Monday, August 6, 2012

An Earthen Floor

We have been anticipating the completion of our earthen floor. The dirt and dust has become more and more tiresome, especially in the last few weeks as we see this structure evolve into a house.

Early on our architect explained that the earthen floor would be the very last phase of our project. Why last? Because it takes several weeks to complete the entire process. During that time, and even after it is done, we cannot easily put scaffolds on the floor since they will damage the finish. Still, that dirt is awfully, well, dirty, and like an unwelcome visitor, we are anxious to see it go. Even though the end of construction is at least a year away, we decided the earthen floor could be the last phase of our main living space. A year was too long to wait for dirt to be gone.

To that end, after a big push to finish all of the lath and straw walls in the main living space, we made all of the preparations  necessary  in order to cover our dirt.  We planned to be set up and well organized before our team showed up Monday morning at 9:00. This meant plenty of sifting clay, chopping straw, and mixing, mixing, mixing plaster - 47 loads of it the day before installation. Doug made enough screed boards for everyone to have their own. These boards, the thickness of the finished floor, were designed to be used as guides as the plaster was applied to the floor’s base.

I think Scott had been dreaming about all of the things that could go wrong with this floor since we first decided to put one in our house. I know, the night before floor plaster day, I dreamed of a 45% degree floor covered with boulders which I attempted to plaster all night long. So much for a restful night.

Monday morning John, Linda, Shanna, Doug, Jerry, Cali and I gathered on the dirt for instructions. Scott explained the process and demonstrated the use of the screeds, all the while emphasizing the importance of applying enough pressure to compress the plaster and, at the same time, remove all air gaps. This would help prevent cracking in the floor.

Everyone set to work at the south window, forty-seven loads of plaster arrayed behind them. Shanna and I manned the mortar mixer and refilled empty tubs as quickly as they appeared. Seven and a half hours later, with a total of 69 loads of plaster smoothed before us, we toasted a successful floor installation and cheered the end of dirt.

Scott levels the floor before plaster is applied.
The rented mortar mixer that did the heavy lifting for two days.

Tubs of plaster awaiting application.
The team begins plastering the floor.
Halfway finished.

 Scott hard trowels the floor after it begins to dry.
The first step of the floor is now finished. Over the next several weeks we will apply a plaster paint then many coats of linseed oil to complete the process.

Where to Start

Now that we have two employees to help us, we needed to decide where to start. We wanted to have the main living space (kitchen, dining room and south bumpout) done first. If this were to happen right away, we could have our cabinet maker take measurements, work his magic with wood and install the entire shebang before winter. This is exactly what we did.

We are fortunate to have Doug and Shanna back with us for a third summer. This time they are here from Greece. With everyone working together, maybe we really will be able to cover up all of the straw and dirt.

Two weeks ago, Scott, Shanna and I began mixing load, after load, after load of plaster in the mortar mixer. Doug installed the necessary plaster stops and Cali and Jerry plastered away. The main living space is done except for the earthen floor which will be done last.
Cali Plastering
Jerry Plastering
Cali and Jerry in front of the front of first completed plaster wall
Scott, Shanna, Nancy, Lucas and Riley painting the kitchen wall
Our pale yellow ochre kitchen wall
Scott began experimenting with pigments for earthen plaster. Keeping with the natural theme of our entire house, we left the largest walls the color of the earth from which it was made. We chose yellow ochre for the kitchen.

Next we will install the earthen floor.


It’s funny that, in all of the straw bale books and during all of our conversations about building with bales, there was never any mention of how tired one would get of straw and dirt. Brush up against a bale, and you release a shower of straw. Walk across the base of an earthen floor, and clouds of dust mushroom up with each step. On the other hand,  I didn’t think we would be in a fourth year of construction. (Yes, this is taking more time than my original 3-year estimate. At this point Scott reminds me that he always knew it would take longer to finish than my initial 3-year plan and perhaps even forever.)

Still, this season is the one where we are determined to cover all of the straw with plaster and put down our earthen floor. In order to do that we have hired two employees. And they have experience! Lots of it!

Community Rebuilds is an organization in Moab, Utah whose mission “is to build energy-efficient housing, provide education on sustainability and improve the housing conditions of the workforce through an affordable program.” That efficient housing is made possible through the volunteer efforts of interns who come to Moab from across the country. While gaining skills in bale building and natural materials, the labor of the interns reduces the cost of construction thus enabling the building of affordable, straw bale homes for qualified families.

Scott contacted Emily Niehaus (the executive director) asking if she could recommend any of her former interns to help us complete our project. And here they are...our two very welcome employees, Cali and Jerry. With their help, all of that dust and straw will quickly disappear.

Cabinet Nailers

In conventional construction, there are plenty of ways to attach cabinetry and other necessary fixtures to walls. Those ways are called two-by-fours which are used to build the frame of the house. In our straw bale house, there are no two-by-fours. So how do you connect cabinets to walls when the only material available is straw covered with plaster? The answer is “nailers.”

Before plastering the kitchen wall, Scott inserted nailers along the south wall at the height required by our cabinet maker.

Scott began by using the chain saw to cut notches in the bale wall at the specified height.

He then made large (8-inch by 5-inch) triangular spikes out of plywood and screwed short lengths of two-by-fours to each spike. This is the “nailer" which Scott forced into its chain saw notch.

In order to secure each nailer in place, Scott screwed it into the nearest bamboo pole.

Before plastering over the nailers, we made a photo record of their location and height. We now have a very sturdy support system for our soon-to-be-completed (fingers crossed) cabinets.