Buildings Made of Wool and Fungus? Meet the Textile Expert Who’s Making It Happen.
Felecia Davis is pioneering all-fiber construction materials, clothes that monitor your health — and much more
By Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson
November 15, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. EST
Imagine you’re standing in an outdoor pavilion, one that’s similar in design to a covered picnic area at a local park or an amphitheater, only instead of support columns made from concrete, wood or stone, this structure is propped up by what appear to be posts of crocheted wool. Above you, a vast expanse of undulating roof is made of the same knitted material. Fungus coats this wool frame, forming the walls and the ceiling, not unlike the way plaster might cover the wood framing of a wall.
This is the premise of an experimental material known as MycoKnit. “We’re trying to make an all-fiber building,” says designer Felecia Davis, an associate professor of architecture and a lead researcher in the Stuckeman Center for Design Computing at Pennsylvania State University. She is part of an interdisciplinary team testing how knitted materials, such as wool yarn, might function as the framing for a building while a mixture of straw and mycelium fungus embeds itself onto this knitted fabric to create the rest. Mycelium is composed of individual fibers known as hyphae, which, in nature, create vast and intricate networks through soil, producing things like mushrooms. The amazing thing, Davis tells me, is that something as basic as fiber can become both the structure (the wool yarn) and the infill (the fungus).
Davis and her partners are harnessing mycelium’s fast-growing power by regulating environmental conditions in the lab to encourage the fungus’s expansion on their knitted edifice. With the assistance of a computer algorithm made by one of Davis’s PhD students, the team can virtually assemble and examine the structure stitch-by-stitch in order to predict its shape, before building it and letting the fungus propagate overtop.
“The idea that future building materials could be ‘grown’ rather than manufactured is fascinating,” architect Scott Duncan said in 2021, upon awarding MycoKnit a research prize from the foundation arm of SOM, the firm where he is a design partner. He noted that a malleable, lightweight material like MycoKnit has the potential to change the very shape of buildings.
It’s projects like this one that have cemented Davis as a star in computational textile design, a subset of the architecture and design field that uses technology — processors, sensors, actuators, cloud computing and networks — to develop new possibilities for soft materials. Davis is now working with her students to create a 12-by-12-by-12-foot MycoKnit prototype that can be fabricated and grown in one place, and then taken on-site to build, like an Ikea kit. She imagines a future where biofabricated materials replace less-sustainable building supplies, many of which wind up in landfills.
Davis is a triple threat designer: trained as both an architect and an engineer, and with a penchant for technology. In her Penn State lab and through her firm, Felecia Davis Studio, she mixes time-honored craft techniques and humble materials with the high-tech — so that clothing might, for instance, alert the wearer to excess carbon monoxide in the air or signal when an infant stops breathing in their crib. Davis works with textiles, she says, because “you can address it at the nano- and micro-scale with tiny particles that you can spin to make a thread or yarn, or you can look at it from the massive scale. A building. A city.”
In September, Davis was named a 2022 National Design Award winner by the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum for her portfolio of projects. “We’re not just recognizing the work that people like Felecia have done in the past,” one of the jurors, industrial designer Raja Schaar, tells me. “We’re also interested in how the work that they’ve done, and are continuing to do, will inspire and catalyze their field.” What Davis dreams up in her lab and studio, Schaar says, “is the future of design.”
Davis has always loved experimenting with objects and material. The oldest of three siblings, her earliest collaborator was her sister Audrey (now a neonatologist). As kids in the ’60s and ’70s, they explored the foothills of Altadena, Calif., near their home, gathering fresh bay laurel leaves and other natural materials for projects. With their friends, they fashioned dolls out of flour-based papier-mâché, carving apples for the heads. “Some things worked, other things grew mold and were awful and had to be thrown out,” Davis said in a video for the PBS series “Women in Science Profiles.” The joy, she tells me, was in the making, even though “we were basically creating the optimal conditions for fungal growth.”
Davis’s mother volunteered at the Pasadena Art Museum and introduced her children to abstract art and modernism; she was also a docent at the Gamble House in Pasadena, one of the country’s most well-preserved examples of Arts and Crafts design. Davis credits that house, in part, for her early desire to pursue architecture. “We would do our homework in the attic while she gave her tours,” Davis says. “That house was mind-blowing.”
