What’s Wrong With A Dirt Floor?

My first memory of my uncle’s workshop was a dirt floor. It was tacked onto the side of his dairy barn, so it was no big deal. I think it stuck in my memory because it was my first natural floor that wasn’t intended for animals.

Such floors are fine for barns, but problematic for people. They’re a natural habitat for all sorts of bugs and (duh!) are hard to clean, especially in the Third World where diapers are a luxury. Yet an estimated one billion people around the world live on dirt.

Now comes the story part: in 2013, four students from Stanford University went to Rwanda to design a product to improve lives in homes and communities. It was part of a class, “Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability” (which sounds like Stanford to me), and they were partnering with The Mass Design Group.

Their fact-finding showed how dirt floors lead to significant health problems, including childhood asthma, diarrhea, malnutrition, and parasitic infestations. This demonstrates how the best ideas are the simplest — improve lives by putting a better floor under people’s feet. But how to do that in a country with 45% of the population living below the poverty line?

Their solution uses what is already plentiful — dirt. Tightly compress different layers of natural materials, then seal them with an oil to make them waterproof.

Of course, it wasn’t quite that simple. Earthen floors are becoming popular in the U.S., especially on the West Coast, and in Europe. What could be better for the environment? But our world normally uses a linseed oil sealant, too expensive for the Third World.

Back to Stanford — a chemist created a new sealing oil at a cost of 90% less than linseed oil. This has brought the cost of a hygienic floor down to about $70 for a typical home.

The end result of all this is EarthEnable, a non-profit that, after some growing pains, has been training masons and financing new floors. According to the website, as of November 2019, more than 4,536 homes in over 879 different villages in seven districts of Rwanda and two district of Uganda now have better floors.

It’s a start, but the real need is much greater. So if this sounds like a good idea to you, visit https://www.earthenable.org/ for all the details.

EarthEnable and its cofounder and CEO Gayatri Datar were also mentioned in the January 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine (page 24).

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