Flip through the pages of magazines and books that feature elegant homes, and you’ll typically see more photos of living rooms and studies than any other spot. It seems that when we picture ourselves enjoying our ideal house, we see ourselves relaxing on the sofa or reading a book in an armchair. Yet, think about your best memories from home. Odds are you’ll remember yourself in the kitchen sitting around the table talking, laughing, savoring a good meal.
And think about where you spend most of your time now. According to David Goldbeck’s book The Smart Kitchen, on average Americans spend 50 percent of their waking hours at home in the kitchen — doing chores, eating, chatting after dinner. For most of us, the kitchen is our home within the home. It’s both a workplace and a place to relax, making it the most important — and complicated — room to get right.
Your kitchen should be a place you enjoy and feel good about, knowing it’s healthy for you and the environment. In other words, whatever decorating and style decisions you make for your kitchen, why not make it “green”?
The place to start is with design. While most environmental considerations can easily be accommodated with little effect on the overall look of your kitchen, incorporating them into your blueprints will make it easier to be environmentally friendly after the contractors leave.
Reconsider, for example, the classic work triangle of sink, stove and refrigerator. It’s actually more helpful to think of your work area in terms of function — cleanup, food preparation and storage. Viewed this way, you can minimize the inconvenience of composting and recycling. Instead of having recycling bins in the mudroom or down the hall, you can put a cabinet or small closet with sliding shelves near the sink. And if you put a slide-away top covering your compost container next to where you chop vegetables, collecting compostables will hardly take a second thought.
Design of the Times
There are really only two significant, environmentally friendly guidelines that affect the layout of your kitchen. The first is the principle of using ample natural light. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, designs that take advantage of sunlight can reduce energy use for lighting by at least 50 percent while creating a more pleasant ambience. Studies show that in workplaces lit mostly by natural light, worker productivity improved and absenteeism decreased 15 percent.
Letting in lots of sunlight also creates a good environment for plants. We’re not just talking about growing herbs for fresh seasoning; any greenery in the kitchen is a good idea. Indoor plants clean your air by absorbing pollutants and carbon dioxide through their leaves. This is especially important in the kitchen, since it’s typically the smokiest room in the house. Of course, don’t totally rely on plants to clear the air; a good over-the-stove ventilation system is an important piece of any healthy kitchen.
Another ecobuilding principle that may affect your structural design is the axiom that small is beautiful; the less material you use, the less pollution you create. While this may initially sound restrictive — especially if you’re planning your new log house after surviving a cramped kitchen — keep in mind that big kitchens can also be inconvenient. The work triangle comes with its own inherent comfort restrictions. According to kitchen ergonomic research, the ideal work triangle should have a total perimeter of no more than 22 feet (preferably with no one side fewer than 4 feet or greater than 7 feet). Make your kitchen too big, and you’ll want roller skates to go with your latest appliances.
Cabinets and Counters
What holds a work triangle in place are cabinets and countertops — the biggest composition elements in most kitchens. The style and material choices facing a new kitchen designer can be overwhelming. Thankfully, going the healthy and environmentally sensitive route restricts those choices some — though it is likely to cost a bit more.
Most cabinets and countertops are made with particleboard, which contains formaldehyde, a likely carcinogen that can trigger allergies and chemical sensitivities. What are the alternatives?
The most obvious option is to get solid wood cabinets, especially if your interior log walls are rounded and irregular, which makes factory-built cabinets difficult to square and custom-building a sensible choice. Less obvious is choosing the right wood. Look for certified lumber that has been harvested in a sustainable manner. Or consider recycled wood recovered from an old house or barn. Handled artistically, old wood can add character and charm to any kitchen (just make sure it’s free of lead paint). If you should decide to paint your new cabinets, use nontoxic paints.
There are a smattering of manufacturers who make cabinets with formaldehyde-free fiberboard out of alternative materials such as straw, wheat board and Medite II, a nonformaldehyde, medium-density fiberboard. If using these alternatives isn’t feasible (alas, they do cost more), consider plywood made with phenol formaldehyde rather than with urea formaldehyde; the phenol variety is considered much less hazardous.
Plywood should be sealed with a low-emissions shellac. If safer plywood also isn’t an option (for instance, if your cabinets are part of a kit and you simply cannot afford substitutes), let the new cabinets outgas somewhere outside your home for three months before installing them. While a number of chemical- and allergy-sensitive designers recommend metal cabinets, it’s hard to imagine them fitting in a log home (unless it happens to be located in New York City).
There are plenty of viable options for covering your base cabinets while avoiding the usual plastic-laminated countertops, which are bonded with toxic resins. Natural materials, such as granite or marble, last forever and are inert. Wood, built in a butcher-block style, also can work, as can ceramic tile. Ceramic can be quite reasonably priced and even installed by the average do-it-yourselfer; use only natural or low volatile organic compounds (VOC), ceramic adhesives and grout.
Your refrigerator uses a lot of energy — second only to your furnace or central air conditioner (if you live in a warm climate). Dedicated environmentalists should consider buying a Sunfrost, Low Keep or VestFrost. Although these refrigerators cost roughly twice your average icebox, they use 70 to 80 percent less electricity, paying for themselves in about 10 years. If you can’t foot the up-front cost, at least stick to a conventional model that is respectably frugal with its energy draw. If you’re looking to save money, avoid side-by-side models, which have lots of extras like automatic icemakers and outside water dispensers.
An environmentally friendly dishwasher costs only about 30 percent more than a typical model and rewards its owners with a very quiet wash cycle and roughly half the water use of most models. No matter the brand, don’t run the dry cycle; it’s an unnecessary waste of energy.
For washing pots or dishes by hand, get a faucet aerator, which maintains good water pressure by adding air into the water stream and has a button that allows quick on-and-off decisions w
ithout losing your temperature setting. There also are foot pedal-controlled faucets, which make saving water easy without distracting your hands from the task.
While creating an energy-smart kitchen may take more forethought and a slightly larger initial investment, it pays off in three ways: lower electric bills, less pollution and a healthier home.
Many of us are careful about what we eat; why not be just as concerned about the room where we prepare and eat that fare?
Marshall Glickman is the author of The Mindful Money Guide: Creating Harmony Between Your Values and Your Finances and the editor of Green Living, a journal on environmental building issues.