On a recent October day, the SoftLab at Penn State is “messy,” Davis says, but that mess is a necessity of the play that leads to creative sparks of insight. Fabric samples have been stretched and pinned to a corkboard, sharing space next to thin electrical conduits and sketches of networking design. There are clear boxes filled with copper-coated yarn and fabrics twisted with stainless steel that are capable of conducting electricity. Davis is refreshingly agnostic about her sourcing, using a combination of existing craft techniques and materials — from wool to human hair — in combination with the latest in software and hardware, such as the LilyPad Arduino, a microcontroller designed to work with e-textiles.
A pair of black leggings stretch across the bottom half of a dress form. From a distance, they resemble something a rock star might wear, bedazzled and tricked out with lines of metallic thread, but on closer inspection these accents are electrical threads and processors. The leggings are the result of a partnership with Penn State engineer Conrad Tucker, who wanted to create a way of alerting people with Parkinson’s disease to subtle changes in their walking gait, which can foreshadow the onset of more debilitating symptoms. “We ended up with an algorithm that could tell how people were moving,” Davis says, “and we learned that we could have an algorithm that worked through our sensors in the clothing.”
The leggings were originally an information-gathering experiment, but “we’ve circled back on this project now that we have a yarn that is washable,” she says. “We think we can make a simpler version of our leggings.” Davis sees the potential for other “smart” clothing like a hospital shirt that frees patients from the tether of wires affixed to machines, allowing them to move freely or, ideally, go home sooner because their clothes, connected to the internet, would be able to communicate critical data to doctors.
While Davis was earning her master’s in architecture at Princeton University, she “noticed how little people talk about the emotional experience of people in [a] space.” And yet our human-built environment — anything that is created by us and not by nature — is pivotal to how we feel. “You’re in basic response with your environment all the time,” Davis says. “You’re meshing with it, which is why it’s so important to think about human emotion in design.” In this view, the aesthetics of what we design is more than an accessory, but a fundamental need in support of human emotional health. “We as designers can be more conscious of the role emotion plays in design and what gets communicated through seeing and touching objects in our environment,” Davis says. “The objects that we see and touch shape experiences in our brains.”
As humans we tend to imbue the materials in our lives with emotional resonance — a child’s security blanket or a favorite sweater — and Davis has wondered whether we could also imbue the materials themselves with emotional feedback capacities. In 2012, she partnered with two other designers to create and install a project called the Textile Mirror at Microsoft Research Lab in Redmond, Calif. In the back of a fabric panel, Nitinol wires, made of a shape-changing nickel-titanium alloy, were activated after a person entered information about their state of mind into a mobile phone. The panel would adjust, shrinking and crumpling to reflect pain or sadness, for instance, and then release. As the textile “relaxed,” it helped those in an agitated state to relax as well. Textiles capable of reflecting emotion have the potential to alert architects, building owners and inhabitants to the effect that specific design and material choices have. We can begin to create emotionally reactive dwellings and objects, as Davis calls them.
This led to a research project in 2016 called FELT, or Feeling Emotion Linked by Touch, which included a computational textile panel capable of changing shape on its own. Davis was interested in understanding how people’s emotions might change upon seeing, and then feeling, a shape-shifting material. Her study found that a computational textile can be an effective nonverbal communicator, with participants noting a variety of new feelings based on interactions with the panel. As Davis wrote in the 2017 book “Textiles for Advanced Applications,” a textile that can move or change its shape “could be used on a robot as robot skin, for example, for people who may benefit from some communication through vision and touch.” Research like hers is helping to spur an emerging architecture of emotion that prioritizes how aesthetic experiences affect our well-being.
As someone who believes in the scientific method of showing data and results, Davis recognizes that working with emotions is tricky. It’s nearly impossible to scientifically pin down, precisely, what people are feeling at any given time. “This is kind of at the edge of what computation can actually tell you,” she says. “We can’t read people’s minds, and yet we function as a species because we can intuitively read emotions.”
What Schaar finds particularly compelling about Davis’s creations is that they are aesthetically stunning and functional. “Felecia’s work is coming from this architectural standpoint, but you look at her portfolio and you could think that it came from a textile designer, a fashion designer, an industrial designer or a sculptor,” Schaar says. Her work “is not just locked in a lab,” Schaar continues. “She’s looking to create more accessible, healthy, inclusive technologies that are also available to everyone.”
Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson is a writer in Baltimore.