Touches of Green

While most of the talk in the kitchen and bath design world these days focuses on sustainable design, there are many trade professionals who don’t fully understand the concept, or know how to go about embracing “green.” There appear to be a dizzying array of options in some areas and no options in other areas, and figuring out the “right” approach can be daunting.
Well, the truth is, there is no one correct approach to green design. That was the determination made by presenters and attendees alike at the MasterClass Conference Green Fusion II, hosted by the National Kitchen & Bath Association.

In addition to there being no direct path, the environmental speakers told attendees that they needn’t make massive changes to their firms and approaches to make themselves more environmentally sound as designers. Small changes can make significant differences in environmental impact, provide healthier homes for clients and enhance their company’s reputation as a design firm that cares about the environment.

“While global warming has brought the issue to the forefront, there are so many other reasons why you should use green design,” commented Robert Blakeman, AIA, LEED AP, senior v.p., Paulus, Sokolowski & Sartor, an architectural engineering firm in Warren, NJ. “Primarily, you use green design to create a healthier home and reduce energy costs.”

People are concerned about the health of their families and incorporating safer, more natural products in their homes, noted Robyn Griggs Lawrence, editor in chief, Natural Home. “One of the things that we really need to stress to people is that you’re not giving anything up to gain that.

“So, when you’re selling green or talking to clients about why they should be green, it’s not really about doing the right thing. It’s about keeping their family healthy and how they can save some money,” she continued.

Something important to remember, according to Lawrence, is that green design is not an aesthetic. “There is not one look that is green design,” she commented. “It’s not moss green and brown. It’s a background philosophy that’s driving whatever aesthetic you want to use.”

And, she continued, “It needs to be beautiful. There are neurological studies that say that humans actually have a need for pleasing proportions, textures and shapes for the mental health and well-being. That’s a key part of green design. It needs to make people happy, because if it does that, they’re less likely to replace it.”

That is also an element of green design. “Basically, you want to use materials that are going to last a little longer, so less frequent replacement is needed,” commented Annette Stelmack, proprietor of INSPIRIT – To Instill Courage & Life, a fusion of environmental stewardship and creativity inspiring future generations. “While this is not always going to be a sustainable product, it is an important factor to consider.”

You also want the room’s design to adapt to the family’s needs, and even adapt to another family should the house be sold.

“You don’t want a room that’s so specific to the client that the next homeowner can’t adapt to the space,” explained Stelmack.

So, how do kitchen and bath designers go about incorporating sustainable design principles into their design approaches and make more environmentally sound choices? Each presenter offered an array of possibilities.

Stelmack stressed that designers should ask manufacturers and suppliers a number of questions when specifying products, including: where is it made, what are the material contents, what happens to by-products of manufacturing, how does the manufacturing process use water and energy efficiently, does the product off-gas or emit toxins to installers or end users, what sustainable manufacturing processes do you use, how is it packaged and shipped, can the packaging be returned for reuse, where does the waste go, how is the waste safely disposed of or reused, does the product or its waste emit toxins into the land at disposal, and are there recycling programs in place that assist in the recycling of this product?

In addition, Stelmack urged attendees to always request a Manufacturers Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) from the product manufacturer. “You can see every single thing that is in that particular item,” she noted. “Especially ask for it when you don’t know where it’s coming from, or you’re unfamiliar with the manufacturer.”

Clearing the Air

Indoor air quality is one of the most critical issues when building green, with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) the number one culprit.

“When you put a series of products together, you get outgassing of VOCs,” explained Blakeman. “So, whenever you smell something good, like that new car smell, it’s probably bad for you.”

Concern over formaldehyde used in cabinet finishes and other building products was a major topic of discussion. According to Blakeman, formaldehyde-free kitchens can include solid wood cabinets made with sustainable harvested wood, FSC certified wood, metal, salvaged wood, other formaldehyde-free material, waterborne clear finishes that yield no shine and salvaged wood veneers.

“The interesting thing about cabinets is that everyone loves a lush looking, shiny cabinet, but that’s everything it shouldn’t be,” stressed Blakeman. “When people get cabinets with a high shine and a great patina or wood look, they think they’ve made it – that they have a kitchen that’s the best. But, those products are usually high VOC. So what we need to do is change our perception of what is best, and look to desire low-sheen products.”

Blakeman noted a trend toward metal cabinets, a throwback to the 1950s. “They emit no VOCs, come in great colors, are totally green and are lightweight, so the shipping costs are less – an environmental bonus.”

Seeing the Light

According to Jason McLennan, author of “Philosophy of Sustainable Design,” one-third of electricity is used for lighting.
McLennan urges people to use free energy, such as daylight and solar power. Adding to this, Lawrence stressed, “Get your clients to open up windows and bring in passive solar and ventilation whenever possible.”

Blakeman discussed daylight harvesting as well – getting natural light to penetrate into spaces. “The more natural light you let in, the less electricity you use,” he reported.

