Green Product Options, Interest Gaining Ground

Green is no longer simply the word of the moment. Instead, it is a trend with staying power. At least, that’s what many kitchen and bath dealers and designers are indicating through their increasing interest in all things sustainable and environmentally sound.

According to those industry professionals surveyed in a poll recently featured on KBDN’s Web site, www.KitchenBathDesign.com, 81% of respondents reported that they are seeing interest in green products hold steady or grow in importance – and they expect this trend to continue into the future.

When it comes to what can be learned from this pattern of growth and stability – in a less than stable market – the answer may lie in the basic idea that, when going green, every little bit helps. Kitchen and bath designers indicate that their customers want to make changes, and even small ones will give them the feeling that they are doing something for their families and the world around them.

Manufacturers and suppliers to the kitchen and bath industry have increased their product offerings in the green category, with many retooling existing products to meet updated water-conservation guidelines and indoor air quality requirements. And, while in previous years environmentally friendly meant more expensive, there are new products being added at different price points every day.

Healthy Kitchens

Air quality is a key factor in the greening of the home. Newer homes are more air tight than houses built even 20 years ago, according to the EPA, which is good for heating and cooling purposes, but bad for indoor air quality. In fact, the EPA estimates that indoor air quality is up to 10 times worse than outdoor air quality on the smoggiest day.

Considering Americans spend 90% of their lives indoors, it’s clear why this is a key issue in designing healthy spaces. Additionally, air quality is not a stand-alone issue; rather, every other component of the home can have an impact on overall air quality.

Air quality can be compromised by off-gassing from cabinetry, countertops, flooring, wall coverings or fabrics; by cooking by-products released into the air, or by mold caused by excess moisture or poor ventilation.

Proper ventilation is critical, but air quality can be tricky. Just as too little ventilation can lead to compromised air quality, if too powerful a fan is installed in a forced-air HVAC system, volatile organic compounds can be drawn out of furniture, fabrics, carpets and cabinetry.

To spread information about this, the EPA has partnered with the Lawrence Berkley National Laboratory to create the Indoor Air Quality Scientific Findings Bank, a resource for IAQ questions.

While air quality is a big-picture issue impacting healthy design, every component of the kitchen can have a positive or negative impact on how healthy or green a space is.

Since cabinetry is often the single biggest product investment made in a kitchen, it’s a good starting point for those looking to go green.

In the past few years, the kitchen cabinet industry has come a long way. The creation of the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association’s Environmental Stewardship Program in 2006 marked a turning point for self-governance in the cabinet industry. Since the program’s inception, 151 cabinet companies and brands have earned KCMA’s ESP certification, creating more green cabinet options, and raising the bar for future products.

As a result, high VOCs, formaldehyde off-gassing and other associated indoor air quality issues are largely being eradicated from quality cabinetry. Additionally, strict air quality controls put into place by the California Air Resources Board at the beginning of this year are expected to spark greener product offerings industry wide.

Countertops are also increasingly being impacted by the green movement. The GreenGuard Institute (www.greenguard.org), a third-party certifier, tests for VOCs in the products it certifies (such as Silestone, Cambria, Samsung Staron, Wilsonart and dozens of other brands large and small that are certified to be low VOC).

Additionally, designers need to get the facts about radon. Radon is a radioactive gas emitted from the breakdown of uranium in the bedrock upon which a house stands. Granite is the bedrock that produces it.

The jury’s still out on granite countertops’ rate of radon emission/non-emission, but if your client is concerned, there are certain regions in the U.S. where the incidence of radon is higher in the bedrock. To check that out, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency keeps a Web site of stats on a dedicated microsite: www.epa.gov/radon.

Appliances have also been heavily impacted by the green movement, particularly in the past year, as rebate programs for energy-saving appliances have abounded. This has created new profit avenues for clients who, while maybe not ready for a full remodel, might be convinced to upgrade their appliances both to save energy and to take advantage of current rebate savings.

While kitchen design professionals have long been familiar with the Energy Star labeling program, it’s worth noting that the Web site (www.energystar.gov) also offers a variety of informational resources for design professionals.

Healthy Baths

In designing greener, healthier baths, both air quality and water conservation are key factors. For the former, proper ventilation is essential, since the bath is a moisture-laden environment that can lead to problems with mold and mildew. For the latter, there are numerous options, from low-flow toilets and shower systems, dual-flush technology and high-efficiency toilets to on-demand water heaters.

The World Health Organization released a fact file in March, 2009 that estimated one out of every three people is affected by water scarcity on every continent on Earth. For that reason, water conservation is expected to remain a major concern in the future of bath design.

There are also green specialty areas worth considering, such as utilizing graywater plumbing techniques. This is still illegal in some states, with regulatory legislation pending in others, but some mainstream companies are integrating the principles.

Caroma’s Profile Smart toilet, for example, has an integrated faucet on top. After handwashing under the faucet, the water fills up the toilet for its next flush, rather than using clean water for that purpose.

Ventilation standards are overseen by the American Society of Heating, Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers. ASHRAE’s Standard 62.2 has been adopted by nearly every green building standard in the United States to regulate the power of ventilation systems in residences. Look for ventilation products that meet this standard.

Materials ultimately decide what shade of green the bath will be, and that’s also determined by how your client defines green. For instance, bamboo is a great renewable resource, but is it still green if it’s grown 2,000 miles away and has to be shipped to be fabricated and then shipped to a distributor and then shipped to the job site? If carbon footprint is a concern, maybe not. But green is in the eye of the beholder, and supporting sustainable farm practices may well outweigh the carbon footprint of a product in transit for some clients.

The Bottom Line

Of course, green has struggled some in this increasingly tough economic climate. And in any economy, getting clients to come to a new, higher-priced way of doing things is a tough sell, never mind doing the same convincing in a challenging economic climate.

But things that are durable and add value don’t suddenly cease to be sensible choices when times are times – they just require a more creative sell.

Take the tankless water heater, as an example. For most homeowners of a certain age, a behemoth, hot, noisy water heater is the norm. But the minute they come to understand that a conventional water heater is working even when hot water isn’t needed, and that it runs on electricity whenever it kicks up, and electricity costs money, the thought of switching to an on-demand water heater makes more sense.

The examination of what makes a product health-promoting, green or both is an evolving discussion with many points of view, and it often raises more questions than it answers. After all, how green is really green? How many green products does a room need to be considered green? Can a home built 30 years ago be “greened?” Does a product need a third-party certification to be considered green?

There are no solid answers because that’s what separates the art of design from science. Just as there have always been conflicting thoughts on design styles and methodology, there will always be many schools of thought on green.
But what matters is what’s important to your clients; listening to their concerns and finding out how green they are willing to be will instruct you how to proceed as you implement green products, ideas and designs.

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