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Inner Southeast resident makes money out of mud

SUSTAINABLE LIFE
by: Merry MacKinnon, Homeowner Cris Chapman, and Sukita  Crimmel – owner of “From These Hands” – lean against the Italianate pillars of the eclectic cob cottage which Chapman hired Crimmel to help build. A “green” building, the round structure in Chapman’s backyard  features an earthen floor, plaster walls, and cob exterior.

Sukita Crimmel approaches her work like a child playing in a sand box. She enjoys squishing her hands into a mix of mud, sand and, sometimes, a bit of straw.

This resident of the Foster-Powell neighborhood, whose earthen floor business is called 'From These Hands', was featured last year in a New York Times article.

Epitomizing 'green' building, earthen floors' basic ingredients are mud made of clay, sand, and - in some cases, but not normally in Crimmel's work - lime. Applied with a trowel, after the mud mixture dries to a hard clay-like surface, the earthen floor is sealed and waterproofed with linseed oil and beeswax.

'I love mud,' Crimmel says, her face glowing - as if proving that being close to all that non-toxic earth is healthy.

For a recently-completed cottage in a back yard just west of 39th Avenue on S.E. Woodward Street, Crimmel installed an earthen floor with a radiant heating system beneath it.

And, while she's expecting to begin a project soon in Sellwood, the one she just finished on Woodward features all the skills Crimmel brings to the table when she works with architects and homeowners. Crimmel also worked on the cottage's plaster walls and its cob exterior.

Creating earthern (or dirt) floors is her trade; but her passion, she says, is cob, which is a traditional building material involving blending wet clay, sand, and straw, and then applying the mixture by hand.

'You can totally touch it,' Crimmel exclaims.

Although the back yard cottage took four years to complete - and 20 people to pack on the cob surface, after the round African-influenced building was framed - homeowner Cris Chapman was thrilled with her new Hobbit-like retreat.

'I love the fact that you can sculpt a structure,' explains Chapman, who uses the new cob building next to her century-old Portland-style house for a healing center, where she sees clients who come for Reiki treatments.

At 150-square feet, and at a cost which Chapman says would be the equivalent of a new Mercedes, the structure on Woodward wasn't cheap. But most of the cost was in the labor, explains Crimmel: 'If people committed themselves to the labor, they could save a lot of money.'

To gather her materials, Crimmel drives all over Portland - to Mt. Scott Fuel on S.E. Foster for the sand, to a Johnson Creek Boulevard feed store for straw, and to a fill yard on Division for the clay.

'The whole area is rich in clay,' says Crimmel. 'I've even used clay from people's back yards.'

Crimmel teaches cob construction at the yearly Village Building Convergence event as well as at Inner Southeast Portland elementary schools, communicating her love of mud.