Whether out of necessity or a desire to be connected more closely to the earth, people from China to the American Southwest have built their homes with earthen floors for centuries. But in Portland, the floors’ recent surge in popularity comes from our dedication to living lighter on the land—and perhaps a bit of our “against the grain” mentality. After all, earthen floors are not only environmentally responsible—they’re also pretty different.
In medieval times, dirt floors were simply packed earth sealed with olive oil and a layer of straw for warmth. Today, the floors are a bit more sophisticated, made from a mixture of clay-rich dirt, masonry sand, straw, and water, which is then dried and sealed with a compound made of linseed oil and carnauba wax. They range in color from deep brown to vibrant orange or mellow blue, depending on the contents. You can stencil designs in them, add straw or shredded paper for texture, and play with iron oxides and white clay to change their hue. The floors can be as elaborate or as plain as you like.
Dave Heslam, president of Portland-based Coho Construction Services Inc, chose an earthen floor for his home in the Overlook neighborhood mainly for its sustainability. “Not only are the floors made from all-natural materials,” he says, “but they also have a lower embodied energy”—which means less energy is expended in the process of making the materials for the floor than would be spent on alternative flooring options. “Concrete, for example, is made with Portland cement, which is very labor intensive and takes a lot of energy to produce,” Heslam says. And since dirt stores heat well, the floors are also ideal for radiant heating, another energy-saving quality.