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Green Kitchens: How to Do It; Why It Matters
by Marshall Glickman
Flip through the pages of magazines and books that feature elegant homes and you'll mostly see photos of living rooms and studies. The implication is that when we imagine 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 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 us, the kitchen is our home within the home. It's both a workplace and a place to relax in, making it the most important--and complicated--room to get right.
If your kitchen is the heart of your home, it should reflect your best self. It 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 be easily accommodated with little effect on the overall look of your kitchen, incorporating them into your blueprints will make it easier to be a good ecocitizen after the contractors leave. Reconsider, for example, the classic work triangle of sink, stove, and fridge. It's actually more helpful to think of your work area in terms of functionBcleanup, 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 thought.
There are only two significant green guidelines that effect the location and layout of your kitchen. The first is heeding the principle to use lots of natural light. According to the U.S. Green Building Council, designs that take advantage of the sun's light can reduce energy use for lighting by at least 50 percent while also creating a more pleasant ambience. Studies show that in workplaces lit mostly by natural light worker productivity and absenteeism improved 15 percent.
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Letting in lots of sunlight also makes a good environment for plants. Even if you're not interested in growing herbs for ready-made, 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.
The other ecobuilding principle that may effect your structural design is the axiom that "small is beautiful" - the less materials you use, the less pollution you create. While this may initially sound restrictive -- especially if your dream kitchen plans are fueled from years of cooking in a cramped space -- keep in mind that big kitchens can be inconvenient. According to kitchen ergonomic research, if the kitchen work area triangle is too spread out, it becomes uncomfortable: the ideal work triangle should have a total parameter of no more than 22 feet (preferably with no one side less than 4 feet or more than 7 feet). Make your kitchen too large, and you'll want roller skates to go with your latest appliance.
What holds a work triangle in place of course are cabinets and countertops B 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 B though it is likely to cost a bit more.
Most cabinets and countertops are made with particle board, which contains formaldehyde B a likely carcinogen that can also trigger allergies and chemical sensitivities. Avoid this toxic gas whenever you can, especially in the kitchen where it gets warm and humid, making formaldehyde emissions even more potent. This means standard, off-the-shelf cabinets and countertops are out. What are the alternatives?
The most obvious option is to get or build solid wood cabinets. 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 offered by companies such as the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company, AFM, or at least a low-emissions variety such as Benjamin Moore's Pristine Eco Spec.
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 such as Ecodesign or Auro's Clear Cembra. 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 some chemical- and allergy-sensitive designers recommend metal cabinets, that look obviously won't be appropriate for most kitchens outside of Soho.
There are plenty of 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, can also 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-VOC (volatile organic compounds) ceramic adhesives and grout.
After building a green kitchen, be sure and outfit it with energy-efficient appliances. After space heating (or cooling), most refrigerators uses more energy than any other appliance. Dedicated environmentalists should consider buying a Sunfrost, Low Keep, or VestFrost. Although these fridges cost roughly twice your average icebox, they use 70 to 80 percent less electricity, paying for themselves in about ten years. If you can't foot the up-front cost, at least stick to a conventional model that is respectably parsimonious with its energy draw. As a rule of thumb, avoid side-by-side models which have lots of extras like automatic ice makers and outside water dispensers.
The greenest dishwasher on the market, an Asko, costs only about 30 percent more than a typical model and rewards its owners with a very quiet dish cycle and roughly half the water use of most models. No matter which brand you get though, don't run the dry cycle, as 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, without losing your temperature setting. There's also foot-pedal-controlled faucets, which make saving water easy without distracting your hands from the task at hand.
Marshall Glickman was editor/publisher of Green Living (1992-2005) and authored The Mindful Money Guide: Creating Harmony Between Your Values and Your Finances (Wellspring/Ballantine Books).
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