Cabinets Impact Healthy Kitchen Designs

Perhaps the trickiest part of creating a healthy kitchen has to do with choosing the right cabinets. Cabinetry offers its own unique set of concerns, such as the use of proper wood, paint and adhesives. Indeed, there are plenty of places for cabinetry to veer into an unhealthy direction if not handled properly.

For the designer, paying close attention to cabinet choices is key when designing a healthy kitchen. After all, the last thing the green, health-conscious client wants is to spend thousands of dollars on ventilation, sanitary surfaces or flooring, only to find the most expensive component of the kitchen be the least healthy.

Best Practices

Patricia Gaylor, a New Jersey designer whose green pedigree includes designing homes for the International Builders Show, notes there’s a resistance to commit to green design by some manufacturers.

“It’s our social responsibility, as designers, to maintain the movement. It’s our responsibility to our clients to demand more green products,” she comments. “It’s especially important in the kitchen and bath when specifying certified woods and hardwoods.”

In the past, typically small companies and custom shops were the only places to find green cabinetry. Now, most large cabinet companies offer green options. St. Charles Cabinetry identifies itself as eco-friendly because it has a high recycled-content percentage, zero Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) off-gassing in manufacturing and use, and includes integrated compact fluorescent lighting.

As in most green topics, third-party certification is crucial to help contractors, builders and consumers discern what companies are providing woods grown and harvested in an environmentally sound way. The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is an international not-for-profit membership-based organization with the mission of promoting responsible stewardship of the world’s forests. It works to certify forests that meet that set criteria. What that means to cabinetmakers is that they can be sure that their wood is coming from a sustainably managed forest.

Weyerhaeuser’s Lyptus hardwood products come from Eucalyptus trees grown on plantations certified by Brazil’s national sustainable forestry standard, CERFLOR. Lyptus comes in a variety of grades of lumber, plywood and veneer.

The Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA) also plays a pivotal role in the green movement with its Environmental Stewardship Program. The program seeks to provide qualifying companies with tangible ways to support sustainability in various areas, including air quality, product resource management, process resource management, environmental stewardship and community relations. Companies are evaluated through a point system, and the list of those that have qualified include the biggest names in the industry.

Portland, OR-based Neil Kelly Cabinets’ “Naturals Collection” cabinets have drawn wide attention from the green community. The cabinetry is comprised of FSC- certified woods, formaldehyde-free agriboard (or wheatboard) case/drawer materials and low-VOC glues, adhesives and finishes. The certified woods include maple, cherry, red oak and bamboo, among others. The company also offers formaldehyde-free laminate frameless cabinetry.

Alternative Materials

Among many manufacturers, wood is considered the premier building material.

For an earth-conscious client looking to have custom cabinets made, reclaimed wood is a good, if somewhat pricey, option. McCloud, CA-based TerraMai, a member of the FSC and the U.S. Green Building Council, specializes in recovering and stocking reclaimed woods from around the world. The company offers a wide variety of species, including redwood, douglas fir and teak. Elmwood Reclaimed Timber also offers a line of reclaimed and remilled woods and wood products.

This brings up a point when embarking on the next remodel: There are a host of urban salvage yards popping up for all kinds of byproducts. Before tearing out the existing cabinetry and other components, do a simple Internet search on how materials need to be handled to be preserved. Habitat for Humanity also runs a program called ReStore, which retails used materials from remodels with proceeds dedicated to its charitable homebuilding efforts.

The carbon imprint of some of these materials might concern clients worried about a product’s green credentials. Carbon imprint is the impact the manufacturing, transportation and subsequent installation that product will have on the earth. There’s generally a 100-mile radius rule that green experts apply to these transactions. If all materials can be had within 100 miles, then it has a smaller carbon impact. If hardwoods need to be carefully extracted from a remote location, flown to a facility that is 3,000 miles from the clients home, milled and fabricated, then flown or trucked across the country for installation, it raises the impact. If that’s a concern for a client, be sure to track where the material came from, and where all the work in between was done.

Another way for homeowners to avoid using virgin woods is to forget wood altogether.

The Venus kitchen, which was designed for Snaidero by Ferrari car stylist Pininfarina, is one such option. The material has a Microtouch finish option, which is an eco-friendly Micofiber treated through a tanning process in water that gives it the appearance and texture of leather, while being extremely resistant to water and easy to clean.

The leather finish is available in coral red and black ink. Venus also has a patented lighting system, an application of automotive technology composed of streamlined LED lights fitted closely into a thin aluminum strip. This allows for longer bulb durability, considerably reduced heat emission and 80% energy savings, according to the company.

Another option is Celona aluminum cabinetry from Spain. Modern Habitat Chicago owner Dexter Giffard has done kitchens for all types of clients, from a homeowner with a severe chemical sensitivity to clients who simply like the sleek, contemporary look of the metal cabinetry. The cabinets are completely recyclable and use no-VOC powder paint. St. Charles features a similar product that is recyclable, hypoallergenic and available in 23 colors of powdercoated steel.

Universal Design

The healthy kitchen is about more than just green design, however. It is about functioning well within the space.

A serious topic for an aging America, accessible design has reshaped the way many kitchen cabinet manufacturers think about their own product offerings.

The Passport Series by KraftMaid Cabinetry offers various solutions for those with physical or height limitations, multi-generational households, or for, as the company says, “those simply designing homes to accommodate all of life’s changes.” The series meets ADA specifications and has features like a 9" high x 6" deep toekick that allows wheelchair access, a raised dishwasher enclosure for easier loading and unloading, and supports that allow cooktops to be installed at any height.

Plain & Fancy also has similar options and is featured in Virginia Tech’s “Center for Real Life Kitchen Design.” The cabinetry featured has a variety of pull-outs for items such as microwaves and base cabinetry supporting countertops of various heights. Virginia Tech’s mission for the center is to illustrate how kitchen design can accommodate persons of all ages, abilities and skill levels.

In the end, it appears that the answer right now is that there is no true answer as to what makes the ideal healthy cabinet. As Gaylor points out: “The important part of green design right now is spreading the awareness [among clients and professionals]. A kitchen doesn’t have to be perfectly green – this is not a black or white issue. For a lot of clients, creating a completely green or completely accessible kitchen isn’t feasible, so you, the designer, add in components where it makes sense to do that.”