Breathing Easy

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While most people would agree that a “healthy home is a happy home,” this seems particularly true when discussing the kitchen.

Health-oriented kitchens – especially those built on “green” design principles – can offer kitchen and bath professionals a chance to not only provide clients with health benefits, but also economic advantages, as well.

Indeed, this was the subject of the recent National Kitchen & Bath Association’s (NKBA) Design MasterClass Green Fusion conference held in Montreal.

“This is not a trend – this is the way the industry is moving,” notes Victoria Schomer, ASID, LEED A.P. of Asheville, NC-based Green Built Environment. Schomer, who co-lectured a discussion at the event with Lucinda Jennings, ASID, LEED A.P. and programming/resource staff director at the Office of University of Architect for Virginia Tech, adds: “Every major manufacturer is looking at their emissions and environmental policy commitment, and their bottom line, and they are realizing that it is smart to design green.”

So, whether it’s improving indoor air quality or supporting conservation, kitchen designers are finding that healthy designs can lead to healthier profits.

Another presenter at the event, Robert Blakeman, LEED A.P., architect and senior v.p. for Warren, NJ-based PS&S, explains: “Now you can market your company and hire people and retain people because of your green philosophy.”

He continues: “[It is important that design professionals] look very strongly on the kitchen side for reducing energy consumption by using Energy Star performance fixtures and reducing water usage in the kitchen and bath.”

There is quite a bit at stake, the panel added, noting that toxins and mold – which accumulate wherever moisture is present – can lead to asthma, allergies and other health hazards and infections.

In addition, formaldehyde and other volatile organic compounds (VOC) in particleboard and other wood products can be irritants and are actually classified as carcinogens.

But a kitchen certainly wouldn’t be “healthy” if it didn’t promote the creation of healthy meals, adds Florence Perchuk, CKD of New York, NY-based Designs by Florence Perchuk, Ltd.

She explains: “The design of kitchens should include children working at food: preparing food and getting to know what food feels like instead of reheating it, taking it out of the microwave and not knowing what the ingredients are.”

To that end, she recommends establishing clear and accessible storage spaces that hold healthier choices, i.e. fruits and vegetables.
And just because a kitchen promotes health doesn’t mean it can’t be stylish, says Susan Serra, CKD, of of the NY-based Susan Serra Associates.

“Green kitchen design does seem to focus more on clean-lined, contemporary styling, but a design professional should be aware that other choices in style and theme are possible,” she says.

To that end, Perchuk notes that country-styled kitchens – which work particularly well around a healthy theme – can be made more efficient with labeled vegetable bins for easy access.

In fact, Troy Adams, CKD and president of West Hollywood, CA-based Troy Adams Design, believes so much in health-oriented designs that he has instituted a “FusionDesign” approach into his design philosophy (which marries the functionality of American products, the sophistication of environmental standards in European design and products, and the natural, Zen qualities of Asian cultures), and even designed his own kitchen with green-oriented principles.

“Applying an environmental philosophy to my work has become instinctual, and I am glad to see how the industry and consumers are embracing these ideals, which will ensure the planet’s survival for generations to come,” he concludes.

Who’s Driving Who?

So, what is driving this healthy design trend? That depends on who you ask.

According to Serra, the health trend is being driven by a growing concern for the environment.

“My guess relates directly to science, to a consensus that the previous ways of manufacturing certain products were damaging our earth’s resources,” she explains.

Jill C. Stumpf, CKD for Park Ridge, IL-based Kitchens, Baths & More, Inc., has a different idea: “I think it is individually driven, and it is really determined by how people live.”

She adds: “I think it evolves with every client and his or her lifestyle. [Kitchen designers] need to determine whether clients have kids or pets [and go from there].”

Trez Pomilo, owner/head designer of Sugarbridge Kitchen & Bath in Exton, PA, notes that people are also being influenced by television. “My clients are doing much more chopping and cutting [as a result of the food shows on television], and they are really using their surfaces,” she explains. “The kitchen is being used so much more than [in the past].”

And that is a good thing, Perchuk believes. “The important thing is that a family develop a concept of healthy eating and preparation. After all, that is what the kitchen was originally all about!” she stresses.

Green with Envy

Undoubtedly, one of the keys to creating a healthy kitchen lies in the benefits of green design, those interviewed agree.

In fact, says Adams, green design and a healthy kitchen are synonymous.

“Green design that is truly ‘green’ lends itself to a health-conscious kitchen because it is not emitting toxins or harmful rays, or wasting energy,” he says.

Green kitchens also can be designed to bring the outdoors – which adds both health and design benefits. For instance, Cheryl Ann Sibilia, CID of Smithfield, RI-based Greenville Kitchens, explains: “We do a lot of remodel projects using greenhouse-type windows at the kitchen sink for clients who grow herbs and flowers using stone window sills, for instance.”

Little things, too, can be part of the green movement For example, Stumpf points out that, “Some people feel that using a quartz countertop is green design because it’s basically re-using quartz materials that would otherwise be thrown away.”

Indeed, according to Schomer and Jennings, kitchen design professionals can (and should) use a process called the “materials matrix” to help them determine what would make a material green.

“There are certain questions that a designer should ask a manufacturer to better identify the manufacturer’s environmental policy statement,” she explains.

“For instance, you should ask where they extract their raw materials from, or what kinds of energy tolls there are for the manufacturing processes,” she continues

She concludes: “You need to identify the priorities of the project, based on the clients’ needs. We base our questions on our clients’ requirements to determine the greenness of that product, and if a specific product or material is appropriate to that project.”

