Mushrooms are a versatile ingredient that can be used in a variety of dishes, but recently they are taking on a role outside the kitchen.

Joseph Dahmen and partner Amber Frid-Jimenez are behind an innovative design project that saw six benches made from mycelium, the vegetative body of a fungus, installed on the University of British Columbia's campus.

The pair, along with UBC staff and students, constructed the benches by allowing the mycelium -- in this case, oyster mushroom spores -- to grow in alder sawdust. Then, the mixture was packed into moulds and left for five days.

"It needs some time to dry out, but once it does it develops strength," Dahmen, an architecture professor at UBC, told CTV News. "It is about the same, or a little stronger, than most polystyrene foams."

"Fungus is fast-growing, it is reasonably resilient and it doesn't need very many energy inputs to grow," he added.

While mycelium composites can be contaminated by mould and bacteria if they grow larger than a half-metre in thickness, Dahmen developed a new technique that drew upon the honeycomb structure of wasps nests to increase their size.

The main appeal of the innovative building material is its natural properties. In fact, Dahmen and Frid-Jimenez, who is the Canada research chair in design and technology at Emily Carr University of Art and Design, were drawn to mycelium after struggling to work with polystyrene blocks -- which contain toxic substances such as styrene and benzene -- on another architectural installation.

"Amber couldn’t get near the thing because it was so toxic," Dahmen said in a press release.

"It got me thinking that there must be a more natural material that would still enable a similar range of expression."

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has labelled styrene "reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen."

Dahmen said mycelium biocomposites could also act as an environmentally friendly replacement for the range of roles played by styrofoam, which is expanded polystyrene.

"Styrofoam is a material that functions for a short amount of time as packaging, and then spends hundreds, if not thousands, of years in a landfill," said Dahmen.

In contrast, mycelium biocomposite completely decomposes and helps break down other wastes.

Dahmen also sees the potential for mycelium biocomposites as an alternative form of insulation in buildings.

"The average age of commercial buildings in North America is under 40 years," he said.

"If we could imagine construction materials that add positive value to ecosystems as they break down, we have a whole new paradigm for the way we approach buildings, at a time when we’re demolishing most buildings long before they wear out."

And other innovators and companies are trying to use the material in a variety of ways.

Philip Ross heads the San Francisco-based company MycoWorks, which is dedicated to designing and engineering sustainable products.

Ross hopes to replace non-organic materials such as styrofoam and plastic with mycelium biocomposites.

"Anyone concerned about the environment, about the chemicals or the toxic effects of longer-lasting plastics should be thinking about these types of things," Ross told CTV News.

Plastic products have been linked to residual toxic chemicals and chemical additives, and are also one of the most "common and persistent pollutants" in oceans and on beaches around the world.

While mycelium biocomposites have yet to gain mainstream adoption, several companies, such as IKEA, are exploring their uses.

The Swedish furniture giant recently announced it is considering using mushroom packaging created by the U.S. firm Ecovative.

Ecovative says its mycelium biocomposites can also be used to make parts for pumps, compressors, LED lights, computer servers, power supplies, printers, small coolers and an assortment of home and office furniture.

With a report by CTV's British Columbia Bureau Chief Melanie Nagy