Sustainability is of growing importance in home design and, as the engine of the home, the kitchen is deserving of the lion’s share of eco-friendly attention. While kitchen and bath designers are on board with this growing trend, their interpretations and approaches differ wildly. Many designers are passionate recyclers, while some go all the way with new elements meticulously researched for sustainability. Some designers mix new and old, while some look to innovative techniques.
Regardless of their approach, the majority of designers emphasize that designing with the environment in mind needn’t come in at a prohibitive cost. They explain that one of the tenets of such design is to reduce waste – whether it’s wasted energy or wasted resources. For example, a kitchen designed with some of the existing elements remaining is a sure-fire way to make it more sustainable. Still, designers insist that this doesn’t mean homeowners have to put up with pieces they hate, or that they can’t have the kitchen of their dreams while being environmentally conscious.
The cost of sustainability was a major focus of a recent National Kitchen & Bath Association symposium, and speakers – including designer Adam Gibson of Adam Gibson Design in Carmel, IN – emphasized that while homeowners favor the concept, many initially worry about the affordability. “However, after some education, most homeowners become ambassadors for the idea when they realize it doesn’t necessarily cost more to apply it,” Gibson notes.
Gibson tells that, in remodeling projects, his team tries to identify components that can be recycled, repurposed, reused or resold. “Some non-profits will remove entire kitchens at no cost to homeowners and resell to those who may not be able to afford a new kitchen,” he reports. “After that we implement design that optimizes efficiency and longevity while minimizing environmental impact. In a recent project this involved locally constructed cabinets, American-made quartz countertops, LED lighting throughout, energy-efficient appliances, new high-quality windows to create an infusion of natural light, super-insulated walls and ceilings to reduce HVAC usage, and avoiding off-gas products.”
Designer and author Natalia Pierce, CMKBD, WELL AP, CLIPP, owner/designer of Detail by Design in Ottawa, ON, Canada also believes in keeping original components and designing for sustainability. A recent remodeling project involved converting a small kitchen and dining room into one space.
“The original floor was maintained and new matching wood fit in to blend old and new,” she explains. “By removing the walls, it opened up the space for so much more natural Iight, so daylighting is rarely required. When lighting is needed, high-efficiency LED pot lights provide an abundance of light on countertops where needed most. Accent lighting for both decorative fixtures above the island and dining table are also fitted with LED lamps, and under-cabinet lighting has been included. In my opinion, lighting is one of the most under-valued elements that can truly make or break the functionality of a project.”
“Our cabinet manufacturer is located within four hours of our office and provides products without formaldehyde,” she adds. “The doors for this project are both natural Canadian birch and white oak, and the stains and finishes are water-based for less off-gassing and lower VOCs.”
Pierce is an admirer of the Silestone by Cosentino used in this project. She cites Cosentino’s recycling of 99 percent of the water in the manufacturing of the surfacing, and at least 50 percent of the company’s power comes from solar or wind, she adds.
Keeping it Timeless
Sharon Sherman, owner, Thyme & Place Design in Wyckoff, NJ, believes that providing truly quality and timeless products is a vital part of sustainable design. “Fast fashion for the home has become a big problem in the remodeling world,” she says. “Our team strives to recycle as much as possible in any project. I especially love it when we can repurpose products and materials through firms like Green Demolitions and Renovation Angel. We also recycle all brass, copper and materials. If we can save products by not completely gutting a space, we do it.
“We do try to buy products that don’t have to travel far and choose to work with companies committed to properly sourced material and eco-friendly finishes and practices,” she continues. “Recycling centers, in-home composters and low-flow water components are part of the discussion as well. I love the new technology, which is finding its way into appliance offerings with LED lights replicating daylight cycles for veggies to stay fresh longer, and now several manufacturers offer a high-tech appliance for in-home vertical gardening.”
She tells of keeping the window, siding and reframing in one remodeling project, swapping out wood floors with wood-look porcelain that will last a lifetime, and using reclaimed wood over the bar area. “Although the arched window could have outdated the space, we removed the mullions,” she notes. “Then we painted the trim white and chose over-sized light fixtures repeating the curve of the window. This made it a design statement rather than a design mistake.”
Tessa Boudreaux, designer, Jansen Kitchen & Bath in Pensacola, FL, also believes sustainability starts with long-lasting, timeless components. “When I design a kitchen or bath, my number one goal is that the space is able to grow with the client over the years,” she comments. “Once remodeled, the main parts of the kitchen – countertops, flooring and cabinetry – should be able to last through many design eras by simply changing out a backsplash or painting the walls to create a new look in the same space.”
In the last few years, Boudreaux has found that clients are willing to spend the extra money on the bigger parts of a project for the materials that are guaranteed to last longer and/or carry a better warranty. She contends that, when clients are planning their forever homes, they’re more willing to pay the extra 35 percent to jump up to a cabinet manufacturer with a better construction finish or upgrade to the higher-end appliances that are known and loved for their longevity.
One of her favorite projects involved a couple in their mid-thirties with an ever-growing family. They wanted to leave town and move out to the beach, but to be able to justify the cost of living there, their home needed to be one they could grow into as a family of five for many years to come. They wanted a place to host family and friends, an inviting and timeless space where they could all come together to cook, eat and have fun.
