The Kitchen is a room in the house that is commonly remodeled, usually every 20 years, or when you first move in, or when you are planning to move out and want to sell the place. Most people spend a fair amount of time in their kitchen and it get’s a lot of wear and tear. Appliances break down or go out of style. Cooks have different needs and habits and want a space that works well for them. We want our kitchens to be functional and beautiful. When my wife and I moved to DC, we had just gone through a kitchen remodel in Cleveland (not realizing that we’d be moving), and we were in no mood to do that again, at least not right away. Our DC kitchen was actually brand new, having been installed to flip the house. It was serviceable (the layout was OK and the appliances worked), but that was all that could be said for it.
The cabinets were white thermofoil over particle board, and the finish carpentry was crap (the sole purpose of adding trim is generally to cover gaps and mistakes, but at even this modest task, the installers had failed). The doors were too small but the fascia was extra wide, so while there was plenty of room in the cabinets, you had to turn your plates sideways to get them in (which bugged my wife something fierce). Eleven years later, we decided it was time for an upgrade, and we wanted to get a few years of use out of it before we had to move again.
We really wanted to do the kitchen as ‘green’ as possible, partly to get the experience (since I am an Architect) and also because we know that kitchens ARE more often remodeled (so you want to reduce the environmental impact of each remodel). Part of the reason I believe that people DON’T make more sustainable choices is not necessarily because the products don’t exist or are too expensive (though that is a consideration), but because it is often still too complicated. Anyone who has done this type of project knows that there is a seemingly endless array of color and texture choices, appliance specifications and layout decisions to go through. Add to that the challenge of finding a contractor that has solid references and who will actually show up and provide a quote, and most people are already in overload. Pile on all the ‘green’ product considerations and finding a contractor who knows what the hell you are talking about… well, most people can’t deal with the hassles, even for the good of the planet. But we were on a mission, so we persevered.
Start With the Fundamentals
Before you start thinking about how to go green, you need to figure out all the stuff that has nothing to do with sustainability. Above all, kitchens need to be well designed and comfortable. You should feel HAPPY working in your kitchen. If you aren’t – if it isn’t well laid out, properly lit and pleasing to the eye – it is likely that the next person who owns your house (which may even be you) is going to want to redo it again sooner, and that does waste a lot of materials, energy and money that could be better spent by donating to a worthy environmental non-profit. If you know what works for you, great. If you aren’t sure, there are plenty of magazine articles, websites, books, videos, etc. that will help you arrange your kitchen. You can also employ an architect or kitchen consultant: the place you buy your cabinets may even have one on staff to help. You can also figure out basic color schemes, but you should probably hold off on picking specific tiles or countertops and so on. These selections DO require consideration of eco-friendliness.
Making Green Decisions
There are all sorts of ways to be green. Considerations include:
- Sources for materials - how green are they to produce?
- Recycled Content – are the materials recycled (or what % of them is)? Can they be recycled when the next remod gets done?
- Energy Efficiency - mostly related to appliances and lights.
- Water Efficiency - do the faucet and dishwasher help you conserve water?
- Local Sourcing - how far did the material have to travel from the place it was grown, mined or manufactured to your kitchen?
- Durability - if a material wears out too quickly, is it really sustainable?
- Indoor Air Quality - will they off-gas, giving your kitchen that new car smell?
- Social Equity - slave labor used in making the products?
Ideally, your kitchen designer or contractor will help you make these decisions… HAH! That’s a GOOD one! Most of us don’t live in an area of the US where these services are common; you might be lucky, though. The kitchen designers are generally trying to sell you the products they have readily available. Contractors are not generally in business to save the planet; they want products which are easy to find and to install. Unfortunately, although green products are out there, they are still not as easy to find locally as the conventional stuff. Contractors have gotten comfortable with certain products over the years; they have laid so much vinyl flooring that they don’t even realize what REAL linoleum is (the stuff made with linseed oil). Again, maybe your blessed… we weren’t.
There are whole books written about green products (and they are out of date before the ink dries – talk about unsustainable). If you are still reading this, I can only go through the green factors described above and tell you how we decided. Your choices may be different, but will (I hope) have similar motives.
We decided that our product should have the following green features
- Reuse Old Kitchen - we had planned to give all of the cabinets and appliances to an organization like Community Forklift or Second Chance; Amvets and the Salvation Army will often pick up materials like this too. In our case, the workers removing our old cabinets needed a new kitchen (and they were economically challenged), so we agreed to sell them our old stuff for the amount of the tax deduction we would have received for donating it. Sure, there was undoubtedly still some waste, but everything that COULD be saved and reused was.
