignettes, and each vignette is a collaboration between mostly music and another area of our college,” explained Jessica Lindsey, director of the Digital Arts Center and professor of clarinet at UNC Charlotte. “It’s really given me the opportunity to sit down with different members of our college and present, you know, here’s some music that we could use. Are you inspired to create dance? Are you inspired to create theatre? Are you inspired to create visual art in video? Or whatever else you could imagine.”

According to Lindsey, prior to the music portion of the showcase, visitors will be able to walk through the space to view physical art pieces, as well as art viewed by augmented reality, at the same time. “You will be able to see everything that’s in the space, but you’ll see different markers, you can tap on those, and then a virtual or augmented piece of art will pop up for you to walk around,” she said. 

The augmented art gallery is a collaboration between UNC Charlotte associate professor of architecture Ming-Chun Lee, whose academic focus is geographic information science (GIsci), and a former student of his. The gallery will feature about 15 pieces from five different artists.

After visitors stroll around the exhibit, a combination of digital and live music will be performed with the help of Dessi-Olive’s structure. Along with the acoustic absorption, Dessi-Olive hopes that the structure will spread the music around the room, like a surround sound system, but “the performance will tell,” he says.

Jonathan Dessi-Olive shows off his mushroom-based materials
UNC Charlotte professor Jonathan Dessi-Olive is working with his students to create a hanging acoustic-absorbing sculpture made of fungi and hemp that’s designed utilizing augmented reality and will hang within an event space at Charlotte Art League. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Dessi-Olive and his team will begin simulating soon, to see how differently shaped sheets affect sound.

The showcase will take place at the CAL, a nonprofit art gallery located just north of NoDa in the recently opened Trailhead arts building. CAL executive director Jim Dukes was more than happy to approve Dessi-Olive’s proposal to use their space.

“This idea particularly blew my mind and I just felt like there was something extremely special here with this project and the team,” Dukes said. “I hate limits and I hate rules and to be able to do a project here that breaks the limits and breaks the rules is exactly what we want to be doing.”

After putting on the augmented reality headset and seeing the project in action, Dukes decided to get involved. He began to write grants to buy equipment and fund teaching opportunities for Dessi-Olive’s students to work with underserved youth that have a passion for augmented reality and design in STEAM and STEM programs.

“It’s one of these secret squirrel things that goes on around here that not a lot of people know about yet, but when they find out what is going on with it, it’s gonna blow their minds,” Dukes said.

Jonathan Dessi-Olive. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Dessi-Olive said he’s grateful for Dukes’ support, which came without question, and for the space lent to him by Charlotte Art League, which will be home to his biggest project yet.

“In my career (this is) the biggest experiment with this material,” Dessi-Olive said, “not by volume of material itself, but by volume of deploying that material. The amount of space that this material is going to take is, for me, the largest that it will have ever occupied.”

When finished, the structure will be 20 feet by 20 feet in area and 6 feet deep in volume. It will be on display during the two dys/connect shows on Jan. 30. The first showing will be at 6 p.m., and the last at 8 p.m., but the doors will be open before and after the shows for visitors to explore the augmented art gallery. Tickets are $8 and free for UNC Charlotte students. Dessi-Olive’s structure will remain available for viewing at CAL beyond the date of the show.

The future of myco

Dessi-Olive hopes to one day put his house parts together to build a complete house, but in the meantime, he is happy with the ever-growing popularity of myco-materials. The material is already being used by eco-conscious companies all over the world as a replacement for the styrofoam used in packaging.

Beauty companies and subscription services use the material. Furniture companies have started using it as well. 

“It may not be as popular as concrete or vinyl or two-by-fours but it’s getting there,” Dessi-Olive said. 

He explained that he views his role in working with myco-materials as testing its ability to work at scale. He wants to go far beyond packing peanuts and living room furniture, and he is pushing the limits of size with every project, especially with his work for the Charlotte Art League.

Though he is extremely passionate about sustainable architecture, his biggest passion is teaching. He hopes to continue to offer students knowledge that could improve the world, and their lives.

“The magic is not even the piece itself, it’s the process and it’s the kind of community of people who have the knowledge that come out of that process,” he said, “so even sending 20 more architects out into the world and into the professional workspace with skills that other people don’t have, to me I think that is really special because I think it can, one, advance the field and, two, provide North Carolinians with better opportunities for jobs later on.”

Other than his hope to see myco-made houses, he is excited to see the material take on other forms. He is thrilled about talk of the material replacing foam and fiberglass, and hopes that sustainable materials become the new normal, and that we see them in places like restaurants and office buildings.

“It’s not that it’s surprising that there’s mushrooms there. It’s surprising that they’re not,” he said.

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