by Anna Denisch
One of the first things that a would-be homeowner looks at in a new house is the flooring. Is it hardwood or laminate? Would my pets make stains on this carpet? Does the tile clean easily? Building and buying a house come down to structure, and the flooring has to be sturdy for the house to be secure. However, there are more options than wood, laminate, tile, or carpet. In many dry and warm places, and a few adventurous wet and cold locations, adobe flooring, also known as earthen flooring, has been and continues to be a very popular choice.
The basic construction of an adobe floor is layers of earthy material. To start, the ground has to be dug out until the earth is solid and compact. Building directly on top of organic material will lead to holes under the structure as the material degrades over time. The bottom of the dug out area must be filled with gravel to prevent any moisture leakage. The dryer the location, the less gravel is needed. Pumice can also be used as the base layer and will provide an extra source of insulation for colder locations. The base layer is mostly made up of clay and concrete sand, and water. It is important to add a source of fiber to this layer as well. Fiber, such as straw or hay, helps the mixture stick together and makes the floor sturdier. Once this mixture is completely dried, a leveling layer is added. This is the same mixture as the base layer, but the clay is sifted more finely, and any grain should be chopped up short. This layer is poured in as a thin layer and is smoothed over as it dries. This layer can be finished to make the floor complete, or a second, thinner layer can be added to create a more controlled finish.1
To finish off the floor, layers of oil and thinner are added to seal the floor. Linseed oil is a commonly used ingredient that is also ecological, but any type of hardening oil will do the job. The first layer is simply the oil, and then each subsequent layer adds 20 percent thinning solvent (80-20, 60-40, etc.) until the required gloss is achieved. There are any numbers of additional aspects to the floor that can be added at any point, such as an extra layer of beeswax on top to create a leathery feeling.2
There is a great economic and ecological advantage to building with adobe flooring. One of the adventurous, wet areas that build with adobe flooring is near the town of Rutledge, Missouri. Celebrating 20 years this month, the Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage is dedicated to energy and environmental protection. One of the ways they conserve the environment, and their wallets, is by building homes and community structures with an adobe floor hybrid. Because the soil in Rutledge can be wet and clay-like, the community has to install a waterproof barrier to protect their flooring.3 This is what makes the flooring a hybrid; a true earthen floor is a continuation of the ground without any barriers between them.
For a pure adobe floor, it’s imperative to live in a warm, dry location. Otherwise you’ll have to go with hybrids to provide water protection or insulation. This is why earthen floors are common in places such as New Mexico, where the ground is dry and the temperature is warm or hot. In places that are cold, insulation is an important aspect to add to the flooring. Without any insulation, the floor would force any heating in the house to slip out into the earth, essentially heating the ground itself and not much else.
Of course, earthen floors have their downsides as well. Because the material is very dense and heavy, it’s hard to support a second or third floor. Using an earthen floor has to be done in a ranch or bungalow style home. The floor also tends to be quite cold when the house isn’t heated, a good quality in the hot deserts of New Mexico, but a bit of a hindrance in the cold winters of more northern states. Earthen floors also create a forced aesthetic approach to decorating. Because the floors only come in earthy tones, it can be a challenge to decorate a home with brighter colors, unless lots of rugs are bought to lighten up the flooring itself.
It’s no surprise to find that the home of Georgia O’Keeffe was made with this type of flooring. Such an earthy and ecological floor is sure to inspire environmental-based art, such as the many landscape and abstracted natural forms that O’Keeffe was fond of creating.4
To be able to tour this house with the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum is to see how setting inspires art. The famous black door is one example of this, and the earthen floor that O’Keeffe walked on daily is another. The ecological home that O’Keeffe lived in inspired much of her art, and it continues to inspire artists, of all media, to this day.
1. Koko, Sigi. “Build Naturally…Blog.” Adobe Floor Basics – How to build a dirt cheap floor. January 1, 1970. Accessed October 18, 2017. http://buildnaturally.blogspot.com/2014/01/adobe-floor-basics-how-to-build-dirt.html.
3. Sirna, Tony. “How To Pour A Rammed Earth Floor/Adobe Floor.” Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. January 6, 2011. Accessed October 18, 2017. https://www.dancingrabbit.org/about-dancing-rabbit-ecovillage/eco-living/building/natural-building/earthen-floor/.
4. “About the Museum.” Georgia O’Keeffe Museum. Accessed October 18, 2017. https://www.okeeffemuseum.org/about-the-museum/.