Team:Stanford-Brown-RISD/Human Practices

Integrated Human Practices


The impact of our project and research conducted to bring it to fruition, will reach all the way from Earth to Mars. For that reason, we decided to define human practices in two different ways: how it will effect Mars and how it will effect the Earth.

For Mars, unfortunately, because there are no users on Mars (yet!) it was impossible for us to engage with end users of our habitat. For that reason we decided the most effective approach would be to discuss with the experts who would be utilizing this design. During our interviews we discussed the parameters of our design and what cautionary steps we would need to talk in our design to not only protect travelers to Mars but the planet as well from contamination.

For earth we explored that technological implications of mycelium composites and how they could be used in sustainable industrial products and housing.

Below is how we engaged with experts and members of the community who had a stake by our research, for “Martian” and human practices.

Martian Habitats

The idea of people living on Mars is an inherently exciting prospect, and it can be a great deal of fun to dream of what the homes, or even cities, of a future martian colony would be like--will they be giant geodesic domes filled with lush greenery that dot the martian landscape and are connected by underground tunnels? Or will they be totally underground, an endless maze that will shield its inhabitants from the harsh cosmic rays? Or perhaps even crafted from ice--creating glistening ice sculptures upon the martian surface?

However, for our team just as alluring and fun as the imaginative aspect of designing for Mars is--which we certainly explored--was the challenge of designing our habitat to be a highly cost-effective, protective, and functional design.

There are a lot of moving parts that go into generating a design like this. We needed to understand what are the basic functions that a general habitat needs to fulfill (i.e. places to rest, to work, and to socialize. Certain degrees of privacy and lighting are also requirements) and what new functions a habitat on Mars would need to fulfill (for example protection from the harsh environment and radiation). We also had to investigate the different options for Martian habitats that exist already, craft the mission architecture, and consider the laws and regulation of planetary protection that would certainly impact our project.

In order to get the best possible answers to these questions we engaged directly with experts planning the exploration of Mars, and overseeing the protection of the planet.

Our first contact was Oliver Morton, a British science writer and former editor of Nature. We presented our rough ideas about our project to him, and he gave us guidance on how to present the information more effectively and what areas we needed to explore more. And, perhaps most importantly, he also questioned our motives. He asked why we wanted to design a Martian habitat in the first place, when we could also easily focus on the earth and probably have a greater immediate impact. It was a difficult question that required us to be introspective about a notion that seemed so obvious at first. After a lot of dialogue we realized, while designing a Martian Habitat may not benefit the maximum number of people, designing in Space gives us the freedom to explore new ideas and materials without having to worry about the constraints of the market and competition on Earth. After our first interview with Morton, we had a better understanding of the direction we needed to go in and why. We were now ready to discuss with specialists in Martian and space travel.

Team Members Emilia Mann, Leo Penny, Arvind Veluvali, and Advait Patil with Oliver Morton

We interviewed Dr. Michael Meyer, the lead scientist of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program (, to answer some of our primary questions about what the design of a human mission to Mars would like. We asked about which options for martian habitats are currently being explored by NASA--he shared two, both 3D printed structures, one created from a composite made from Martian regolith the other ice--as well as questions about the longevity that is required of the mission, the estimated budget, the kinds of experiments that would be run, the benefit of having people on Mars versus and Rover, and how does NASA define acceptable risk.

Team Members Emilia Mann, Leo Penny, and Javier Syquia meeting with Dr.Michael Meyer

Lisa Pratt, NASA Planetary Protection Officer

Amy Kronenberg and Emilia K Mann at the NIAC Symposium.

We also spoke with Dr. Lisa Pratt, NASA’s planetary protection officer, about concerns that may arise from the fact that we are using a biological material as our main building component. Pratt informed us that we needed to ensure that no spores would be able to form from our mycelium blocks, and to ensure that there will not be the creation of a superorganism due to the interaction between the mycelium and the substrate it eats. We were also reminded that there are specific parameters in regards to harvesting water from the Martian surface. But most importantly, Pratt emphasized that many of these regulations will be subject to change as real human missions to Mars are planned and that we therefore must remain adaptive and anticipate any potential issues.

