Monday, July 2, 2012

Mud and blood*

* This blog post has pictures of blood-related activities. If you're likely to be grossed out, maybe get a friend to read it to you so you don't have to see the photos.

Last friday Pearl and I spent the day together, just the 2 of us, for the first time in what seems like a very long time. We chatted, ate take-away hamburgers sitting on strawbales in the sun, and finished the third and final coat of render in the little house we're building. 
Like Pearl said, it was 'kinda like a date', but instead of going to see a movie or a band, we were building a house for our family. Pretty nice.
Pearl on our 'date' adding final beautifulness to our clay walls
The third coat was on a deadline as it had to be done before we started on our earth floor, which was slated for a sunday working bee. And boy were we busy little bees!
Just like convicts, but with head-scarves and rainbow legwarmers

I don't remember exactly when I decided that I was really keen on having an earth floor, but I do remember when I decided I wanted to use blood in it. I was reading The Straw Bale House. Unlike many books about natural building, this book actual has a half-decent discussion of earthen floor techniques, though it is sadly lacking in technical instruction. Still, from reading it I learned that in many traditional Native American  societies, earth-floor-making was women's work, and blood - usually ox blood - makes an earthen floor REALLY hard. 
Most things you read, and most people you talk to about earth floors will talk about a poured earth floor - mix up a slurry of clay and/or cement and/or soil and/or sand and/or manure and pour it in wet, the same way you would concrete. Then wait about a million years for it to dry out, in the mean time trying not to worry about the enormous cracks that may or may not form in the shrinking floor material. This always seemed a little stressful to me. Furthermore, a friend who'd house-sat a house with a poured earth floor had commented that it was "like living in a quarry". Ummm… not really the look/feel we're after with our little bothy. Not to mention the fact that we really need to move into our little house as soon as we can - 6 weeks + drying time just isn't an option.
I knew there had to be something better, but finding information about earth floors - poured or otherwise - is pretty bloody tricky.
But then I came across this blog, which inspired me to start adding 'rammed earth floors' to my search parameters. I still came up with bugger all, but I learned enough to cobble together a method, used both in Japan and Europe, involving a pounded or rammed earth floor which is soaked in blood and then sometimes sealed with oil or wax. I discussed this method with Frank and, with his seal of approval, decided to go ahead and make it happen.
Brett rakes in the first 20 wheelbarrow-loads of clay. Our 24 square metre floor took 40 wheelbarrows and a few buckets of clay

Enter the working bee! Friends from near and far (including new blog-met friends Holly and Chris, who have, amazingly, played a gig in a Scottish bothy in their pyjamas) once again rocked up to lend a hand barrowing and bucketing and raking and stomping and sledge-hammering and whacker-packering and blood-painting our clay floor.
Annie and Chris adding to and stomping down the first layer

The blood was obtained from our friendly local organic meat providore, who supplied us with a 20L bucket of steer blood for $20. Pretty reasonable, I thought. Problem was, by the time we came to actually use the blood it was… well… kind of congealed. The problem with congealed blood is that the bits that do the congealing - the platelets - are actually the bits you want in your floor, making it hard. Luckily for us, we had my dad's paint mixer drill attachment handy, so we whipped up a bit of a blood smoothie, and were on our way.
Mmmm... blood smoothie

Yep, it was kind of gross. Yep, it smelled kind of yuk. Yep, it was surreal, and horror-movie-like, and funny, all at the same time.
Yes folks - it's blood. In a kiddie bucket

I suspect that the clay, which we had whacker-packered to within a fraction of a millimetre of its life, was actually a little too wet, and so didn't soak up as much blood as I would have liked. The moisture content of the clay was somewhat mediated by the dry clay (left over from rendering) we had to sprinkle on to stop the whacker-packer from sticking to and lifting up the floor, but the texture, when we all excitedly removed our shoes and walked all over it, was still a little bit like firm plasticine. 
Chris and Holly filling in the low bits, while the whacker-packer has a bit of a lie down. The edges and corners were done by hand, using a sledgehammer and a bit of hardwood left over from the top plate

Our heels sunk in a bit if we weren't careful, but it really was a beautiful feeling, and I love the gentle undulations in the floor. Let's face it - a dead-level floor in our wonky little house would look pretty weird, but we were all pretty impressed with our eyeballing when we set the straight-edge on it and saw that it was actually reasonably level.
The finished floor, just as the whacker-packer ran out of petrol

