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25 ideas for an environmentally friendly kitchen

From lighting to countertops to compost bins, local designers lay out the elements for a green and health-conscious space.

Peter and Maria Hoey

Green kitchen design has come a long way in a short time. Only a few years ago, when “green” was at its buzzword peak, using sustainable materials here and there satisfied many homeowners. A truly green kitchen, however, features careful holistic design that enables a healthy family lifestyle along with saving energy and the planet. Nontoxic materials and finishes are of utmost importance. And they’re no longer novel. “Formaldehyde-free, low-VOC materials are common these days,” says Stephanie Horowitz, architect and managing director of ZeroEnergy Design in Boston. They are what consumers should demand, “especially in the kitchen, where families spend so much time and where the surfaces of countertops and cabinets really shouldn’t off-gas or leach.” She adds, “People expect green design — or should expect it.” To help you get there, here are 25 ideas, tips, and product picks from local kitchen designers.


1. Take Your Time Planning


“To create a green kitchen, thoughtful and enduring design and products must take precedence over size and trendy features,” says Elizabeth Herrmann, president of Elizabeth Herrmann architecture + design in Bristol, Vermont. “Kitchens need to function well, wear well, and not go out of fashion. They should evolve to meet the changing needs of clients.” Lisa Green, owner of Green Design Group in Concord, agrees that careful planning is crucial, making it more likely that you’ll do things right the first time. And that’s key to sustainability.

2. Make It Ageless

Ripping out one green kitchen and putting in another one every few years is a waste of energy and resources. “To be truly green, a kitchen not only has to have energy-efficient appliances and planet-friendly features, it must be designed to withstand the test of time,” says Lisa K. Tharp, founder of Boston’s K. Tharp Design and designer of the Concord Green Healthy Home, a showcase for sustainable design principles.


3. Ask Questions, Lots of Questions

If you decide to enlist a designer’s help, make sure that person truly gets your needs and what it means to be green. Tharp says a kitchen designer should be able to answer the following questions: “What is your process to deeply understand and distill my wants and needs into a successful kitchen design? How will you ensure that the design honors the architecture of my home and is timeless enough to last? What are fundamental design principles that you incorporate into your kitchen projects? In your experience, what palette of materials, finishes, and products are proven to deliver a healthy and sustainable space? How will you avoid fads that do not hold up?”


4. Consider the Air

“The single thing most people overlook is what exactly is lurking in the products they choose. And it’s not their fault — regulation on chemicals in products is antiquated,” says Kelly Taylor, the LEED-accredited founder of Kelly Taylor Interior Design in Providence. Taylor, who is pursuing a master’s degree in sustainable design, explains that resins in composite products for cabinetry, countertops, moldings, furniture, shelving, flooring, and textiles “often contain much added urea formaldehyde, which, as it off-gases, is a dangerous human health concern. Other volatile organic compounds are in nearly every kind of glue, sealant, paint, and coating. The EPA is behind on placing restrictions or simply banning toxic chemicals, like added urea formaldehyde, so it’s important that homeowners understand this is something they need to avoid.” Taylor points out that all “green” products are not created equal. She believes the best indicator that something won’t detract from indoor air quality is Greenguard certification. “Some brands will make up a ‘green’ or ‘eco-friendly’ label, and consumers need to be smart enough to see past that. Make sure you know what’s in your products, why they claim to be green, and most importantly, that they won’t emit toxic chemicals into your air.”


5. Say No to VOCs

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are chemicals that off-gas (release into the air) at room temperature, and they can pose long-term health problems. “Make sure all products you’re using are no-VOC, if possible. Only accept low-VOC when no-VOC is unavailable,” Taylor says. “Why settle for some toxins when you can have none?”

6. Ventilate

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air may be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, and we spend 90 percent of our time inside. Therefore, Taylor says, “the design of your kitchen should include sources for energy-efficient natural ventilation that will replace indoor air with fresh air from outside.”


7. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

“Salvaging and re-purposing older items adds patina and style to a new kitchen,” says Tharp. There are many local sources for used stone countertops, doors, hardware, plumbing, cabinetry, and even appliances. She cites Portland Architectural Salvage (207-780-0634; portlandsalvage.com) in Portland, Maine, and Nor’east Architectural Antiques (603-394-0006; noreast1.com) in South Hampton, New Hampshire, as favorite sources for doors, hardware, and more. Olde Bostonian (617-282-9300; oldbostonian.com) and Boston Building Resources (617-442-2262; bostonbuildingresources.com), both in Boston, are worth checking out, too, she says.


8. Rethink the Island

Islands do not have to be built in, Tharp says. “Re-purposing a fabulous piece of furniture, such as a worktable, as a kitchen island is a wonderful way to add character and flexibility.”

9. Light It Up

“Get creative with lighting, and try something reclaimed or retrofit — from antique library sconces to factory and ship lights, or even upside-down baskets,” Tharp suggests. “Re-purposing items in creative ways inspires us to think about reuse and reminds us to keep things simple with humble materials like baskets and twine, which are often made with fewer toxic materials and have a lighter impact on the earth.”


10. Insulate

“Although it can be hard to spend money on things no one will notice, such as new windows and wall insulation, the rewards go beyond energy efficiency and ‘saving the planet,’ ” Taylor says. “Thermal comfort is really important to human health and happiness. So if you’re opening up walls in order to renovate, definitely insulate tightly while you have the walls open. Replace old windows, and seal all the air gaps.”

11. Bring the Heat, Quickly

ZeroEnergy’s Horowitz is a fan of induction cooktops, which she says are “speedy and efficient at transferring heat and produce extremely even temperatures.” She especially likes Wolf’s unframed version.


12. Brighten With LEDs

Light-emitting diodes “have come a long way in the past few years, and now the only type of recessed lighting I specify is LED,” Taylor says. “If you must use the screw-in LED replacements, that is fine, but I much prefer the recessed lights that have an LED module with a nice glass diffuser on the bottom. For one, you no longer have to look up at a dusty light bulb. But more importantly, the light output is so much more pleasant.” Taylor suggests adding 10 percent to 15 percent more lights if you’re using LEDs, because the LED output is somewhat less than that from standard incandescent recessed lights. One of her go-to brands is Lightolier.

13. Buy Stars

When choosing big-ticket items, Taylor says, “don’t underestimate the power of Energy Star appliances. Energy Star has fun simulation calculators for many products on its website, and it’s cool to go in and see just how much you will save by buying appliances that don’t hog so much power.” Try it out at energystar.gov.

14. Plan for a Power Strip

Plugging several countertop appliances into a single power strip allows you to turn them off easily before leaving the house. “You use so much energy just by leaving them plugged in,” Taylor says. “If they are all connected to one switch, it’s way easier to turn them off, and you might actually do it.”

15. Shop Local

Even the greenest materials require a lot of fuel to ship across the country (or around the world). “I like to use new green materials but like to pair them with handmade and local materials,” Herrmann says. Not only does this save energy and resources, but those products also “tend to be better loved, and may be less likely to be discarded in a few years.” One of Taylor’s favorite sources of local kitchen goods is Stock (401-521-0101; stockpvd.com) in Providence, which carries pepper grinders and oyster platters from Maine, wine openers from Connecticut, knives from Massachusetts, cutting boards and rolling pins from Vermont, and ceramics by Rhode Island potter and RISD instructor Anna Galloway Highsmith. It also has islands made from Rhode Island trees by Hope’s Woodshop. “When the city cut down a 100-year-old maple at my house,” says Stock owner Jan Dane, “I called Hope’s Woodshop to come get it. That’s local!”


16. Clear Clutter

Keeping a kitchen clean is a big part of being green. A messy kitchen, Horowitz says, is an impediment to actually using that kitchen. Which means less cooking of organic food, less blending of fruits and veggies, less of so many factors that contribute to a healthy lifestyle. “Clutter can inhibit our behavior,” she says. “Ultimately, we want to design a kitchen that’s enjoyable to use, and a kitchen is much more enjoyable to use if things have a proper place.”

17. Park Appliances

When planning the design of a kitchen, Horowitz says, it’s key to consider which countertop appliances are in most frequent use, and find a space for those. If there are tall appliances, such as blenders, in heavy rotation, they need to fit under the cabinets. Horowitz strongly recommends an appliance garage for keeping things tucked away — she likes the Box Milano by Hafele — or creating space on a pantry shelf for less-used items. “In my opinion, the most overlooked element of kitchen design is smart storage,” Concord’s Green says. Beyond appliances, “it’s important to take a look at all the options for dishes, cutlery, pots, and pans, as well as decorative items, and make a plan.”

18. Ditch Paper Towels

Instead of using disposables to wipe up messes, use towels. To make that easier, Horowitz says, incorporate a place where plenty of towels can be stored — and a place for them to be discarded when they are ready for the laundry.

19. Hide the Compost

An in-counter compost bin, which is tucked beneath an opening in your countertop into which you drop scraps, is “a huge improvement to the old, messy countertop compost bucket,” Herrmann says. “It is concealed but handy and makes cleaning very easy.” Both Herrmann and Horowitz recommend the Blanco Solon compost system. While you’re at it, make sure you have a convenient setup for recycling, too.

20. Make Space for Green Food

“Think about what you need to store more fresh local produce, proteins, herbs, and spices, and maybe even an indoor garden,” Green says. The refrigerator should have plenty of room for veggies, and you should have a dark, low-moisture spot for potatoes and onions. For DIY herbs, Green recommends a locale that gets at least four hours of sunlight and using a clay or ceramic pot with good drainage.

21. Plan Backsplashes Wisely

Several designers recommend skipping tiles for the backsplash and choosing a smooth surface for easier cleaning instead. (Tharp also notes that a tiled backsplash can “date quickly and add a lot of visual complexity.”) Herrmann suggests a single piece of stainless steel or specialty-finish metal, reclaimed stone or concrete slab, Fireslate, or painted planking that is easy to wash. Horowitz likes to keep outlets off the backsplash — to simplify cleaning — and to move them up under the cabinets.


22. Consider a Superior Tile

Taylor and Green both love Fireclay Tile. “It’s a handmade, sustainably produced product that contains a significant amount of postindustrial and post-consumer waste,” Taylor says. “Aside from using trash to create beautiful tile, the company also makes every tile to order, so there is no added waste from throwing away unused stocks of previously produced tile.”

23. Choose Top Counters

When it comes to quartz counters, Green prefers Cambria: The stone is primarily mined in North America, Cambria recycles all of the water in its fabrication facilities, and scrap material is collected for use as road base. One of Taylor’s favorites is Richlite, made from a paper-based composite material that is quite durable, heat-resistant up to 350 degrees, and impact-resistant. “It’s extremely strong, so you can have long cantilever overhangs without adding support brackets or steel,” Taylor explains. “It is easy to cut with a variety of tools, but it can also be threaded, so it’s easy to work with. The company uses only sustainably derived resources, like FSC-certified paper pulp, and low-emitting binders, the resins that hold the pulp together.”

24. Seek Good Wood

For countertops and other wood paneling, Green likes TorZo. “It features sustainably harvested and recycled content, and it’s beautiful,” she says. The company’s newest product is Blue Stain pine panels and planks. “Due to the devastation caused by the mountain pine beetle, many pines are left to rot in the forest, and they have a blue tinge to them. TorZo has found a way to salvage this wood so we can use it in commercial spaces as well as our homes.” Herrmann uses Valchromat, a recycled wood composite material, for cabinet doors and drawers.

25. Finish Strong

ECOS Organic is my go-to line of 100 percent nontoxic finishes,” Tharp says. “It includes floor varnishes, paints, and specialty finishes. ECOS color-matches all the major brands, and pricing is reasonable. The line originated in the UK, but now it’s made here on the East Coast, and it can ship within 24 hours.” Green also recommends Mythic Paint and WOCA Oil, a VOC-free vegetable-oil base that “creates a lovely, subtle finish for wood floors.”

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Christie Matheson is the author of “Green Chic” and the author and illustrator of “Tap the Magic Tree.” Send comments to magazine@globe.com.