When lifelong environmentalists Kim Wells and Bob Scheulen set out to renovate their kitchen in Seattle, they wanted to be "as green as sensible," but feared putting their values first would mean draining their bank account.
Instead, they were pleasantly surprised by the number of affordable and attractive environmentally friendly options available. As a result, they were able to create a beautiful and functional "green" kitchen for a 10 percent cost premium over conventional materials and techniques. Now, they're confident that the kitchen's green facelift improved not only indoor air quality, but also the value of their house.
Cabinets and paint
Kitchen cabinetry, typically constructed of unsustainably harvested wood and toxin-emitting particleboard and finishes, can be the most environmentally offensive part of any kitchen.
But some forward-thinking companies like Oregon's Neil Kelly Cabinets and Minnesota's Crystal Cabinet Works are trying to change all that by offering cabinet lines with sustainably harvested woods (certified by the Forest Stewardship Council), formaldehyde-free casing materials and low-VOC (volatile organic compound) finishes. Wells and Scheulen hired a local carpentry company and helped track down "green" materials.
Most paints and stains contain toxic chemicals linked to respiratory ailments and ozone-layer destruction, so buyers should look for low- or zero-solvent options, such as Sherwin-Williams' HealthSpec or Safecoat from AFM Enterprises.
While many of today's kitchen countertops are made of environmentally unfriendly materials that can "offgas" toxic emissions long after installation, green choices are expanding rapidly.
Butcher block culled from sustainably harvested woods is a beautiful and reliable option. Ceramic, stone or recycled glass tile can be both environmentally sound and attractive. Linoleum, made from all-natural materials, including linseed oil and pine rosin, is a low-cost and maintenance-free choice. Some solid surface options worth investigating include Avonite, Richlite, SlateScape and Vetrazzo.
While only certain materials can stand up to the abuse given floors, many "green" options exist. First and foremost would be sustainably harvested, or even better, recycled or reclaimed hardwoods. Forest Stewardship Council-certified white oak, cherry, maple and fir are reliable and handsome choices. Bamboo is also a good alternative, as is cork, a sustainable wood-like option known for its natural warmth and cushy feel. Linoleum works well, too.
In 1992 the Environmental Protection Agency introduced its Energy Star labeling system so consumers could more easily identify and purchase energy-efficient appliances. Refrigerator manufacturers with compliant models include Kenmore, Whirlpool, General Electric, Jenn-Air and Maytag, among others.
Meanwhile, Equator, Asko and Viking all make dishwashers that consistently exceed Energy Star standards. The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) offers a free appliance guide.
Where to get it all?
Despite the increasingly "green" selection at Home Depot, environmental building-supply specialty stores are still the best bet in terms of price, pre-vetted selection and know-how.
With manufacturers offering greater selection and lower prices than ever on "green" building supplies, there has never been a better time to bring an old kitchen into the 21st century.
But for Wells and Scheulen, money was not the point. "We'll probably live in this house forever," says Wells. "We want it to reflect our values."