Compact fluorescents continue to be at the center of debate for many kitchen and bath designers. While they are an environmentally sound choice because of their low energy use, the effect of fluorescent lighting on a room’s design has received less than favorable reviews.

One designer in the audience commented, “Designers spend a lot of money on granite and other items for the room, and then the homeowner installs fluorescents and everything goes flat.”

And, warned Stelmack, disposal is an issue. “You can’t just throw them away, because they have mercury in them.”

LEDs are on the rise, noted the presenters. “They do not emit heat, and they’re able to change colors to red, blue, green and yellow,” stressed Blakeman. They also offer an extremely long life, and can be used underneath a translucent or glass countertop for a great design effect.

He added that a relatively new offering – a low-voltage, LED strip that changes color on demand – works well for undercabinet lighting.

Blakeman recommended using sensors on lighting fixtures, so that the lights shut off when no one is using the space. But, he stressed, “The most efficient light bulb is the one that is off.”

Energy Savings

Green design also embraces the idea of building small to reduce energy needs, which, Blakeman stressed, is against what is being done right now.

A smaller, more efficient kitchen, where less is more, includes open shelving, according to Lawrence, because they use less materials. However, audience members argued that most cabinets are jam-packed with items, which is not a possibility with open shelving. In addition, they cautioned on the use of open shelves in a working kitchen, due to grease and dust collection on shelved items.

“If you’re looking for a healthy environment for your family, it’s not a great solution,” commented one attendee. “It’s a very unhealthy solution for people with allergies or time constraints, as you’re always cleaning something on the shelves.”

Energy efficiency also translates to other elements in the kitchen and bath – especially appliances.

The sustainable high-performance home will include Energy Star rated appliances for the kitchen, according to Blakeman, which use less energy.

Stelmack noted when specifying appliances, kitchen designers should look for products that have the best efficiency rating and maximum water-conservancy features, and dishwashers with hot water boosters and short wash and dry cycles. Things to avoid include unneeded or luxury features, and appliances that clients will not fully use.

And, old appliances should always be recycled, a popular notion as the steel in these appliances is in demand. Most appliance dealers and manufacturers will haul away old appliances at no charge, and bring them to scrap metal dealers, according to speakers and attendees.

A debate ensued about the donation of old appliances that are still in working order.

“They’re old, and they’re not energy efficient,” offered Lawrence. “However, they help someone who doesn’t have appliances. So, it’s a difficult call to make.”

An audience member offered: “If we’re going to be the leaders of this movement, I don’t think it’s right to pawn off our energy inefficient appliances onto the less fortunate. Often, charitable organizations won’t even accept them, which indicates that they want to be environmentally responsible and do the right thing as well. If it’s not right for us, it’s not right for the planet – period.”

Home Grown

The “green” story isn’t necessarily all about materials, stressed Lawrence. “It’s more about the big picture: thinking ‘efficiency,’ and what works for what place and where you are.”

She adds that designers are beginning to look to local sources for materials as part of their environmental approach, as opposed to something that has to be shipped.

“Look for products grown and manufactured right in your own backyard,” added Stelmack. “Go there first, and then go out five or 10 miles. This idea connects users with the impact of their choices.”

Also, she added, keep in mind that lightweight materials, such as cork, don’t impact shipping as much as other materials.

In elaborating on McLennan’s idea of understanding climate and place, Lawrence noted, “What may be great in Boston may not be great as a green material in New Mexico, and vice versa. Understand where you are, and how the solution or the material really relates to that place.”

Surface Choices

Countertop, backsplash and flooring surfaces are key elements in the overall look of kitchens and baths, and designers can choose from a variety of environmentally sound options when creating these rooms.

Portland cement, stone, metal, fired clay and glass tile and recycled glass are all mainstay green choices for countertops and backsplashes. Add to that products such as Ice Stone, bamboo, Paperstone and similar products, and the range of choices, colors and textures is significant.

Sustainable flooring includes items such as bamboo, linoleum and recycled and reclaimed wood.

Rubber flooring is an increasingly popular option for floors. Made from 100% post-consumer material, rubber is good for playrooms, basements and other highly active areas. It is available in a large range of colors, and is UV and slip resistant.

Biocomposite is another interesting choice for floors, according to Stelmack. It is made from the offcasting of the agricultural industry – such as wheat, barley, rice or oat straw. “It is very renewable, but not as hard or dense as hardwood,” she commented.

And, cork continues its surge in popularity. “The beauty of cork is that it is very renewable,” Stelmack explained. “It wears well, is quiet, and it’s water resistant, antimicrobial, antimold and fire resistant, and deters pests and termites.”

When embracing green design, it is important to remember that “there is no ultimate answer or perfect product – no perfect solution,” stressed Stelmack.

“Every step is a good step,” agreed Lawrence. “And, if your client says, ‘I have to have that tile from Italy,’ you can say, ‘okay, but you can still do other things that are more green.’”