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Compressed Earthen Floor

Compressed Earthen Floor

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Published by Kristijan Đaković

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Published by: Kristijan Đaković on Jun 14, 2011
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08/04/2013

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We have by no means mastered Earthen floors but have gained enough experience to have been hired this past buildingseason to install two, adding to the ten we have worked on along with teaching another dozen or so here at LanderLandduring our workshops.Our current style is some times called a poured adobe floor. The term poured seems to come from the world of concretefloors but a better word might be placing. No matter what term or method, one needs to properly prepare the sub floor. Weprep to within of 13mm of finished grade and then basically apply the final 13mm topcoat. Like any earthen application, oneneeds to know their material in regard to the clay content of the soil. Here in Kingston, New Mexico, our soil has close to a30% clay content so it's a dream to use.We teach two mixes for floors, what we call our sand mix and the other a straw mix. The sand mix is made up of 1 part siftedclay soil and 4 parts course fill sand with the largest particles as large as 5mm. These large particle sizes mixed with fineraggregates keep the floor from shrinking, cracking, and add compaction strength, and are also easier to apply. The clay soilis more like the binder and filler. You need enough water to mix damp. You can add a small amount of 13mm chopped strawfor the aesthetics but it's not necessary. Our straw mix is a variation of our basic earth plaster with added sand. 2 partssifted clay soil, 2 1/2 parts course fill sand and 2 parts 13mm chopped straw. Start with 1 part water. This mix is harder toapply than the sand mix. The wetter the mixes the easier they are to apply but the moisture may cause shrinking andcracking.
Prep Work
 Let's move away from the mixes and talk a bit about prep work. The heart of a good strong crack-free earth floor is the basethat it is applied on. This is true for almost any floor be it concrete, tile or wood. Earth floors are more like concrete in thatthey must be properly compacted, graded and screeded flat. For the inexperienced owner/builder, floor prep can beintimidating, again the compacted sub floor is the key.Apply your fill materials in "lifts" of 25mm to 50mm and compact damp. A trick, if you have the time, is to flood thesematerials with the garden hose. You can rent noisy, smelly plate and foot compacters; some big floor jobs require this. I stillwould buy an 8 in. x 8 in./20cm x 20cm hand compactor. I've moved away from making a compactor from a steel pipe andwelded plate or a coffee can filled with concrete. I recommend prepping your floor early in the building process so it hastime to be compacted naturally from working on it; this also keeps your walls clean, assuming your floor is last in theconstruction process.In addition to compacting, there are also possible moisture issues and, in some locations, soil gases like radon. These areissues you or the builder will need to address. Certainly it is difficult to write about floor prep and "build up" in a shortarticle. There are so many variations and situations depending on your particular site and needs. I always recommend readingabout conventional building materials and techniques and talking with builders in the area.I'm a big fan of radiant heat and almost always add the pipe to my concrete slabs even if I am not going to heat the slab.Never know when someone might. Pex pipe is easiest with concrete slabs, the most efficient being an isolated slab where 1in./25mm or 2 in./50mm foam lines the bottom and sides, (a thermal break) steel mesh is laid down and the pipe attachedwith zip ties. On small floors, I now use cattle panel fencing for my wire mesh rather then the traditional rolled mesh; it'smore expensive but for me so much easier to use. So, in my opinion, the best floor would be a 4 in./10cm thick, 3000 psiconcrete slab with added fiber and PEX radiant heat pipe with a final 1/2 in./13mm earth top. Don't forget your fly ash andcontrol joints, concrete cracks. This of course is a mix of conventional and natural, not for the purest. One 300 sf radiantearth floor we did had 9 in./230mm of pumice put down over the native rock soil as the insulated layer and then we broughtin another 10 in./250mm of crusher fines (road base), sand, earth, no foam and no steel. This technique had it's ownchallenges, where again experience and creativity help. What is interesting in this house is to notice the different "feel" tothe radiant floors from the earthen side next to the conventional isolated foam 4 in./10cm concrete radiant floor in theadjacent room. They both work, the house is warm but the concrete feels hotter to the feet.
Installation
 So now you have prepped your floor rock solid (like concrete, huh?) to within 1/2 in./13mm of finish height. You have also
 