The blood was applied with a broom and a strange, foam-covered trowel my dad had given us (maybe used for tiling?). We applied it in 2 coats, (the second by torch-light) to let each soak in as much as possible.
Holly ain't scared of no blood broom

Now, we wait. When Pearl deems it dry enough (I am notoriously impatient) we will seal it with a blend of linseed oil, citrus solvent and beeswax, and then we'll be done!
In the spirit of our entire building journey thus far, our floor-making was a massive learning curve for all of us, involving much head scratching, collaborative problem solving and exclamations of "I think I read somewhere...". When I checked on the floor this morning it was looking pretty good (albeit a little gruesome on account of some still-not-dried blood bits) with no sign of cracking or disintegration or, as Brett had predicted, foxes with their tongues stuck to the floor. Time will tell how the whole thing wears. We're going to glue old carpet to the bottom of all our furniture, and implement a 'no shoes' rule. I'm also making an enormous plaited rag rug, just in case, but I feel safe knowing that we've essentially done what millions of people have been doing for thousands of years (OK - minus the whacker-packer) and made their home from the earth around them.

In addition to the $20 for the blood, we spent about $150 on gravel for the sub-floor drainage layer.


  1. I seem to remember seeing them use the blood method of flooring on the ABC on 'Rome Wasn't Built In A Day' where they built a Roman villa using only ancient tools and techniques. It was quite successful. Good luck!!

  2. That's actually not nearly as gross as I imagined. It made me wonder where all the blood that does not go into rammed earth floors go to? There must be a lot of it. Hardening off the landfill? Hmm...

    PS all the most civilised peoples and households have no shoes inside policies x

  3. Well i got through that post with only the slightest fainty feeling and a fair bit of watery mouth syndrome. I'm weird with blood. I so couldn't have done what you did but I'm so very glad you've done exactly what you wanted to do with your lovely floor and you've made it all yourselves. Incredible! Makes my builder built home feel like a lego set with cheat sheets;) I'm so looking forward to seeing your floor one day and that gorgeous looking loft. xxx PS Don't worry, my Lewi has been feeding the local foxes so I'm sure they will all be hanging out at our place and keep well away from you guys and your floor:)

  4. Wow how exciting to see this coming together! You guys will be moving in before you know it! :)

  5. The ox blood floor thing is a myth, there's no evidence behind it actually ever being used. Simply because ground limestone powder can be spread, or quicklime, making a cement skinned floor with no effort and no need to bleed a hundred head of cattle to get enough blood required. But good job being the first idiots to take a color of soil literally, and to then stuff it up until the blood was rotting in the bucket. I'm sure those animals were proud to die for your stupidity.

    1. Hey anonymous! Oxblood floors are actually not a myth and are fairly frequently found in New Mexico (Santa Fe), Southern Europe, some parts of China, and plenty of other places. There are historical manuals that list animal blood as an ingredient in floor sealants - one from 19th century Italy comes to mind, which was recently featured in an academic article analyzing the chemical composition of historical floor tiles. The soil color was named after the flooring technique (which often used cow blood, a common waste product in meat-consuming societies), not because someone randomly thought "hm, this dirt is the color of blood. And because all mammalian blood colors are different I will specify for some reason that I'm talking about ox blood." Finally, they did not kill the steer specifically for their blood here. The cow was dead. The blood would have gone to waste otherwise. Please try to be nice on the internet and do some research first! Learning is not shameful. :)

    2. Totally agree with the 2nd person. Blood and even spoiled/soured milk did not go to waste!
      Milk paint is also a good protective coating on cob buildings.
      I think the 1st person is of vegan mindset. Who has never had blood soup, blood sausage or fresh camel or cattle blood (or urine) in places absent of safe water access. Anyway.. Blood got used for many things, even today in places around the world.

  6. P.S. blood is actually thinner then water. So a gallon goes more than three times farther then a lime coating.(and lime is not always easy accessible). The amount of blood did not take hundreds of cattle to seal floors of a house. And as 2nd person pointed out, blood is normally drained from the animal when it is dead/dying/killed/processed (you pick the word you like. Vegans will say murdered). The massi tribe do drink blood from living cattle herds, and several tribal peoples have also from living camels. Survival in harsh conditions, have harsh realities. Life eats life, I know of nothing that eats just rocks.