Other than foundations, one other components of buildings is incredibly close to the earth, the floor. So close, that for a long time they were one and the same. Clearing of simple brush and grasses gave a rudimentary refinement to the first floors in buildings. It’s little wonder we still push G for ground in our fancy multi floor sky scraper elevators of today.
Ever since this first clearing of earth for a floor, there have been two evolving paths; flooring as a structure and flooring as a decorative aspect. The latter will be covered at a future date, with pauses to further explain some of the materials and principles going into each.
From a building perspective, walking on exposed earth carries a few pros and a lot of cons. It’s cheap. It’s available in most locations. And if you plan right, it requires little labor. This is where the cons start. Go outside and pick a spot the same size as any room in your house on the ground. Likely you will have found a decently flat spot of grass in a lawn. Remember these are very recent inventions, and a more accurate facsimile to dirt floors would require you to go for a hike and find some relatively flat and clear land in undisturbed nature. Quickly this becomes much more difficult.
It didn’t take long to realize that taking the same materials that made up your walls and placing them on the ground was faster and easier than removing boulders, tree roots, etc. Once you applied the notion of a foundation allowing you to build in more varied locals, a floor that isn’t dependent on the earth you are standing on allows for infinitely more flexibility. Beams and joists were born, taking wall framing techniques and allowing them to span gaps instead. Second floors and above were now possible, and a whole world of wood framing to support them. More on that later.
The other prevalent material we have seen in foundations also made an appearance here; stone. It’s durability made it a natural fit for solid earth flooring, with the benefit of also not becoming mud when wet. Unfortunately, great effort was needed to create suitably flat stones for walking, or the utmost patience in hoping to find one that nature had already worked in an appropriate fashion. The weight that came with such sturdiness also made creating second floors and above quite the challenge. Hence the supremely thick walls of stone buildings.
In both cases, being the first to ever conceive of and build such floors gave you the premier pick of natural resources. Buildings from the 16th and 17th centuries often employ amazing floor boards two feet wide, having so many trees of such a width available. Additionally, with so little extravagant housing stock, great stones, either in scale or rareness of material, or quite often both, would grace magnificent masonry based buildings. As we mastered building floors, their prevalence increased. With this increased demand, new methods and unique stylings were needed for both supply and preferential reasons.
Floor coverings were born, and along with them, the concept of a subfloor. The incredulity you would face if you were to travel back hundreds of years and tell builders to build a second floor directly on top of the structural creation they just made is hard to imagine. But that is exactly what we evolved to do, and in ways to conquer all sorts of problems.