gone around all the walls and drawn a line at your finished height. A day or two in advance, you might need to go around andfill any holes, voids or low spots with a damp clay-sand mix, maybe even tamping a bit with your nice tamper. When dry youshould be able to sweep up any loose debris. It's a good idea to mix up your material a day in advance. Now, do your math.Calculate your square footage then your cubic footage and add about 30%. If your room is 10 ft x 12 ft, then 10 ft x 12 ftequals 120 sf. Multiply this by 0.0416 to get cubic feet. (0.0416 is 1/24th of 12 in.) 120 x 0.0416 = 4.99 cubic feet.[ For metric calculation: 3m x 3.6m = 10.8m2. 10.8m2 x 13mm = 0.14m3]Add 30% more material. 4.99 x 0.3 = 1.49 for a total of 6 1/2 cubic feet. We add 30 % due to the fact that we will bemeasuring our materials dry so there is air space. Once wetted and applied, the material gets compacted by the towelingprocess and we lose volume. You will need a container to store all this material. A simple tub can be made out of a frame ofstraw bales set on the ground and lined with plastic or a tarp. You can also buy large kids' swimming pools. The color of yourfloor will be the color of your dried clay. You can add concrete liquid or powdered colorants. It is always a good idea to do afew 3 ft x 3ft.90cm x 90cm samples to test for shrink, cracking and color, also a good way to practice your applyingtechniques.
H
ow to apply
 Again one of those concepts that is best shown during a workshop training session than through trying to write about it, buthere it goes. Ahead of time make up a few 1/2 in. x 1/2 in./13mm x 13mm screed sticks. These are also the thickness guides,four per person. Vary the lengths, 12 in. to 36 in./30cm to 90cm. Also make some wooden pool trowels out of the 1/2in./13mm thick concrete wood floats from your building center; they cost around $3.00 USD each. Keep one square forcorners.Plan your route of attack so you will be able to work your way out of the room. Begin by setting down some pre-wetted woodsticks - trowel lengths apart, shovel down some material and start working in the material between the sticks. The trick is tomake sure the material is compacted well, no voids. Do a few square feet leaving the sticks in place to run your trowel overthus establishing the thickness. Don't spend a lot of time making it look good right now. Slide out the sticks, you now have asquare groove that needs to be filled. First, take your trowel and press the sharp sides and ends down to form sort of a vee,now add small amounts of material in the vee and trowel it flat. Any voids or air pockets will leave a spot for cracking socompress well. The tendency is to put too much material in at one time; instead use a small amount frequently rather thanlarge amounts all at once. Keep your guide sticks clean, wash frequently so as not to add buildup creating a thicker anduneven floor. As you progress along placing material and removing sticks, go back over the previous areas with your trowel tosmooth and even out your floor as far as you can reach back over what you did. Sounds easy? Hopefully you worked this allout in your 3 ft x 3 ft (90cm x 90cm) test samples.Sure looks good doesn't it? You're not done yet. More steps involved as the floor begins to dry. A word of caution aboutdrying, it's important to get even drying. If the sun shines in a window or door, these must be covered up. Air circulationhelps to remove the moisture and speed up drying but again you need even flow.
H
ard Troweling
 Now it's all about timing. On hot days/in hot climates, we find it best to apply the floor early in the morning so thathopefully by late afternoon or early evening we will be able to get back on the floor with kneeboards and steel pool trowels,or apply late in the day and hopefully you are back on it first thing in the morning. Miss this window of opportunity and yourfloor will be too hard to steel trowel. If you were so good applying the material with the wood floats and you are happy withthe results, then one can skip hard troweling so your floor will be a little more course.So your floor is drying, time to hard trowel on kneeboards - 3/4 in./20mm plywood, 18 in. to 24 in./45-60cm square or 2in./50mm foam blue board works well. Make sure to wet your kneeboards, otherwise they stick and pull up your material.Almost like hard troweling a concrete slab. Steel troweling tightens up and flattens the surface. We use pool trowels andbasically just go over the whole floor again, pushing hard with two hands in big sweeping motions.Once your floor has completely dried, it's time to seal and fill the floor with Linseed oil.
 
Now, weeks later after your floor is 100 percent dry, it's time to seal and fill the floor with Linseed oil. Here in the SouthWest our floors can dry in a matter of a few weeks but in humid climates error on the safe side.
M
aterials:
 Linseed oil. We prefer raw linseed oil, less petroleum additives then the common boiled linseed oil but the boiled works ifyou are not concerned about petroleum out gassing. Even raw linseed oil has carcinogenic warning labels. Ask for an MSDSsheet. Linseed oil is made from flax seed. Citrus Solvent (thinner) or mineral spirits, again petroleum out gassingWe are still learning how to estimate coverage and quantity so I'm not sure how much material is needed for your size floor.Maybe buy 2 gallons each for starters; you can buy linseed oil in 5-gallon lots.
Equipment:
 
y
 
4 inch paintbrushes, natural bristle is always best but pricey
y
 
Electric hot plate or gas camp stove
y
 
Large pot or kettle
y
 
Approved vapor mask
y
 
Safety glasses or goggles
y
 
Fan for air circulation/expelling fumes if you feel this is necessary
y
 
R
ags, Gloves
Prep floor:
 Sweep or vacuum any loose debris and dust. You might want to do a light mopping or sponging. Give yourself time for themoisture to dry before applying the oil.
Procedure:
 Heat the linseed oil to almost boiling (do not boil). We are just trying to heat the oil to aide in soaking, absorbing in. Thismust be done outside with caution, flammable. Another option is to pour the oil into a large deep baking pan, cover with apiece of glass and let it sit out in the sun. Leave an air gap. With either method start with a small batch to get the hang ofheating and applying.Transfer the oil into a suitable container. You can paint the material on or if you are quick, you can pour some onto the floorand swoosh it around with the brush. The only risk here is that you will not get an even distribution of material. Try it. Beconsistent and watch how the floor is absorbing. If more than one person is applying, then you might get varying results butby the time you are done it shouldn't matter. Use up your first small amount then decide how much more (a large batch) toheat for your next go at it. For reference keep track of how much material you use for each coat and offer this info toothers.The floor will soak up this first coat and there should not be any pooling of the oil on the surface. Plan your route of attackso you end up working yourself out the door, window or hallway. You should be able to go back to the start and do a secondfull strength coat right a way.
R
emember your shoes will be picking up dirt and dust from the outside so take steps tominimize this. There are disposable booties one can buy to cover their shoes.What we are trying to do is seal the floor but think of it more like filling the floor. Filling all the little air voids between thesand and clay particles with oil.The floor will dictate the timing and how much material. Watch how the material soaks in. You might be able to continuewith more heated, thinned coats the same day, unless you are tired or sick from the fumes and not wearing a vapor mask.
Diluting:
 The first two coats can be applied full strength. For the third and fourth coat combine 75% oil with 25% thinner, heat andapply. Watch the absorption, watch for pooling or puddling but also give the material some time to soak in; you just don't

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