A Healthy Place

According to Perchuk, it is a kitchen designer’s responsibility to promote participation among a client’s entire family in order to maintain a truly healthy space. “One of the most important things for a designer to do is lead the way,” she advises. “Kitchen designers tend to hesitate to bring up the discussion when it involves family issues, but I make sure to bring it up and ask them what they would like in the kitchen that addresses nutrition and healthy preparation of food.”

The best way to implement this, she adds, is to create accessibility and ease of use for the space. “It sounds simplistic, but you have to think in terms of a prep area where they can do vegetables and salads,” she continues.

Pomilo agrees: “One of the things I would recommend is to have a chopping block that is convenient – for instance right near the stove – so that it can be washed as well,” she explains. “The idea is to have convenient spaces so people can keep their surfaces how they want.”

To that end, Stumpf suggests using a zone approach. “The client will know that one area will be the prep zone, and another the cleanup zone, for instance,” she describes.

She continues: “I use what I call a snack zone around the microwave or second oven. I use it for storage – especially for clients with young children.”
She also suggests adjusting the counter height to 30" as opposed to 36", as well as ensuring that the microwave is a few inches lower, so that it can be easily accessed.

Conversely, Stumpf notes that her clients are selecting smaller, undercounter refrigerator drawers for produce. “This gives the client options,” she says. “This way they have a water drawer or a beverage drawer, plus their produce drawer.”

Perchuk quickly adds: “Refrigerator drawers are wonderful and can be loaded with fruit. I also try to put in a lot of glass canisters so the kids can see the snacks they are reaching for.”

According to Sibilia, freezer drawers are key – especially for individually quick-frozen fruits and vegetables – when looking to give clients solutions to separating produce from meats, for instance.

Material Match

A strong base is required for any healthy kitchen, and that means selecting the proper materials.

“People want to know that whatever they are putting their food on is not something that can get into the food,” Pomilo describes. “People worry about what is on their counters, but at the same time, people are so busy that I don’t think they have enough time to clean things.”

“We are also seeing a lot of tile manufacturers produce materials with glass and stone,” says Blakeman.

To that end, Schomer cites countertops that feature solid surface, concrete with recycled glass and epoxy polymers with recycled aluminum in them.
Sibilia interjects: “There is also an increased interest in engineered stone. When the customer realizes that quarried stone or granite often requires a sealant, then they inquire about engineered stone.”

According to Adams, a variety of natural materials can be utilized to capture the essence of healthy-design principles. Among those are cabinetry made in Germany (due to stricter environmental standards); wood from sustainable forests; Asian materials such as bamboo, teak and rock; stainless steel sinks (which are antibacterial) and lead-free paints, among others.

Pomilo advises that wood flooring is popular with many of her clients, as well. “People generally go between tile and wood, and if they choose the wood, it is because it is softer. Plus, if you drop something on the wood, it tends to be a more forgiving.”

Other flooring options include cork, and rubber, which is created with recycled tires.

Product Safety

Predictably, safety should be at the forefront of consideration when selecting products and materials, says Pomilo. “I have this fear of microwaves in islands that are too low, because kids could put a spoon or fork in it and turn it on,” she says. “That is why I like the new micro-drawer, because the user still has to pull it out and put things into it, instead of just opening the door.”

She also suggests special pull-outs for storing soaps and liquids, as opposed to placing those items under the sink – a simple way to avoid a potentially dangerous situation.

Sibilia agrees: “I’ve seen two soap dispensers at one kitchen sink – one for dishwashing soap and the other for hand moisturizers.”

Schomer notes that kitchen designers should also recommend healthy cleaning products for their clients.

But perhaps the most important product choice, Blakeman remarks, is the use of Energy Star-approved appliances, which can cut electricity use by up to 15%. “We are also looking at a variety of more energy-efficient lighting options, with both natural and artificial light,” he stresses.

Other energy-efficient products – such as low-flow faucets can also potentially save some 22,000 gallons of water annually, the
panel added.

Blakeman notes: “Kitchen designers also need to make sure that spaces are properly ventilated. I suggest using non-toxic cleaners to make sure consumers are not adding to the problem on the inside and therefore needing more in the way of ventilation [to get rid of potentially toxic fumes].”

He continues: “I also recommend natural wood products so that you do not need adhesives. Or, use cabinets that are made of sustainable, harvested wood so that you do not have glues or adhesives out-gassing into the space.”

“Odor affects us tremendously, and if something gives off an odor on an ongoing basis, then you are not going to want to spec it or live with it,” says Perchuk.

Schomer also urges kitchen designers to avoid formaldehyde emissions as well as bio-accumulants and reproductant intoxicants, for example.

Perchuk concludes: “I tell clients all the time that their appliances will be metal or stainless steel, but they have other issues – especially making the space healthy – to consider.”

A Bright Future

So, is healthy design a passing phase when it comes to creating the kitchen and bath, or is it here to stay?

“I see it as nothing less than a force, nearly in the mainstream at this moment, and forging ahead in a big way. I believe that one must be, if not committed to this movement, then knowledgeable about it,” Serra stresses.

Adams continues: “This trend will continue to grow and become more mainstream, which will allow more consumers to access the products and services, and prices will become more affordable.”

“But, it [has] to begin with design professionals. We have to create awareness that our clients have new options that can benefit them,” Serra concludes.