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Dreaming of a Stylish & Sustainable Kitchen or Bathroom?

If you live in North America and are dreaming of a sustainable kitchen or bathroom, I have an unconventional recommendation on where to start the process. Although most kitchen and bathroom designers suggest starting with the flooring or counters, I suggest starting with the cabinetry. In this blog, I discuss why and what subsequent steps and selections I recommend for a stylish and eco-friendly kitchen or bathroom.

Essential Preliminary Work

Before you make any decisions, it’s important to locate a source for sustainable cabinetry because there are limited options in North America. Given the size and weight of cabinetry, avoid selecting products manufactured outside of the United States. Even if these non-US products are eco-friendly, they will have a very high carbon footprint due to the overseas transportation. The same is true for flooring. Fortunately, there are many sustainable North American options for flooring.

Locate Sustainable Cabinetry

As will become clear later, it is too soon to decide on a specific cabinet style right now, but it is key to find a company. There are currently only two sustainable North American cabinetry companies. One is Native Trails and the other is Crystal Cabinet Works. Native Trails only makes free-standing vanities of reclaimed wood for bathrooms. If you need something else, then you’ll want to work with Crystal.

They are a 75-year-old family-owned company that manufactures in Princeton, Minnesota. Crystal works with North American hardwoods which are not endangered and offer a zero Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) finish. VOCs are compounds that react with nitrous oxides in the atmosphere to form smog. in addition to creating smog, the vapor that VOCs release depresses the nervous system, damages livers, lungs and kidneys and can result in headaches, irritability, decreased concentration and fine motor skill deficits. Unfortunately, we don’t know how long high VOC products such as finishes off gas. Our best guess is years (Jones, 2008). One study found that only 50% of the VOCs in one finish had been released after one year. So, unfortunately, we can’t assume that if we can’t smell it, it can’t hurt us.

As a designer, I love Crystal Cabinets because they offer over 100 door styles, 13 wood species, 30 stains and can use any Benjamin Moore paint color. Most importantly, they have dealers all over the country who can do the difficult work of designing your kitchen or bathroom for you. If you can’t find a dealer near you, I recommend working with the design professionals at Green Building Supply. Although you will still have many decisions to make, the details in kitchen design and bathroom design are extremely complicated and are best left to professionals. If you really want to tackle it on your own be sure to read a thorough textbook such as Knott’s (2011) before you get started.

Select a Type of Flooring

As with the cabinetry, it is too early in the process to make a final decision about your flooring, but you will want to consider what type of sustainable flooring you would like. My flooring blog goes into depth on all the pros and cons of the many eco-friendly options. In brief, I recommend either low VOC tile or low VOC wood for kitchens or bathrooms. Although it is not as common as tile for kitchens and bathrooms, wood flooring is more comfortable and absorbs more sound than tile.

If you go with wood, make sure it is from North American hardwoods and/or is FSC certified. In many forests around the world logging still contributes to deforestation, habitat destruction, water pollution, and displacement of indigenous peoples and wildlife. FSC is an independent, non-profit organization that certifies if the wood has been sourced in a sustainable manner. Do not be fooled by look-alikes. For example, the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is a logging industry trade group, not an independent group.

Large Design Decisions

Now that you have located a source for sustainable cabinetry and decided on whether you would prefer tile or wood flooring, there are four major design decisions to make. It’s best if you can hold off making any final decisions until you’ve thought about at least these three selections.

Select Your Countertop

I highly recommend that you select your specific countertop before anything else. Fortunately, there are many eco-friendly countertop options including countertops made from paper (Paperstone & Richlite), recycled glass (Vetrazzo) and quartz (Cambria). Cambria is by far my favorite because it doesn’t require re-sealing, is made in the US and is GREENGUARD certified. GREENGUARD Environmental Institute is an independent organization that aims to protect human health and improve the quality of life by enhancing indoor air quality and reducing people’s exposure to chemicals and other pollutants.

Another reason why I love Cambria is because their website suggests Benjamin Moore paint colors that coordinate with many of their options. For each design, go to “Paint Match” to see four options you can click on for more information. This tool will provide you with ideas for cabinetry, floor and wall colors.

When selecting your countertop, it’s a good idea to keep color psychology in mind. In kitchens, the only two colors I generally avoid are blue and yellow. Blue has a calming, almost tranquilizing effect, which is great for bedrooms, but can be an appetite suppressant. Yellow is a cheerful color for transitional spaces, such as halls, but strong yellows can be anxiety provoking in other rooms.