Jim Head, a professor at Brown University in the Department of Geoscience, gave us excellent recommendations on potential landing sites for Mars as well as other important logistical information key to the mission architecture of our design.

Lastly, Amy Kronenberg, Biophysicist Staff Scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy Lawrence Berkeley Labs, as well as a member of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts advisory board, gave us great insight and critique on our radiation protection. We had initially planned to use melanin, but she encouraged us to focus on finding ways to increase the number of protons (hydrogen) present to protect from cosmic radiation as melanin is only useful for UV radiation which the mycelial structures themselves should do. As a result we shifted our focus to creating a design that contains a thin outer layer of water. She also provided us with important literature [0].

The information and feedback we received from these experts greatly informed our mission architecture––helping us to design a mission that not only fits NASA’s requirements but also protects the planet in order to ensure the integrity of scientific missions to Mars.

Sustainable Industrial Products

Phil Ross, of Mycoworks

Eben Bayer, of Ecovative

Rolando Perez, of the Endy Lab

We initially gravitated towards using mycelium as the core material in the design our habitat for Mars because of its self-perpetuating property--it can grow, given a substrate to bind, into the shape of any mold it is placed in. The results of our work demonstrated that we could produce a cost-effective, replicable habitat for Martian exploration.

However, as our research progressed and we spoke to more experts working with the material, we learned there was so much more to mycelium than its self-growing properties.

Phil Ross, one of the founders of MycoWorks, a company working to produce a more humane and sustainable leather from mycelium, was one of our first points of contact. He showed us a material produced from mycelium that behaved and looked just like leather. It was so unlike any of the solid mycelium bricks we had produced. He emphasized to us the ways in which the mechanical properties of mycelium can be manipulated by how it is grown and what is grown on.

This sentiment was echoed by Rolando Perez, a Ph.D. student focused on mycelium at Stanford University in the Drew Endy Lab.He also added that the strain of the mushroom can affect its material properties, and for that reason he is currently working on creating a fungal database in order to make information about mycelium more accessible to the public and other researchers.

Eben Bayer, one of the co-founders of Ecovative, a company that got its start producing mycelium based styrofoam)emphasized in our interview with him how he first got interested in mycelium because of how it can act as a natural glue, binding together diverse substrates to create new material that is completely biodegradable. As a company they have conducted many material tests and found the material to be strong and flame retardant. Check out their materialspecs here.

Through these conversations it became clear to us that mycelium has the potential to revolutionize product manufacturing on earth, by introducing a completely biodegradable material that is also self-growing. These key characteristics will allow manufactures to cut back on the cost, time, energy, and environmental impact involved with traditional production methods. And the ability of manipulate the mechanical properties of the materials ensures that mycelium could be used as a substitute for a variety of products—from furniture to clothing to medical devices.

In response to this exciting realization we began exploring the ways mycelium could be used to create other products that might be necessary for our habitat--ranging from furniture, to scientific instruments, to a filtration system, to even a Rover chassis. We even generated some designs and prototypes for a few of these ideas, fully flushing out the idea of an entire living space created from one material.

One of first designs was a modular hexagonal stool that could be assembled into a larger surface through many units or separated into individual seating. We grew this stool by crating a hexagon mold from recycled cardboard and then stuffing the stool with aspen chips coated with mycelium. Within two weeks we had grown a fully functional stool! Images of us crafting, baking, and testing the tool can be seen below.

Step 1: Grow mycelium on yard waste

Step 2: After ~1 week of growth, transfer mycelium to mold.

Step 3: Let mycelium grow; pictured above is after 1 week.

Pictured above is the mycelium stool after ~1.5 weeks of growth.

Stool after 2 weeks of growth.