“We deleted the dining room altogether,” she explains, “since the owners said the dining room was a waste of space for their family. As a result, we were able to grow the kitchen an extra 10′ into the dining space, creating a huge eat-in bar, a second prep bar, a beverage center and much more. Now, the endless amount of countertops, storage and refrigeration gives them plenty of room to spend time cooking and gathering. In short, we created a space that will not be outgrown, but instead grown into.”
A leading designer of personalized sustainable kitchens that support mental, physical and emotional well-being, Sarah Barnard, owner of Sarah Barnard Design in Santa Monica, CA, is known for restorative spaces that are deeply connected to art and environmental preservation.
She points out that, beyond durability and longevity, sustainability can also be akin to systems that help mitigate food and water waste. Aging-in-place design is also a key concern. She tells of a project where the design celebrates the homeowner’s personal history by combining vintage and contemporary aesthetics to support health and accessibility. The focus is on merging new and old, keeping the visual impact of beloved antiques while creating a minimal design that supports environmental health.
“Specifically, the cabinetry was made locally,” she notes. “The countertops are made of crushed stone recovered from quarries that would otherwise become waste material. No- and low-VOC finishes were used throughout.”
Another Barnard project emphasized a connection with nature and specified long-lasting components. Flooring is reclaimed FSC-certified wood with a no VOC finish, and cabinets are locally crafted FSC-certified plywood. She chose marble for counters and backsplashes “for its beauty and durability.” A calming dove gray zero-VOC paint on walls and cabinets draws the eye toward the outdoors.
On the opposite coast, designer Scott Stultz, principal, Scott A. Stultz & Associates in Castine, ME, is a strong believer in forgoing market trends, instead opting for what he terms “durable, reliable design.”
An example of his design philosophy is demonstrated in a project in Lancaster, PA, where he converted a historic church to a residence, complete with a new kitchen that’s a study in eclectic harmony.
“We created the kitchen largely from repurposed showroom and product rollout display cabinetry, salvage pieces, and antique shop finds,” he reports. “Very few new pieces. A diverse cast of characters.”
The range wall features his Glasgow series, inspired by early 20th century work of Eliel Saarinen and Charles Rennie Mackintosh, with a vintage 1957 Roper Supermatic gas range sparkling under an exhaust hood of copper and stainless steel. A door rescued from a janitor’s closet conceals the pantry cabinet. The marble countertops were carved from discarded slab remnants.
The island is a minimalist dark gray block wrapped around a series of bright red open-shelf compartments that allude to Japanese lacquerware. An old cherry butcher block provides a conveniently lower work surface at the far end. A cut-down pew from the sanctuary plus a scrubbed-down pine table creates a casual dining spot, and an 11′-long solid wood counter spans the opening between the kitchen, dining and living room, creating a large social place.
“The unusual elements and unexpected groupings collected over many years create a strikingly unique dialogue,” offers Stultz, “intriguing and fun, without looking at all like a salvage hodge-podge.”
For over 20 years Stamford, CT designer Peter Deane has been a leader in recycling kitchen cabinetry and thoroughly committed to keeping construction materials out of landfills. For the past four years Deane, owner of DEANE, Inc., has received prestigious awards for this commitment.
“We work with Renovation Angel, a non-profit organization,” he remarks. “They manage the white-glove transportation and resale of kitchen materials in exchange for tax deductions for our clients. Being able to support the circular economy by reclaiming and repurposing kitchens from one home to another is more meaningful now than ever. Our clients feel good knowing that they’re both helping the economy and the environment.”
Meanwhile, heady research is being devoted to new materials and strategies to further sustainability.
Rice hulls, the outermost layer of rice grains and traditionally a waste product, is being investigated as an alternative to wood. It is said to have very similar properties to wood, but is more sustainable and cost-effective, not to mention very similar in appearance. It’s also lightweight and has low moisture absorption.
And mushrooms are garnering widespread attention for everything from handbags to bricks. Italian biomaterial technologists think flooring from mushrooms could be the next big thing. Harnessing the resin-like powers of the mushroom’s thread-like fibers, Mogu S.r.l. has developed 100 percent
plastic-free floor tiles incorporating bio masses such as corn crops, spent coffee grounds, rice straw, discarded seaweed and clam shells. Designed to resemble natural stone, the flooring is said to be just what you need in a kitchen: strong, scratch-resistant and sustainable.
Bluebell Fine Cabinetry & Design in Wayne, PA is showing fumed eucalyptus, said to be dense, strong and durable with anti-microbial and anti-fungal properties. Eucalyptus grows six to ten feet a year, making it more sustainable than woods such as walnut, whose tree grows one to two feet a year.
And the trend toward freestanding cabinetry continues to grow, which promotes the concept of sustainability. The flexibility of an unfitted kitchen allows for the movement of cabinets and the addition of new pieces without the need to rip out a whole fitted kitchen. Designers say it offers a lot of flexibility when it comes to designing a room. They like that things can be changed around, vintage items can be added, and cupboards can be swapped and reused in different ways.
Clearly, sustainability is promoting an avalanche of products and creativity for the kitchen of the future. ▪