Natural Building with Earthen Floors

Learn about the benefits of earthen floors and how to install them yourself.

  • Burnishing an earthen floor at the leather-hard stage polishes the floor and removes trowel marks.
    Photo by James Thomson
  • Like the sculptural cob fireplace surround, the floor in Sudip Biddle and Rosalind Wu’s straw bale home in Pagosa Springs, Colorado (built by Kelly Ray Mathews) also serves as a thermal mass for storing heat and moderating temperature fluctuations. Note the use of a stone under the stove, where people might be tempted to split firewood; an earthen floor could be damaged by high-impact activity.
    Photo by Catherine Wanek
  • The final layer of an earthen floor should be one of the last steps in constructing a natural home. All of the finish plaster, carpentry and rough plumbing have been completed in this cob house prior to installing the finish floor.
    Photo by Michael G. Smith
  • Mixing an earthen floor mix in a wheelbarrow with two hoes. The ideal consistency is similar to cake batter.
    Photo by Mira Stebvika
  • Clearly written, logically organized, and stunningly illustrated with more than 400 photographs, “The Art of Natural Building” is a must-read for anyone interested in building durable, low-cost, environmentally sensible structures.
    Cover courtesy New Society Publishers

The Art of Natural Building (New Society Publishers, 2015), edited by Joseph F. Kennedy, Michael G. Smith, and Catherine Wanek, is a collection from over 50 leading voices in the field of natural building that describes dozens of eco-friendly building techniques, from straw bale and cob, to hemp and salvaged materials. The following excerpt is from Chapter 47, “Earthen Floors.”

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Art of Natural Building.

Earthen floors are a great option for those who want to bring earth into their homes. The technique is relatively easy to learn, and the floors can be installed in a variety of situations and conditions, including both new and existing buildings. They could sell themselves on aesthetic appeal alone, let alone their unique feel, low toxicity, thermal benefits and minimal environmental impact.

 The concept of an earthen floor is not new. Homes have been built directly on the earth for millennia. In many parts of the world, people still live on floors made of earth. Most traditional earthen floors are just the raw earth, tamped down with human feet and moistened frequently with water to keep the dust down. Sometimes sealers are used to stabilize the earth more permanently.

Over the last few decades, earth builders in North America have been improving earthen floor installation techniques to the point where now even people living in conventional houses are willing, even enthusiastic, to live on a floor made out of earth. Today’s earthen floor practitioners carefully select, process and mix their raw materials and install them with the assistance of laser levels, steel trowels and insulation to make floors that are flat, smooth and warm. Oil and wax sealants provide durability, water-resistance and shine. Some earthen floors are installed in conjunction with radiant heat systems, a wonderful heating option for modern homes.

Earthen floors are remarkably versatile, but may not be suitable for every application. It’s useful to understand a few of their key characteristics to determine where they should and should not be installed.

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11/30/2015 9:26:56 AM

I would like to know if you need a moisture barrier under your subfloor, if so what do you recommend? Also I would like to get any advice on how to add color to your floors. The natural pigment that I use comes out very light. Do you recommend anything to get the floors to come out a deeper color and what type of pigments or ingredients do you use to get different colors.



Fall 2021!

Put your DIY skills to the test throughout November. We’re mixing full meal recipes in jars, crafting with flowers, backyard composting, cultivating mushrooms, and more!


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