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Stirring Up Sustainability

Eco-friendly choices for kitchen design.

The kitchen places high demands on both water and energy, which is why responsible design decisions are vital for this high-use room. Contrary to popular belief, it is possible to go green in the kitchen no matter your style or budget. Whether building anew or preparing for a remodel, keep the following eco-friendly recommendations in mind—they’ll go a long way toward making your cooking haven a conservation powerhouse.


“The single most important move in designing an eco-friendly kitchen is purchasing ENERGY STAR-certified appliances,” says architect Cheryl Mohr, co-principal of Gardner Mohr Architects in Silver Spring, Mary­land.

The EPA’s ENERGY STAR program is a reliable resource for sourcing ef­ficient products that deliver cost savings without sacrificing performance and top features.

Starting out with the big picture of a home’s overall operations, ENERGY STAR-rated windows, doors, furnaces, boilers and water heat­ers are all musts. Specifically for the kitchen, ENERGY STAR refrigera­tors are required to use about 20 percent less energy than non-certified models and can cut energy bills by more than $125 over the appliance’s lifetime.

An ENERGY STAR dishwasher uses less energy than conventional models but also saves on average over a thousand gallons of water over a lifetime. Here’s the difference: a dishwasher built before 1994 can use more than 10 gallons of water per cycle while the average ENERGY STAR model uses just four. New technologies such as improved water filtration and more efficient jets help maximize cleaning, making sure dishes come out perfectly in one cycle. Some models are outfitted with soil sensors, which gauge the cleanliness of dishes throughout a wash and adjust the cycle to optimize cleaning while minimizing water and energy use.

However, choosing an efficient oven is trickier: Cur­rently, there are no ENERGY STAR labels for residential ovens, ranges or microwave ovens. In the absence of EN­ERGY STAR recommendations, choose a well-insulated appliance that heats up rapidly for efficient cooking. Besides costing less to operate than comparable electric ranges, gas ranges also heat up pans and food more quickly and offer better cooking control, hence their popularity with professional chefs.

Indoor Air Quality

Indoor air quality is all about keeping the home environment as chemical-free as possible.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that turn into a gas at room temperature. Once essential to the performance of paints and finishes, VOCs have been shown to have compounding long-term health effects, which is why opting for zero-VOC or low-VOC paints, stains and finishes is important.

While low-VOC is probably best for exterior applications, notes Mohr, where high performance is essential for longevity, “ap­plying zero-VOC paints and finishes on the interior of a home is a no-brainer,” she asserts.

Formaldehyde, a common chemical with a strong pickle-like odor, is classified as a VOC and its off-gassing can have adverse health effects. Formaldehyde is used in thousands of products, particularly glues, and can therefore enter the kitchen environment via particleboard, plywood and even countertops. If work­ing with a mill shop on a custom cabinet order, request either FSC-certified or formaldehyde-free plywood or particleboard. Similarly, if opting for a prefabricated cabinet line, look for a brand with reputable environ­mental qualifications.


Besides avoiding formaldehyde in their construction and VOCs in paints and finishes, there are other ways to green your cabinet selections. For other options, consider recycled content. For example, Bellmont Cabinet Co.’s EcoCore box is crafted from 100-percent recycled or reclaimed wood fiber, which comes from Forest Sustainable Council-certified lumber.

When choosing drawer faces and doors, seek out sustainably harvested woods. Any wood boasting the FSC certification adheres to rigorous standards regarding log harvesting, forest management and even shipping. If the cost of an FSC wood is too high, the next best option is to research high-quality, regionally grown and ideally, regionally milled wood types.


Embodied energy is the sum of all energy required to produce any good and it’s an important calculation in sustainable kitchen design.

“For example,” says Mohr, “manmade countertops tend to have lower embodied energy than quarried stone which is typically mined, milled and shipped great distances.”

Instead of a quarried stone like granite, the archi­tect recommends durable quartz countertops, made from quartz aggregate, binders and pigment. Unlike stone, quartz does not require regular sealing and re­sists staining. Cambria, Caesarstone, Silestone and Ok­ite are top quartz manufacturers. She also recommends paper in resin countertops (PaperStone counters, for example, are made from 100-percent post-consumer recycled paper, resins and pigments) and recycled glass countertops. Georgia-based Vetrazzo creates composites with 85-percent recycled glass content for countertops.

In his sustainable kitchen projects, Ernesto Santalla, principal of Studio Santalla in Washington, D.C., recommends solid surface countertops such as Corian.

“Unlike quarried stone, which comes in slabs that have to be cut, producing waste, Corian is virtually seamless,” he says.

He also recom­mends stainless steel, which is extremely durable and recyclable, as well as wood, a renewable material that is making a come­back in countertops.


Wood is a popular flooring choice, says Santalla, and it’s eco-friendly as long as it’s either FSC-certified, regionally sourced or highly durable and its finishes and varnishes are zero-VOC.

“I encourage my clients to focus on quality, so they don’t pick a material that’s going to fail and need replacing, generating waste,” he says. Other eco-friendly flooring materials include cork, ceramic tile and linoleum.

Be cautious of bamboo, warns Mohr, which is highly renewable but presents concerns such as formalde­hyde in the glue and energy-intensive shipping. Plus, bamboo’s high demand and profitability has prompted China to clear forests and the country’s farmers to increase use of fertilizers and pesticides.

Keep It Simple

Conveniently placed recycling and composting centers will increase the likelihood of a household maximizing both activities. And producing your own high-quality drinking water, as opposed to lugging home store-bought water, saves on the creation of petroleum-sap­ping plastic bottles.

“A reverse-osmosis filtering system utilizes a small space under the sink and will match in taste and quality anything you buy from a store,” says Mohr.

Protecting natural resources is one upside to sustainable design, but other long-term benefits include energy sav­ings, lower water/sewage bills, improved indoor air quality and, in turn, better health.

So create an eco-friendly kitchen for the environment but also green this room as a favor to yourself.

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