CAROLYN'S BLOG ABOUT THE HOUSE CONSTRUCTION
AND THE YEARS BEYOND
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Sun, Feb 27
6:30 am

Snow!-Living with Earthen Floors: It's Sunday morning again and I'm inside my cozy house, while a wet, cold front blows through. This house is so incredibly solid! - with two foot thick walls covered with layers of strong plasters, the heartiest winds have no chance to budge the walls. It's incredibly quiet, too, so a storm can rage outside and I am barely aware anything is going on from the inside. I just peeked and the Tucson Mountains are covered with snow! I drove down the road in my pj's with my camera and took some photos - this is rare and beautiful.

I thought I'd talk about this earthen floor, since it seems to be the focus of most home tour questions. I have this really unusual floor. I think the best photos are the sunroom and the main room. If you read the book, then you know what I went through to get this floor. It is made of high clay soil, mortar sand, and water mixed in a wheelbarrow or mortar mixer. It was soaked with linseed oil and turpentine, then coated with an acrylic-based floor sealer called Arizona Sealer from Border Products in Tucson. It has been with me ten years now and is not only wonderful thermal mass to help maintain the interior of the house and beautiful in an earthy way, but softer than concrete or tile, so wonderful to bare feet or stocking feet. But there are things I would do differently and things I have had to do to maintain the floor through the years.

First of all, if I were going to do the floor again, I would remember to put a layer of black plastic waterproofing underneath the floor. Even though my floor is raised a foot above the ground, I notice the effect during our monsoons when the humidity increases and the desert is often wet. Some builders explained it to me on one of the home tours. I guess they have the same problem with concrete floors, if they don't put down a vapor barrier. In my floor, the humidity from the earth gets into the ground beneath my floor and tries to come up through the floor. I get little tiny cracks that push up the linseed oil and become sticky. I go around scraping off the linseed and covering again with more sealer, but it's annoying. So, put down a vapor barrier.

Secondly, I think I would put a very thin layer of concrete above the vapor barrier. This would prevent insects from eating through to the floor. In my first couple of years, I had ground termites and ants coming through the floor. I know one can't hope to keep their house completely ant-free, but the earthen floor is just earth to critters, so I really recommend this. I put a termite barrier around the house and also an ant barrier. I redo the ant barrier every spring and this seems to do a good job. But a thin layer of concrete would do a better job.

I don't know if I really recommend doing this floor, unless you are prepared for a ton of work. The mixture of clay, sand and water is really heavy. We had to wheelbarrow it into the house, up ramps that covered the stairs. Then, we spent hours (me and two volunteers) spreading it with trowels in 1/2 inch layers, letting it dry and crack, then filling in with another layer and letting that dry and crack. Some people say you can pour it and level it by running a 2 x 4 in front of your work and leveling to that board. I don't know. I lay redwood strips all across the floor and I still find it uneven in places. When the clay dries, it pulls away from the wood strips, also. So, I put screws sideways into the wood, to give the clay something to cling to and so the wood wouldn't pop up. After the main layers of clay were dried, I went in with a thin finish layer of pottery clay, silica sand and water to lighten the final coat and fill in the last few cracks, plus the area by the wood strips. Linseed oil turns earth black, so unless you want a black floor, you will need to apply a lighter color on the top. Do some tests first to determine what color you want.

Then, once the cracks were gone, we cleaned the clay off the wood strips and soaked with a mixture of linseed oil and turpentine. I don't know the best ratio, because I never got a perfect result - about 50/50 is good, I think. It stayed sticky and so I have blothes where dust, footprints, and cat fur stuck to the linseed oil. It was this way for weeks, so it was unavoidable. But now it is those splotches that give the floor a wonderful texture and character. It's just hard for me to match the color when I patch it. I first covered the floor with a brushed-on thin layer of acrylic sealer, but later learned I really need to just pour on the sealer in a thick layer. That is what I have done now and the floor is wonderful.

When the floor was still sticky, heavy furniture legs stuck and so I spent a period of time pulling things back up, patching the floor, coating it well with acrylic sealer and then replacing the furniture. I often put thin rugs under the furniture legs so I wouldn't have intense pressure in one little spot. I think that has all done the trick, but as I said before, it's been a ton of work. You might want to think hard before doing this. But if you have lots of time and learn from my mistakes, I think you will enjoy the softness and unique earthiness of an earthen floor. I'm pretty sure you'll be the only one in your neighborhood with one!

(and if you really like desert snow, here's the album of photos for awhile. I don't leave them up forever because I run out of space:Snow in Tucson!

Keep it Simple - and be kind!
Carolyn