- FSC Certified Wood sources - real wood is great, but you want to know it is being grown and harvested responsibly. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certifies that for you. In order to be official, the cabinet makers have to have written proof that the wood they use is FSC certified.
- Recycled Materials - as much as possible. This may include recycled wood where FSC is not available, and recycled glass in tile and countertops.
- Low VOC adhesives, paints and binding agents – my wife hates the new car smell, especially when it is in a house rather than a car (unlike some people, we don’t live in our car). There are lots of different standards for VOC limits. Try to find products without added urea-formaldehyde and those labeled as low-odor, and you will probably be fine.
- EnergyStar appliances
- Fluorescent or LED lighting that is bright enough to really work by.
- Water Efficient dishwasher and faucet
- Durable Materials - we wanted stuff that would last at least 20 years and which could be fixed if scratched, etc.
So these were the criteria that WE used to search for and select products and materials for our project.
We did not do as good a job studying the working conditions of the people that made the stuff. Where they fairly paid? Were the conditions safe? This is another layer to be considered, but unless we ran across something by chance, we did not use this as a selection criterion. We did consider local sourcing, giving preference to materials that traveled less than 500 miles to our door, but in our selection the FSC-rating, recycled content and durability all generally trumped local sourcing in the process.
Water from kitchen sinks is generally considered ‘blackwater’ rather than greywater, so reusing it is problematic. It would have required significant replumbing and that was beyond the scope of our time and budget for this project. We could have considered a tankless water heater to reduce the water wasted waiting for it to heat up, but that was similarly outside our budget here. We could also have installed a recirculation pump, and that is still a possibility (when I recover from the remodeling experience).
We do have a compost crock in the kitchen and a composter in the back yard to try to recycle food waste as fertilizer, but that is a topic for another blog post.
Based on the goals above, we selected cabinets, countertop, wall tile, flooring, appliances and lighting. We bought everything ourselves to maintain control over the specifications and sourcing. The contractor installed it. Here is what we went with and why.
Cabinets - Executive Cabinets; solid maple doors and fronts, maple veneer boxes; low-VOC adhesives and binders for the box materials; natural finish. This was one of the big challenges. Most cabinet manufacturers claim their products are ‘green’, but generally that means they try to control waste, use low-VOC glues and recycle their sawdust to create particle board. The KCMA (Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association – sounds boring but I understand their conventions are off the hook) has a bunch of green guidelines and GOALS, but most of them have not been implemented yet. The problem we encountered here was that only two local “kitchen design centers” carried FSC wood cabinets like Executive Kitchens, and they were both extremely unhelpful. Again, they are looking to sell cabinets, and anything that requires them to deal with extra considerations and questions (like an FSC rating), apparently isn’t worth their while. Executive Kitchens themselves were not that helpful when we tried to find other suppliers. Apparently they make both conventional and sustainable products and the FSC lines are only a small part of their business. Finally, we were able to find a store (Amicus Green) that carried the cabinets (and a lot of other green materials) and actually CARED about selling green products.
Countertop - We looked at a wide range of products, including IceStone, which includes recycled glass, and Concrete (which often includes recycled fly-ash as an additive). Concrete just wasn’t the aesthetic we were looking for (remember that if you don’t love it, you probably won’t keep it) and has special maintenance requirements (sealing, resealing). IceStone was just too darned expensive. Ultimately, we went with Silestone, which uses quartz chips instead of recycled glass, and which comes from Europe. We have actually had some problems with some of the quartz chips, and the company (Cosentino) has been absolutely NO HELP. The quartz chips have cracks below the surface that create sparkles (like facets of a diamond) – pretty but not normal. These flaws don’t pose any hazard and we have had no significant ‘pop outs’, so in the end the issue is relatively benign. Still, I would have to recommend against using Silestone for environmental reasons AND because of their lousy customer support.
Tile - Finding a tile that we liked and which worked well with the color of the countertop and cabinets under the lighting conditions in our kitchen was very tough. We wanted something ‘warm’, not too dull, not too flashy. We did look at both recycled and non-recycled tiles of various shapes and sizes. Tiles that looked great in the showroom looked ‘off’ when we put them next to our cabinets and counter. We actually had to borrow the LED undercabinet lights to finalize the selection because the color of light made a huge difference. This is why I recommended NOT picking out materials in isolation ahead of time. Change a cabinet or countertop and everything else may change too. In the end, we found that Susan Jablon made the best range of glass tiles for our backsplash AND they were recycled glass AND… they just happened to be green (in color).
