Feet on the Ground: Earthen Floors

A floor made of dirt, you say? Far from being dusty, this leather-like material is comfortable, durable, and an eco-friendly addition to any home.

| May/June 2003

  • Photography By Bill Steen

  • Photography By Bill Steen

  • Photography By Bill Steen

  • Photography By Bill Steen

After living with earthen floors for twenty-five years, Athena Steen has grown accustomed to skeptics. Merely mention the material, and even progressively minded souls raise a brow. “Then they see it, and the first thing they do is bend down to touch it,” Athena says. “They’re shocked that it’s hard, that you can sweep it, that you can mop it, that it’s not dusty. They’re astonished that it has none of the bad qualities they thought it would have.”

No less amazing is that the floors are comfortable underfoot, durable, and beautiful. And that may explain why, centuries after earthen floors were last considered standard home decor, the most natural of natural floors is suddenly surfacing in eco-friendly homes everywhere.

Athena grew up in a house with earthen floors, thanks to her mother, who studied architecture and supported earth-friendly practices long before such ideas were commonplace. “I loved that house because it had such character,” she says. “The floor was warm and soft, not like concrete. If you dropped something, the floor would give before anything broke.” Not long after her family laid the first floor, neighbors asked for help in crafting their own. Twenty-five years later, the original floor remains intact. “My mother had to reseal it a couple of times, and she keeps clay handy to patch the occasional cracks,” says Athena. “Someone with an untrained eye can’t even tell there ever was a crack.” Today, Athena and her husband, Bill, are well known in natural building circles for their booklet, Earthen Floors, which has drawn a steady flow of readers since they first published it in 1996, and which they have just revised.

“At our house, we have a thin floor in the kids’ room where it gets plenty of abuse. In ten years, I haven’t had to do anything to repair it.”

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