Select Your Cabinetry and Flooring

I realize this is actually two decisions, but now that you have selected your countertop, it will be easier to finalize your cabinetry and flooring choices. My blog, On Solid Ground: Sustainable Flooring Choices, goes into depth on all the pros and cons of the many eco-friendly options. And regarding cabinetry, be sure to let your cabinet provider know if you’d like recycling bins incorporated in the design.

Select Your Backsplash and Wall Color

There are lots of wonderful companies in the US that manufacture tile that is suitable for a backsplash. You can also continue your countertop material up to the base of your wall cabinets for your backsplash or you can use a traditional 4” high backsplash, made of your countertop material, and paint the remaining walls. I recommend a zero VOC eggshell finish in bathrooms and kitchens.

Other Design Decisions

Now that you’ve made the big decisions, all the others will be easier.

Finishes

You’ll need to select finishes for your hardware, faucets and lighting. From a health and environmental perspective, nickel is considered the best finish to use; chrome is considered the worst finish to use because toxic chemicals are often used in manufacturing. From a design perspective, one or two finishes per room is ideal; more than three will feel chaotic.

Lighting

Your design professional will handle most of the lighting decisions. Just be sure to let them know that you’d prefer to use Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs) if you want to save energy. LED is a lighting technology that uses 90% less energy than standard incandescent lighting and 50% less than fluorescent lighting for the same amount of light. In addition, LED’s last much longer. One LED bulb will last 27 years if used for 5 hours each day!

Faucets

Be sure to let your design professional know that you would like WaterSense faucets if you want to conserve water. WaterSense is a voluntary program sponsored by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with the goal of protecting the future of the U.S. water supply. The EPA develops specifications for water-efficient products through a public process. If a manufacturer makes a product that meets those specifications, the product is eligible for third-party testing to ensure the stated efficiency and performance criteria have been met. If the product passes the test, the manufacturer is rewarded with the right to put the WaterSense label on that product. For bathrooms, WaterSense toilets are available.

Kitchen Appliances

To save energy, look for Energy Star certified appliances. Energy Star is a program run by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the US Department of Energy (DOE) that promotes energy efficiency. Energy Star provides information on the energy consumption of products and devices, such as kitchen appliances, using standardized methods. Energy Star certified products typically use 10-50% less energy than standard products.

One type of appliance where no Energy Star options exist, however, are electric stoves with coiled burners. That’s because they all use the same amount of energy. For energy efficiency, electric ceramic glass units with halogen elements are considered better than the traditional coiled burners. The halogen elements deliver instant heat and respond quickly when the temperature is changed. Induction elements are considered even better than halogen elements from an energy perspective. The induction elements transfer the electromagnetic energy directly to the pan, thereby keeping the cooktop cool. (Any cookware that a magnet sticks to will work with an induction stove.)

The best type of stove from an energy consumption perspective is a gas stove with electronic ignition for both the range and the oven. A gas stove with electronic ignition will save 50% more energy than an electric stove and 30% more than gas with pilot lights. Just be sure it is vented to the outside, so you won’t have any indoor air pollution. However, if you’re concerned about using natural gas because it may come from fracked sources which are a threat to our water supply, public health, and the climate (Schildgen, 2018) then the induction stove would be the best solution.

The most energy efficient size for a refrigerator is 16-20 cubic feet. Given that the rule of thumb is to have at least 4-6 cubic feet per adult, 16-20 cubic feet should be large enough for most homes. For an energy efficient refrigerator look for one with a top or bottom freezer. Also, keep in mind that external ice and water dispensers increase the energy consumption of the fridge by 14-20%.

Furniture

For a detailed discussion of how to design an eating area the recommendations discussed in my dining room blog should be helpful. The only furniture that is frequently used in kitchens, but not in dining rooms, are bar stools. If you have a 42-inch high counter, then an armless barstool with a 30-inch seat height should work well; if you have a 36-inch high counter, then an armless barstool with a 24-inch seat height is recommended. A 13-inch high footrest is a nice option and it’s a good idea to leave 9-12 inches between bar stools for elbow room.

In sum, if you start by locating a sustainable cabinetry source and follow the steps discussed above it will be easy to create a stylish and sustainable kitchen or bathroom.

Image Attribution

Perkins Harnly, Rural Kitchen, 1935/1942, National Gallery of Art.

References

Jones, L. (2008). Environmentally Responsible Design. NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Knott, M.F. (2011). Kitchen and Bath Design. NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Schildgen, B. (2018, April 29). Gas or Electric-Which Stove Is Better? Sierra.
https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2018-3-may-june/ask-mr-green/gas-or-electric-which-stove-better