Flooring - We started out really pulling for linoleum – REAL linoleum, which is made with linseed oil and is rapidly renewable and compostable to some degree. The biggest selection of colors (and it is amazing) is available from Forbo Marmoleum. It comes in sheets and tiles and even planks. The problem we had with this was the warranty. It states that in order to have the full force of warranty protection, it has to be installed by certified “mechanics”. These rare craftsmen who fly from one job to the next on a private jet – OK, I am making that up… but they WERE really expensive. The warranty also seemed to exclude a lot of the normal stuff that happens in kitchens, even though Marmoleum has a reputation for being VERY durable. The final straw came when we saw the seaming material. We switched to engineered hardwood on the spot, though we also looked at cork.
Engineered wood flooring is considered OK for kitchens. It is supposed to be slightly more forgiving to water spills, though not indestructible. It consists of a soft wood backing and a 1/8″ thick wear layer of hardwood. We selected EcoTimber (red oak veneer), which is made from FSC certified woods. It looks great! A word of caution, though – because the hardwood wear layer is on top of a softer wood substrate, it is much easily to dent than solid hardwood. Because it comes in planks, we CAN replace damaged sections, though this will not be easy since it is tongue-and groove.
Appliances - we bought an Energy-Star rated refrigerator/freezer from Kenmore and a dishwasher from Kitchen-Aid. I feel a little guilty about the size of the fridge, but we do have several parties a year where we need it. Microwaves are not generally EnergyStar rated. Our range (cooktop & oven – a slide-in rather than drop-in model) is gas. Yes, we know that the current frontier in natural gas production is fracking. We like gas because it is instant on and off AND because it works during power outages (which are not uncommon in Washington DC). We also could not afford an induction cooktop and all new cookware to go with it. When we build our retirement house, we will probably go all electric and then we’ll have to address the power-outage situation (batteries? learn to eat cold raw food and take cold showers?), or maybe we can produce biogas and use that instead.
Faucet - Kitchen faucets are not typically rated for water efficiency (in LEED-H, the bathroom faucets and shower heads must be low-flow, but not the kitchen faucet). We have found, however, that when we are cooking or washing up (not using the dishwasher), we often have the water running because our hands are full or because we don’t want to have to reset the flow rate and temperature every time we turn on the water. At first, I was looking for a foot pedal control. They do make them, but they generally require separate pedals for hot and cold and their flow-control is not great. So we went the high-tech route. We bought one of the Delta ToucH2O faucets. You set the temperature and flow, then by briefly touching the faucet, you can turn it on and off. There are other products that use proximity sensors (so you wave at the faucet to turn it on an off) instead. This works pretty well and we believe we save a lot of water this way. Occasionally it becomes a comedy of errors, especially when we have guest cooks in our kitchem, but in general we like it.
Lighting - We wanted fluorescent or LED, but because of the design of the cabinets and the height of the ceiling, we needed something low-profile. We had some bad experiences with fluorescent ballasts, so LED strip lights were the favored solution. Getting lights that are not too cold (blue colored) but are bright enough, and that have a low-profile is not easy yet (though it should get easier). We went with products from Luminii. I would recommend at least 4 W per foot for brightness (this is a power consumption figure for LED tape but gives you an idea) and 2700-3000K for color. Luminii has some wider fixtures that would allow two LED strips to boost light levels if needed. We worked with Illuminations, a local lighting center, which also allowed us to borrow a demonstration kit for the lights – as I noted above, this was important to selection of tile and countertop materials in our project.
The finished project is good, we believe. The new cabinet layouts (though only slightly different from the original) are much more usable. The appliances have better features. The lighting is much better. And, of course, the room is much nicer to be in. Our test – for the first time in years, we managed to get Thanksgiving dinner on the table on time and without too much last minute mayhem.
We succeeded in making the project more environmentally friendly, and within reasonable budgetary contraints. In retrospect, I think we would have chosen all the same products again except the countertop (for reasons described above).
The challenges we found in the process were:
- Matching materials to create a harmonious composition. You’ll need actual samples including lighting to be sure.
- Finding local suppliers that understand, stock and actually care about green materials. Look for a Green Building Center like Amicus Green in your area.
- Finding local contractors that know anything about sustainable materials and how to install them.
- Cost (including installation) can be an issue. There may be no reason for green materials to cost more except that they are still a niche market.
Here are the photos (before and after). You can judge the results for yourself: