in this article
It’s an approach to home improvement with the goals of making your home look and work better for both you and the environment.
Want a healthier home? Lower utility bills? Reduced maintenance? A cleaner planet? A green remodel helps you realize a range of far-reaching benefits from a single smart design. With careful planning, you can create a home that combines beauty, efficiency, comfort, and convenience with health and conservation.
Why Consider a Green Remodeling
Energy- and water-wise designs and products reduce monthly bills. Efficient, durable, and enduring home elements can last longer and cost less to maintain in the long run. Also, by making spaces welcoming to various ages and abilities, your home will be marketable to a larger population, a key benefit for resale, and less likely to need costly modifications as your own abilities change.
MAKE A HEALTHIER HOME
A green remodel can be good for you, physically and emotionally. Health-focused designs maximize fresh air and natural light, and reduce the risk of injury. Potential problems like molds, allergens and toxic chemicals can be identified and addressed early, a strategy that is more effective and usually cheaper than fixing them after they develop.
REDUCE ECOLOGICAL IMPACT
Remodeling is an opportunity to create a home that enhances the natural environment instead of depleting it. You can make your living space more resource-efficient, minimize waste, and recycle what’s left over to reduce the amount of materials going to a landfill.
The kitchen is the heart of the home, a place for everything from cooking and eating to socializing and entertaining. This guide discusses the considerations involved in orchestrating a green kitchen remodel, so you can create a game plan that works for you.
A kitchen remodel can be complicated and expensive. A 2005 study by the National Association of Realtors pins the cost of a midrange kitchen remodel in our region at over $45,000, while an upscale one averages nearly $84,000. It makes sense to do things right the first time. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce both the cost and complexity of a kitchen renovation, while increasing the room’s environmental efficiency and human performance.
Green remodeling requires a new approach to the remodeling process. Better planning captures opportunities often missed in the conventional remodeling process. This includes expanding your list of objectives as well as the way you compare the price of products and services, by taking wide-angle and long-term views of decisions. It also means being willing to invest time and energy to find solutions that best fit your needs. Green remodeling means approaching your remodeling project with health and safety at the forefront. This advance planning pays large dividends in terms of long-term satisfaction with your project and cost containment.
Decide What You Want
Planning a remodel can elicit equal parts excitement and terror. The choices are endless. Where do you begin? Generally, the more you can stick with existing walls, cabinetry, plumbing, and electrical layouts, the less you will spend on your remodel. You’ll use fewer resources with less waste. So first, define your priorities and then consider all your options carefully.
Are materials and finishes nontoxic? Is ventilation sufficient? Are surfaces easy to clean without using harsh chemicals? Does the layout promote safety from slips, cuts, burns, and electric shocks?
Are materials and finishes nontoxic? Is ventilation sufficient? Are surfaces easy to clean without using harsh chemicals? Does the layout promote safety from slips, cuts, burns, and electric shocks?
Does the design make kitchen tasks easier and more pleasant? Create a list of your common kitchen tasks. Does the design help or hinder these?
Are the appliances and fixtures energy- and water-efficient? Are they sized to match the jobs at hand?
Comfort & Beauty
Is the space inviting and attractive? Does it encourage people to linger? Are countertop heights and floor surfaces comfortable? What makes the space uncomfortable: layout, surfaces, colors or lighting?
Do the materials stand up to the tasks performed in a kitchen over time? Are they time-honored classics or will they look dated in a few years?
Is space lacking or wasted? Take an inventory of all categories of space: work space, storage, floor, and visual space. Then be creative. Explore the simpler solutions first, such as converting a nearby closet to storage or pantry or donating unused items.
Does the design accommodate a variety of people, both in age and ability? Today’s kitchens often need to work for not just one user but several, each requiring different activity areas.
o materials and appliances avoid environmental harm during their manufacture, use, and disposal? Are they made from materials that are recycled, responsibly mined or harvested, renewable, and/or local? Are they reusable or recyclable?
Expand Your Definition of Cost
Initial price gives only a peephole of the true cost of a product or design. A higher purchase price can mean a better deal in the long run. You can actually reduce the cost of living in your home by choosing resource-efficient materials and designs that lower monthly bills and durable materials that require less frequent replacement. Focus on long- term savings, ease of maintenance and conservation, not just initial price. A low purchase price may mean a good deal, or it may signify a lack of quality or durability, or that some environmental, health, or social costs are not included on the price tag.
Do Your Homework
Research helps you ask the right questions of retailers, your designer and/or contractor and avoids costly mistakes if you are doing the work yourself. Finding some “green” products can be a challenge. It pays to start early. Look for manufacturers that offer products you like. Keep a file of contact names, businesses, magazine and newspaper clippings.
Identify everything for your new kitchen down to the appliance brands, light fixtures, and finishes. This helps determine cost and availability and reduces the need for expensive, last minute decisions. Find out how long it takes to receive special-order items and factor this into your schedule. The Internet is a great place to start when searching for information and products, but be aware of biases in information sources. The line between sales pitch and factual information can be quite blurry.
Take time to identify the hazards that already exist in your home and those that may be created by the remodeling process. Many old paints contain lead, and disturbing these surfaces can increase the risk of lead poisoning. Certain plumbing types can also contain lead, and leach into drinking water. Asbestos is another potential hazard discussed in the flooring section. Make your objectives for dust and fume containment, as well as cleanup procedures, clear with your contractor.
Make sure all work follows building codes. Work that violates codes may also violate the terms of your insurance policy, leaving you vulnerable to loss. It can also save you the hassle, waste, and expense of having to tear out non-compliant elements. It’s likely that the reason it doesn’t comply is due to safety, health, or energy efficiency issues–all goals of a green remodel. Contact your local planning department for information on building codes in your area.
Universal Design Benefits Everyone
Universal Design reexamines the basic assumptions we have made in designing high-function areas like kitchens and bathrooms. The result is a more flexible, adaptable design useful
to a wide range of ages, sizes, or physical abilities. Universal design can help homeowners age in place and reduce the need for costly and wasteful tear-out and remodeling activity later.
Appliances & lighting
It’s estimated the average kitchen accounts for 20-40% of a home’s total energy bill. If your refrigerator and dishwasher are more than 10 years old, you can most likely reduce your utility bills by replacing these appliances with high-efficiency models. There’s an initial investment with upgrading old appliances, but chances are you’ll appreciate better performance and lower utility bills.
To find the most energy-efficient electric appliances, start with the ENERGY STAR® website at www.energystar.gov, and look for the ENERGY STAR® label at your retailer. An ENERGY STAR® label means that a product meets stringent energy requirements. The more comprehensive a warranty, the more likely that the appliance will last. Ovens and ranges are not included in the ENERGY STAR® program. Given the inefficiency of these appliances (it’s estimated only 6% of the energy used to power an oven is actually absorbed by the food!) it makes sense to choose wisely.
Size your appliances to meet your needs. Dishwashers and refrigerators operate most efficiently when they’re full. If your old fridge or dishwasher is consistently only half full, consider smaller models. Check the ENERGY STAR® label for efficiency of each model.
Good ventilation is a key consideration in a healthy home. Washington State Code (WAC 51-
13) requires kitchen ventilation with a minimum fan flow rating of 100 cubic feet per minute (CFM). Removal of combustion gases and water vapor in kitchens is essential to maintaining good indoor air quality. Be aware that over-powered kitchen ventilation hoods and downdraft fans can actually create a health hazard by pulling furnace, fireplace and hot water heater exhaust containing toxic fumes into your home. An overview of kitchen ventilation is available on the Oikos web site at http://oikos.com/library/index.html#Ventilation.
Properly sized and positioned light fixtures put light where you need it. Natural light and lighter wall and ceiling colors reduce the need for supplemental electric light. For design tips and information about energy-efficient lighting, go to www.elflist.com.
New cabinetry can be the most expensive component in a kitchen remodel. First, determine whether your cabinets need to be totally replaced, resurfaced, or simply repainted. If your current cabinets are from the 1950s or earlier there’s a good chance they’re built better than most on the market today.
If space is the issue, there are ways to maximize what you already have. Increase storage by adding shelves within the cabinets, or changing doors to drawers under counters. Pullout shelves can be added that allow you to retain the existing cabinet doors as well.
Existing cabinets can be completely transformed and updated with cabinet refacing– replacing the cabinet and drawer fronts while keeping the base cabinetry. By refacing them, you could end up with a premium-quality kitchen that looks brand new–at a fraction of the monetary and environmental cost. Find companies that specialize in this process under Cabinet Refacing in the phone directory or online.
Whether refacing your cabinets or installing new ones, be careful with cabinetry constructed of particleboard or conventional medium density fiberboard (MDF). Not only can it fall apart if wet, it often contains urea formaldehyde, which can emit irritating and unhealthy fumes for decades after it’s installed. Environment and health friendly alternatives include:
- Formaldehyde-free MDF made with exterior-grade resins for added durability.
- Wheatboard or strawboard is free from formaldehyde binders. In dry and protected areas, they are an excellent option, and make use of an underutilized resource: plant stems left over from grain production. Applying veneers or finishes increase the durability of wheatboard.
Kitchen waste & recycling
Kitchens generate a lot of waste in the form of food scraps and packaging, as well as toxic cleaners and pest control products. Fortunately, you can make a significant difference by composting, recycling and choosing products carefully.
Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified exterior-grade plywood. The Forest Stewardship Council sets standards to certify forest products from responsibly managed forests (see www.fsc.org for more on sustainable harvest wood products).
Shop with reusable bags and try to choose products with less packaging. Reuse containers and purchase
in bulk. Avoid using toxic chemicals. Find alternatives to conventional toxic products at www.watoxics.org (click on healthy homes & gardens and then on repair and building materials).
Garbage disposals add cost to a remodel, use extra water, and put unnecessary stress on our wastewater treatment facilities. Instead, compost non-protein kitchen scraps. Provide space under the sink in your cabinet design for a compost bucket, or include a chute in the countertop for tossing scraps with under-sink storage.
For ease and convenience, create a kitchen recycling station. You can purchase pre-manufactured recycling organizers or build your own.
Meat, bones and fat or oil- rich food scraps belong in the garbage — composting these can attract pests. Tossing stuff in your recycling bin that doesn’t belong there can turn the whole load into garbage. So learn what goes in your bin, and what doesn’t. If you need to get rid of hazardous household materials (old paint, pesticides, cleaners, or other chemicals), visit www.earth911.org or www. govlink.org/hazwaste/ house/disposal to find where to take it. Of course, avoiding toxic products in the first place is by far the best option.
Perhaps the hardest-working surface in the home, kitchen countertops need to be durable and easy to clean. They’re also a substantial investment. So first decide if it actually needs to be replaced, or just repaired or renewed. Tile countertops can be re-grouted. Wood countertops can be refinished. Even a laminate surface that’s come loose can often be re- glued.
If it’s time for a replacement, be sure to include fabrication and installation cost as you’re comparing. Up to 80% of the cost of a countertop is related to these costs rather than the cost of material. For do-it-yourselfers, butcher block and tile are good options. Others, such as solid surface countertops and engineered stone, require professional installation to maintain the warranty. Finding an environmentally superior choice involves weighing several options based on your priorities. The chart on the following pages outlines some common countertop materials.
Backsplashes make the wall behind the counter easy to clean and protect it from moisture damage. Many countertop materials (laminates, tile, stone, stainless steel, and solid surface materials) can be used for backsplashes. Since a backsplash doesn’t need to stand up to as many abuses as the kitchen counter (e.g., cutting, hot pots and pans, dropped items), you’re allowed more freedom with your material choices. Some options include vintage chalkboard slate, surplus or salvaged tempered glass, or a mosaic of salvaged tile or stone.
Choose a material that’s up to regular scrubbing, grease splatters and exposure to moisture. If using the same material as the counter, find out if the material can be fabricated from one piece. This eliminates any seams between countertop and wall and protects against water damage. It makes cleaning a snap. If a seam or joint is unavoidable, look for water-based caulk formulas. These are low in volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Invest in premium quality caulk because it usually costs less over time as it is replaced less often. If you choose a silicone caulk, look for additive-free, aquarium grade products.
Faucets should be efficient, durable and stylish. Kitchen faucets today must meet standards for water efficiency, using no more than 21⁄2 gallons per minute (GPM). The GPM should be marked on the nozzle. Efficient aerators save water and the energy used to heat it by reducing the flow from the faucet. Kitchen nozzles should use no more than 2.0 GPM. Some nozzles come with a small lever that allows you to reduce the water flow to a trickle while soaping up or between rinses, with the flick of a finger. This saves even more water. You won’t have to readjust water temperature every time you shut off the faucet.
If your current faucet is in good condition, consider reusing it. Faucet repair kits are available at most home improvement and hardware stores. New handles, available at plumbing supply stores, can freshen the look of an existing faucet. Faucets with lever handles (like those you see in doctors’ offices) are easier to grip and easier to clean.
Make choices carefully if considering a salvage or vintage faucet. Many of these fixtures are water wasters, and may not meet code requirements for efficiency. Additionally, some older faucet fittings contain lead. Look for newer faucets that can be fitted with a nozzle meeting current code. Bring the nozzle with you on your salvage trip to make sure it fits.
On new faucets, look first at the faucet’s warranty: its length and comprehensiveness is a good indicator of faucet quality. Look for lifetime warranties, and warranties that include the faucet’s finish, replacement parts, or full replacement. Faucets with ceramic disc valves are longer lasting and less prone to drips. Look for faucets with replaceable parts so you don’t have to toss the whole thing if it breaks.
Look out for Lead in Drinking Water!
Lead can leach from certain types of plumbing in the home and accumulate to unhealthy levels within pipes. Homes most at risk are those with copper plumbing installed between 1948 and 1980, when solder containing lead was commonly used.
If you’re installing a water filter at the sink, choose one with a biodegradable carbon filter.
Sinks come in many of the same materials as countertops. They include stainless steel, solid surface materials, and certain stones. The same pros and cons of these materials apply to sinks as to countertops. One benefit of using the same material in both sink and counter is that it can sometimes be made from one piece of material. This eliminates seams that can harbor bacteria and cause leaks. Sinks with steep sides and tighter corners will provide more in-sink space than those with sloped sides and rounded corners.
Countertops made from a single material throughout (concrete, natural and engineered stone, solid surface) are flexible, allowing for either surface mount (self-rimming or drop-in) or undermounted sink styles. Undermounted sinks make cleanup easier by eliminating the lip present in most surface mount styles. Countertops with a surface layer of one material and base of another (laminate, linoleum etc.) require surface- mounting sink styles.
We expect kitchen floors to be tough. Of course, our floors have to be easy to clean, too. It makes sense to carefully weigh a range of options for this key kitchen surface.
Vinyl (not to be confused with linoleum–see the Countertops section for a description of natural linoleum) has been a popular choice for several decades. Recent research raises questions about vinyl’s impact on human health. Vinyl used in homes is composed of paper topped with a very thin layer of color or pattern. In an instant, a dropped knife or sharp object can cause irreparable damage.
Vinyl sheet flooring manufactured before the mid-1980s may contain high levels of asbestos in its backing material. Vinyl tiles from this era also may contain asbestos (especially the smaller, 9” by 9” tiles common in many 1940-60s houses). The asbestos in these tiles is usually much less likely to be released into the air than from the sheet vinyl backing.
If you suspect you have asbestos-containing flooring, visit the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency Web site (www.pscleanair.org; click on Asbestos and Demolition) to learn about safe handling and removal. You can also visit EPA’s Web site at www.epa.gov/asbestos/.
Building with Vision: Optimizing and Finding Alternatives to Wood by Dan Imhoff, et al. (Watershed Media, 2001). This book gives a good overview of the environmental and health impacts of building materials, and lists environmentally friendly alternatives.
No-Regrets Remodeling from Home Energy Magazine. Excellent general reference for home remodels, focusing on energy savings. See www.homeenergy.org (click on Products)
The New Natural House Book by David Pearson (Fireside Publishers, 1998)
Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House: Bringing Your Home into Harmony with Nature by Carol Venolia and Kelly Lerner (Lark Books, 2006)
Green Remodeling: Changing the World One Room at a Time by David R. Johnston, Kim Master (New Society Publishers, 2004)
Green Building Products: The GreenSpec Guide to Residential Building Materials (New Society Publishers, 2006)
USEFUL WEB PAGES:
The BUILT GREENTM Program – www.builtgreenwashington.org
Puget Sound Energy’s Rebate Program – www.pse.com/solutions/rebatesonappliances. aspx
Solar Washington – www.solarwashington.org
The Solar Living Institute – www.solarliving.org/
The Washington State Department of Ecology provides listings of statewide green building resources on their Web site – www.ecy.wa.gov/programs/swfa/greenbuilding
Green building: A healthier and more efficient home helps our environment – https://www.pca.state.mn.us/sites/default/files/w-hhw1-24.pdf
Green home guide – http://www.greenhomeguide.com/articles