Close-up of stool after 2 weeks of growth.

Outer growth of fruiting bodies taken off to reduce chance of spreading fungal spores.

Pictured above is team member Emilia Mann sitting on the stool after it has been baked.

However, in order to have a holistic approach, we also wanted to understand what were the challenges of introducing this material to the public, something we questioned these pioneers on. They all echoed similar statements regarding some social resistance to the use of fungus in products. And perhaps the even greater challenge is shifting policy to favor the production of more sustainable products over cheaper, more environmentally damaging products. However, as Eben Bayer noted, opinions about mycelium are shifting. What was at first perceived as strange and alien, is now the center of growing excitement and research. People are thrilled by mycelium and all the potential it has to help create a better, more sustainable future.

Sustainable Housing

While exploring the design of our habitat for Mars, we realized that the short-time frame for construction of the house combined it’s self-growing and eco-friendly nature might make our habitat useful on the earth.

Chris Maurer with team member Emilia Mann at the NIAC Symposium in Boston, September 2018.

Maria Aiolova of Terreform One

To further expand our ideas we consulted with Architects Chris Maurer, from redhouse studio in Ohio and a key collaborator on the NIAC with Dr. Lynn Rothschild, and Maria Aiolova, the co-founder of Terreform One, a non-profit that is focused on envisioning what a truly environmental city would like. Both these designers have done work exploring the potential of mycelium in an architectural setting.

Maurer emphasized the sustainable nature of the material, and their relative affordability--he speculated that some of the structures he has designed using mycelium would only cost around $8000 to produce. He also spoke about the many properties mycelium has that makes it an excellent building material--fire resistant, insulating, etc. He has also incorporated the remediating process of fungi in his designs to help clean up waste. Aiolova also noted the material’s excellent building properties--highlighting that it has great acoustics and could also could create an invigorating natural microbiome in interior spaces. She also cautioned, however, that when we design with mycelium we should be conscious of the material constraints—highlighting that multi-story building made solely of mycelium are unlikely and that rather it the creation of composite materials with mycelium that will create successful buildings.

With this information in mind, we began by brainstorming a variety of housing needs. At first we considered adapting the design of the house for refugees--a pressing issues, with the United Nations Human Rights Council estimating that in 2016 65.6 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes, with 22.5 million of those people falling under the category of “refugees” [1]. However after reading reports about the crisis and discussions with designers involved with refugee design we concluded that the development of another “pop up” house would not address the route of the problems--which have much more to do with policy [2].

Next we looked inwards, focusing on the local issues of homelessness in San Francisco. California, as a whole, hosts 12% of the population of the United States, but 22% of the homeless population [3]. Again, however, deeper exploration revealed that while a shortage of affordable housing was a component, it was not addressing the core of the problem.

Turning once again to the drawing board, we decided to revisit what Maurer and Aiolova had said, this time focusing of the idea of sustainability and affordability. Construction is a major contributor to global warming and pollution; the construction of buildings alone is responsible for up to 40% of carbon emissions[4]. And in the US alone there are 50 million tons of demolition produced annually[5]. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, there are a myriad of benefits to reducing the protection of demolition--ranging from cutting down on the number of demolition facilities needed to preventing the construction of more landfills.

We propose that our martian habitat, which is grown in an inflatable mold (which on earth, unlike on Mars, could be removed and reused), would be a great new form of sustainable housing. In addition it could be cost effective and reduce population by taking advantage of the ability of a fungus to absorb many toxins.


[0] Zeitlin, C. et al. (2004). Overview of the Martian radiation environment experiment.

[1] (2016) UNHRC Global Trends--forced displacement in 2016

[2] Fairs, Marcus (2017) “Don’t Design Another Shelter” for Refugees, Says Experts.

[3] Hart, Angela (2017). How California’s Housing Crisis Happened.

[4] Chris Maurer. Biocycler.\

[5] Sustainable Management of Construction and Demolition materials.