Going green in the kitchen

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July 12, 2004 // UPDATED 2:27 pm - April 25, 2007
By: Robert Gerloff
Robert Gerloff

Even simple remodels can be planet-friendly cost-savers

Construction is one of the most resource-intensive activities on the planet, and as an architect I know that building green is the only ethical, responsible and sustainable way to go. But the devil, as they say, is in the details, and sustainable architecture is nothing but details.

For larger projects and new construction, new Leadership Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines provide a strict, quantifiable framework to evaluate a design's green quotient. Architects gain points, for example, by designing buildings with on-site water treatment, geothermal heating systems (which rely on underground pipes to tap the Earth's warmer air in winter and draw warm air out of the home in summer) or an orientation that maximizes passive solar gain.

However, no such guidelines exist for the small remodelings and additions that make up most of my architecture practice and Minneapolis projects in general.

So I jumped at the opportunity when Jeffrey Swainhart, who is starting a local green-construction consulting business, agreed to talk through how a prototypical house or condo project -- a simple kitchen remodel -- could be made more sustainable.

Swainhart started out as a cabinetmaker and carpenter before blowing out his back and becoming a project manager for a local nonprofit developer. He's no dewy-eyed romantic; he knows construction from the bottom up, from how to best frame a complicated roof to how the money flows.

The first thing, says Swainhart, is to figure out what becomes of the old kitchen. If you recycle cabinets, appliances, lighting fixtures and even electrical boxes through the Minneapolis ReUse Center (located near East Lake Street and Hiawatha Avenue, just west of the light-rail Lake Street stop), that's a good start. Then, separate wood, metal and cardboard construction waste and recycle it rather than just dumping it in the dumpster.

Next, design to use less energy for heating, cooling and lighting. Locate windows and size overhangs to grab sunlight in the winter and keep it out in summer. Install operating windows for cross-ventilation that reduces cooling bills. And remember that a kitchen filled with natural light uses less energy.

Appliances, according to Swainhart, remain the biggest energy and resource consumers, so select Energy Star-rated units. An Energy Star-rated refrigerator can use as little as 20 percent of the energy used by a similar refrigerator 30 years ago. Select dishwashers that use energy and water efficiently. (Most appliance stores carry Energy-Star rated products.)

Select sustainable and durable finishes (flooring, countertops and backsplashes).

Bamboo and cork flooring, for example, are sustainable (bamboo is a grass and cork is a bark) and each lasts forever. "A material that lasts twice as long uses half the materials," Swainhart explains.

And don't forget indoor air quality, Swainhart reminds us. Specify low-VOC (volatile organic compound) paints and varnishes and install in-floor, hot-water radiant heat rather than a forced air system.

Also plan the kitchen to promote a sustainable lifestyle. Build in plenty of space for recycling and storage so ingredients can be bought in bulk to minimize packaging waste.

Avoid materials with high "embodied energy" ratings. Embodied energy reflects a material's total energy consumption through its entire lifecycle. Copper pipes, for example, can be endlessly recycled and have a lower embodied energy rating than PVC pipes, which can't be recycled. PVC may be cheap, says Swainhart, but it is "toxic to produce, impossible to recycle and lasts forever."

Ultimately, of course, each individual must balance his or her commitment to sustainability with the reality of construction costs. While a green remodel will most likely save some cash over the long run, I asked Swainhart if a green remodeling would cost more upfront than a normal kitchen remodel. "Probably," he concedes. "But ultimately how much do you want to borrow from your grandchildren?"

Robert Gerloff, AIA, is the principal of Robert Gerloff Residential Architects (www.residentialarchitects.com) in southwest Minneapolis. Jeffrey Swainhart can be reached at Jeffrey@Swainhart.com.