Taking Steps Toward ‘Greener’ Kitchen Design

As “green” design goes mainstream, I’m finding limitless information about the movement, the philosophy and, recently, about the concepts and products that will help us create eco-friendly spaces.

While the reasoning and the philosophy would be hard to deny, the actual steps we as kitchen and bath designers can take are not always so clear. In the past, it seems it has been a matter of seeking out information from commercial and whole-house green standards and attempting to apply them to the spaces on which we focus.
No more!

In a year when a film about global warming has won an Academy Award, my biggest challenge in writing this column has been to cull the available information to a manageable amount. With that in mind, we’ll limit this column to the kitchen and plan for another column on the bath. With so much to cover, we’ll look at some of the helpful steps a kitchen designer can take – and, following an example from An Inconvenient Truth, we’ll suggest Websites you can access for further information (see story below).

To begin, let’s look at the meaning of “green.” While there’s no single definition, environmentally considerate or green design is outlined by some people in terms of the three R’s – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. To those, I might add a fourth R – Rethink.

In the kitchen, this asks us to reduce use and waste of space and resources, as well as unhealthy pollutants; to reuse the space and the elements of it, and to recycle products and materials. What can we do to accomplish this? Although it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition, there are many things we can do, each one a step toward a healthier environment, and resulting in the lowest negative impact.

What follows are a few “first steps” we all can take.


In the kitchen, where bigger has definitely been considered better, talking smaller space is a pretty hard sell. Before you stop reading, consider our ability to design within an existing space rather than adding on, and to create flexibility and efficiency in a space so that the kitchen may serve multiple functions. Sarah Susanka has certainly taught us not only to design smaller, but to design with more detail so that our spaces are fully utilized.

Specifying or recommending appliances that reduce energy use has been simplified by the yellow-and-black energy label, useful in comparing models – and specifically by the “Energy Star” rating, which requires a higher efficiency for a given appliance. As for cooking appliances, gas is more efficient in that the heat doesn’t have to travel to cook the food, but it contains by-products that can pollute the indoor air if not properly vented. On the other hand, induction, at last growing in popularity, is the most efficient of the electric cooktops.

For ovens, the size of the cavity and the time needed to cook affect the energy used, so when possible, planning a smaller oven, perhaps with some form of speed cooking (convection, microwave or other) could focus use of the larger oven on only those times when it’s truly necessary.

Beyond the appliance selection, we can influence energy savings through better design, such as planning a pantry or other separation between the refrigerator and the oven in a tall wall.

While the kitchen isn’t always the greatest drain on resources in the home, there are things we can do to save time, energy and water – and reduce related greenhouse gasses in the process. Energy Star-rated dishwashers use significantly less water, and less energy to heat hot water than traditional dishwashers or washing by hand. Converting clients from the embedded tradition of pre-rinsing dishes in the sink (25 gallons in five minutes) to just scraping, or when holding dishes, if necessary, using a rinse cycle on the dishwasher (one gallon) could be a hard sell, but many customers will be willing to give it a shot once they know they’ll save on their water bill in the long run. Similarly, water-efficient aerators on, or built into, faucets can reduce water use by 25%.

Because lighting accounts for 20% of the electricity used in the U.S., we can significantly reduce energy use by the way we light our kitchens. For example, with improved designs for LED and fluorescent bulbs and related fixtures, we can incorporate them into a lighting plan – good news, since they use 66% less energy than incandescent.

Natural light is critical to any lighting plan, and for energy conservation, it makes sense to capitalize on the trend toward more windows by designing for the best use of daylight, minimizing glare and excess heat but maximizing natural light coming into the kitchen. To accomplish this, we’ll need to consider window specifications and locations in relation to the sun and to the natural shading that exists outside the space.

Among the things we can do to reduce pollutants in the air and water within the house is the specification of cleaner products and materials. We can seek out those products that don’t off-gas VOCs (volatile organic compounds), and recommend sound-absorbing materials and water filtration systems.

The good news is that there are currently many sources for finding those products and materials, beginning with the Websites included in this column. In addition, we need to be aware of the impact of our design on the air flow systems within the house which, for me, means checking in with the HVAC contractor to coordinate kitchen ventilation with replacement air from proper sources.


Reusing existing cabinets, appliances, counters, sinks, faucets and more in the new space is not how a kitchen design showroom increases profit, but bear with me. When possible, these parts and pieces of the kitchen can be reused, not only in the new space, but also through the organizations that have sprung up to pick up, refurbish and reuse these items. In my home territory of Connecticut, for example, we have Green Demolitions, where we can have the selected items picked up and, when they are resold, the original owner receives a tax write-off, with the money that’s brought in going to a particular cause. Do your homework and find the group in your area that can promote this or a similar ‘reuse’ program.


Within our kitchen designs, we need to emphasize recycling through the design of convenient and efficient recycling centers that are flexible, easy to fill and then empty. An interesting product I’ve seen in the multi-family sector that I would love to put to use in single-family residences is a chute that can be switched to different containers to provide sorting.

While not everyone is into composting yet, you have an opportunity and a responsibility to inform your clients as to the options, and to design responsively. Methane, the most potent of the greenhouse gasses, is the eventual by-product of organic waste from the kitchen left to general trash. Including space and detail for composting in the kitchen can convert the waste from a burden into a benefit, used to enrich the garden soil.

The opportunity to use beautiful recycled products – from glass tiles to flooring, counters and even some cabinetry – is becoming easier as the list grows and the products become more available.


What I’ve provided almost feels like just enough information to be “dangerous” in a way, since I’ve barely scratched the surface, but that’s where the next step comes in – education. As designers, we have always had a responsibility to serve as a guide to our clients through supplying the information needed to plan a kitchen.

Green design is not a trend but an imperative for kitchen designers, so visit those Websites, review the resources, expand your understanding and share your knowledge. For starters, visit www.climatecrisis.net to calculate your personal “carbon footprint,” and I think you’ll be moved to act.

For more green design resources, check out the Green Design section of the Helpful Links section.

For more information on a related kitchen trends topics, click here.

For more about green design, also read FusionDesign-Themed Showhouse Features ‘Green’ Focus, Breathing Easy, Firm Infuses New Life into Vintage Showhouse, Sleek and Green Define Kitchen and Bath Design, Green Countertops are Wide Ranging, High-Style Appliances Promote Safety and Energy Efficiency, It’s Easier Than Ever Being Green, Sanitary Surfaces Create Healthier Kitchens, ‘Living Home’ Embraces Environmental Elements and Residential Project Featuring 3,000 Sq. Ft. of Italian Tile Honored for Sustainability and Style

Read past columns on Planning & Design by Mary Jo Peterson, CKD, and send us your comments about this story and others by logging onto Kitchen & Bath Design News’ Web site at www.kitchenbathdesign.com.