Reviewing Sustainability and Green Design

Not long ago I found myself attending a board meeting of the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) at Chico Hot Springs. While soaking with several board members in the naturally occurring geothermal setting or, in simpler terms, the baths created by the hot springs I commented on the seeming lack of direction or progress in green design, particularly in kitchen and bath spaces. Following is an update from the discussion that engendered.

Defining 'Green'
We know sustainable or green design and building is important and growing in popularity, and we know we want to practice it. But, do we know just what it is?
The vision statement of the USGBC is "green buildings for a healthy and prosperous planet." The United Nations defines sustainability as design and development that meet the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generation to meet their own needs.

Along with preserving the planet, green design looks at energy efficiency, the health and comfort of the space, and a harmony between nature and technology.
I also believe that green and universal design have much in common. First, I hear that cost remains the number one obstacle to using green products and materials more extensively, which is also arguably true with universal design. In both cases we seem to be educating to establish new economic value for the products and concepts. Second, the need to balance green with aesthetics is just as important as the same balance between access or universal design and beauty in a space or product.

As Alesdair McGregor of Arup Engineering said in an issue of Metropolis Magazine, "People will never want to have an aesthetically inferior building, no matter how well stocked it is with cutting-edge [materials] If you end up creating a building that nobody likes or enjoys, no matter how intelligently it's designed, it's not a sustainable building."
Another common element is

our need to rethink or adjust our approach to think more in the long term. In order for a space to stand the test of time, it must be both green and universal, well maintained and preserved, adaptable and aesthetically pleasing.

What does this mean to us as kitchen and bath designers? It requires each of us to look at our company's philosophy and actions regarding sustainability. Do we actively support smart growth locally? Do we work to recycle and decrease debris from construction, which today makes up 35% of U.S. landfills? Do we stay informed regarding renewable material, energy-saving appliances and environmental quality controls? We can and should become informed as to the specific kitchen and bath products and concepts that will help a home move toward the goal.

Concepts & Products
Among the common green guidelines, a few that relate directly to the kitchen and bath include: designing a space that is as small and energy efficient as possible; minimizing ozone-depleting chemicals; improving indoor air, sound and water quality; conserving energy and resources; and efficiently using and recycling materials, including waste management.
One problem with this is the idea of "as small as possible." While The Not So Big House may be a best seller, I don't see kitchens and baths coming down in size. What I do see, and what we as designers can influence, is how our spaces are used. For instance, "multitask" kitchens may be flexible enough to reduce overall needed space. When our bathrooms are also used as exercise rooms, dressing rooms or just private spaces, we may help again to meet the household's needs in less space.

Regarding energy-efficiency, the Energy-Star rating system makes it easy for us to evaluate appliances. Other products and materials may be tougher to evaluate but there are sources to help us learn. To further assist us, a new program, "Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)," is under development for residential spaces. LEED Homes will focus on information and training related to residential and interior design.

Beyond the basic design concepts and products, a few new products seem noteworthy. Dual-flush toilets, popular in Europe for a long time, allow the user to opt for a half-flush (.8 gallon) for liquids and a full-flush (1.6 gallons) for solids. Ventilation systems that cycle on/off throughout their life improve air quality and reduce moisture, mold and odor problems, as do air filtration systems. Appliances that use less energy and water have more options for specific uses and systems to monitor usage and reduce our energy use, particularly at peak times.

For the floor linoleum, cork and bamboo are all renewable, meaning that the sources of material used to make the product regenerate. Carpeting can be wool or plant fiber, which is renewable, or it may be recycled. For hardwood, wood sourced from managed forests or salvage can be used. Glass and other recycled tiles are available for the wall and floor.

There's even a solid surface counter material made from recycled paper.

Regarding cabinetry, Neil Kelly is a company known for its respect of the environment, using wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC can refer you to manufacturers that use wood certified by the council and environmentally friendly finishes and case materials. Growing numbers of retailers are requiring the use of certified product, which may compel manufacturers to move in this direction.

For additional information about green design and renewable resources, contact the following:

  • Building for Health Materials Center, Cedar Rose Guelberth, 800-292-4838 (source for green building materials and products).
  • U.S. Green Building Council (source for green building resources).
  • Environmental Home Center, (information, products, services).
  • (information, products, services).