This is the second installment in Currents’ Thinkers & Makers series occasionally focusing on the region’s innovators and inventors.
“The fungus does the heavy lifting,” says Christopher Maurer, founder and principal architect of redhouse studio in Cleveland’s Ohio City. He was talking about making building materials from living organisms, specifically mycelium–a substance basic to mushrooms. That was just one of many mind-blowing statements Maurer made in our wide-ranging conversation that was a follow-up to meeting him at Sears think[box] (TB) on Case Western Reserve University’s campus last summer. At that time, Maurer was making an aluminum frame for a press mold. Ultimately, the frame will hold thick aluminum sheets that will compress “bioterials” (materials that use mycelium and other microorganisms’ growth in their manufacture) in a 20-ton press.
Christopher’s enthusiasm for educating the world (including this reporter) about building with bioterials and creating sustainable designs for habitats in developing countries and on Mars is infectious. He’s quick to refer the uninitiated to a TED talk called, “Six Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World,” which was fascinating. Unfortunately, singing mycelium’s myriad praises is beyond the scope of this story.

Redhouse is an edgy firm that, ironically, wasn’t named for its focus on “red planet” or Martian housing. The red is evocative of “redeveloping” abandoned urban housing–a project dear to Maurer’s heart when he taught architecture at Kent State after returning from Africa. According to its website, redhouse “engages in all facets of architecture, from research and innovation in low impact material technologies, to design and fabrication, to building commissioning and net-zero retrofits. We split our resources between architectural design, research, and humanitarianism. We work closely with our clients to innovate and design sustainable solutions built for a brighter future for all.” And this firm really lives its mission statement.

Their research department works with NASA Glenn, currently the headquarters for VINE (Virtual Institute for Nature-Inspired Exploration), more commonly referred to as biomimicry (the design and production of materials, structures, and systems modeled on biological entities and processes.) Maurer stated in an e-mail that because of redhouse’s relationship with NASA, it has been able to work with researchers all over the world at top institutions to secure NASA funding to develop habitats that can grow themselves off-planet and funding from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to make self-replicating buildings–think mitosis for shelter!

Visitors to redhouse’s website will be impressed with the sophisticated, inflatable structures that can be “grown” in other environments–whether on Mars or for one of MIT’s “Fab Labs” (a makers’ space like think[box] Maurer notes) –in Namibia, a project redhouse is currently working on with MIT. If all goes as planned the Namibian Fab Lab will be self-replicating. It’s difficult to explain (and understand) how structures can inflate or self-replicate, but here’s an easy analogy: Think about what happens to the dried oats and fruit when you hydrate your oatmeal mix. Well, dehydrated building materials get shipped to wherever; then something’s added to hydrate the material and the process yields a whole new textured environment–in this case a structure. The analogy is vastly over-simplified but still accurate.

So how did a young man from Canton who got his master’s degree in architecture at Kent State University end up working on universal sustainable designs?  Maurer gives credit to being exposed to the ideas of “starkitects” at studioMDA in New York City, where he worked with professionals whose previous experience included collaborating with the late Zaha Hadid, the Iraqi-born British architect known for her radical deconstructivist designs. Hadid was the first woman to win the Pritzker Architectural Prize, a top honor in the field.
At this point in his career Maurer has worked on projects all over the world: New York, Anchorage, Rwanda and Florence. What he’s working on in his own backyard is a bee barn for the Ohio City Farm on W. 25 Street and Franklin. It will be climate-controlled enough to keep bees warm through our harsh winters. Maurer explains the barn will be “the world’s first bio-cycled structure. The boards will be made from wood chips from other demolished buildings and we’ll use microbes to bind the wood chips.” This was where Maurer mentioned “the fungus does the heavy lifting” as mycelium is crucial to bonding the recycled wood chips.

Maurer’s firm also has projects with H.E.L.P. Malawi, a nongovernmental organization (NGO) based in Cleveland that was started by Jillian Wolstein and with Refugee Response. His work and energy seem to defy the maxim there’s no such thing as perpetual motion. Indeed, talking to Maurer for 90 minutes makes me wonder, “What brain drain? You just need to know where to look to find Northeast Ohioans who are solving the world’s problems while employing and mentoring others along the way.” Maurer loves his adopted hometown and proclaims, “Cleveland can be the proving ground [for sustainable building solutions], just like the burning river was a turning point for cleaning up our country’s waterways.”
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redhouse studio and other hip businesses are located in the renovated Ohio City Firehouse on W. 29th Street. (With permission C. Butz)

Christopher Maurer, founder and principal architect at redhouse studio

redhouse studio’s beautiful lobby is located in the renovated Ohio City Firehouse on Cleveland’s W. 29th Street. Photograph by Sarah Jaquay