Verena Radulovic loves her new green kitchen.
“I just feel infinitely happier being in there," she says. "It feels good to know that the products I bought will not be harmful to my health.”
Although the motivations for a green remodel are often the health and environmental benefits, these are only some of the positives. Energy and water-wise designs and products will decrease your monthly bills while increasing the value of your home. According to recent research by McGraw Hill, people looking for a green home were willing to pay about $18,000 more.
Despite the long-term financial savings, many hesitate to embark on the journey on account of financial barriers. But now is a great time to consider a renovation - the current state of the economy often makes contractors more open to negotiate on prices.
Really, a green remodel is realistic for any family, according to Verena, who speaks from experience. We’ll follow her story to learn the basic need-to-knows about giving your kitchen an eco-friendly makeover.
Verena's compact Washington, D.C. apartment has a 50-square-foot kitchen that had hardly been changed since it was built in the 1960s. It was definitely ready for a new look, she says.
Verena worked with Jason Holstine, owner of Amicus Green Building Center in Washington, D.C., to plan her project. Amicus is a combination green hardware store/sustainable architecture practice, offering an easy way to explore the options of eco-friendly design. The kitchen is the best place to start green remodeling, according to Holstine.
“The kitchen will give you the most bang for your buck,” he says. “It’s where you expend most of your energy. Just think, your fridge is running 24 hours a day. Only your utility room will use more electricity overall.”
Large projects can be intimidating, but they just need to be broken down. Holstine outlined five steps a home owner should take during the initial stages of remodeling to make things run more smoothly.
Step 1: Take an inventory of your needs. Look around your kitchen and identify the problem areas. Maybe your cabinets are falling apart, or the sink has an irreparable leak. Poor lighting can make it difficult to cook. Make a list of what must be changed.
Step 2: Make goals. What do you want out of your new kitchen? Some example goals include:
- More space
- The ability to compost more easily
- Better lighting
- Save energy and money
Step 4: Hunt for the products you want. Perform good research to find nearby stores with products that meet your goals. Don’t forget to measure your spaces before shopping so you can buy accordingly.
Step 5: Put it all together. Write out as many details as possible and take the plan to your contractor. Try to cover everything, from the little things like cocks and grooves, to the big things like flooring and plumbing.
“Every little detail should be spelled out as specifically as possible so [the contractor] knows exactly what you expect from the project,” Holstine says. It is important to explain to the contractor your definition of “green,” because people have different ideas about what that means. If you want the contractor to meet your expectations, you must clearly outline them.
Flooring and Cabinetry and Appliances, Oh My!
A green remodel of your kitchen may include everything around the room, or just certain areas. “I think it’s really difficult for the consumer who is coming into this 'new' because there are lots of different aspects of sustainability,” Verena says. “If you can’t do your entire kitchen green, just do what you can.”
Because her budget did not allow for a complete head-to-toe makeover, Verena chose certain areas of focus.
“[A green remodel] is realistic for anyone, you just have to be selective as to what you want to be green about,” Verena says. “For me, the flooring and dishwasher were affordable. There was an $800 difference in countertops, and that would have put me over the edge.”
Flooring: Some options for flooring are sustainable wood, cork and natural linoleum. Here are some things to remember about wood:
- Hardwood flooring should certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC).
- Bamboo is a reliable flooring product, but only if it is made well by an experienced manufacturer using quality stalks, adhesives and milling equipment. The Bamboo flooring market has been flooded in recent years with poorly manufactured material, according to Amicus Green Building Center.
- One of the most sustainable options of all is to use reclaimed wood, which comes from old barns, warehouses, piers and other structures. Save CO2 emissions and look for wood that comes from the U.S. rather than imported products.
Cork flooring is a good choice because trees are not cut down in the process of collecting it. Natural cork is obtained by stripping off layers of the unusually thick bark of the cork oak tree, rather than harvesting lumber.
Natural linoleum, or marmoleum, has no added formaldehyde and very low VOCs (volatile organic compounds). Marmoleum was actually Verena's choice for her kitchen floor. There is a multitude of colors to choose from, and the lay-down tiles are easy to install, she says. Her cool gray marmoleum is visually pleasing as well.
"It is also important for people to see that environmentally products can be beautiful, and they can function just as well as products that are not," Verena says.
Countertop: The greenest countertops are made with recycled materials. "Remember that recycling is only half of the loop, you also have to buy recycled," Holstine says.
Some hot options:
- IceStone durable surface is made from 100 percent recycled glass and cement. It is the first surface in the world to receive McDonough Braungart Design Chemistry's coveted Cradle-to-Cradle Gold certification, which assesses the use of safe and healthy materials, efficient use of energy and water throughout production, and design for material reuse and recycling.
- ECO by Cosentino is made from a variety of recycled goods: porcelain from tiles, sinks, toilets, china and decorative elements; glass from consumer recycling practices; mirrors salvaged from houses, buildings and factories; crystallized ash from industrial furnace residuals and stone scraps. It is Cradle-to-Cradle Silver certified.
- Paperstone is a composite material made out of recycled paper and proprietary, petroleum-free phenolic resins made from raw materials like cashew nut shell liquid.
Cabinetry: New cabinets can be the most expensive component in a kitchen remodel. Determine whether you need to replace or simply reface. Putting new cabinet and drawer fronts on existing cabinetry can make a kitchen look brand new at the fraction of the monetary and environmental cost.
Beware of materials containing urea formaldehyde, VOCs, HAPs (hazardous air pollutants) or heavy metals, which can emit unhealthy fumes for decades after installation.
Faucet: You can cut down on water waste by using an efficient aerator (nozzle). The ideal kitchen aerator should use no more than 2.0 gallons-per-minute (GPM). Finding your faucet's GPM is easy - just look for the marking on the aerator.
Dishwasher: If your dishwasher is more than 10 years old, you will almost surely reduce your utility bills by replacing it with a high-efficiency model. Look for products with the ENERGY STAR label. The initial investment will pay for itself through lower bills and superior performance. Make sure to size your appliances to your needs. Dishwashers operate most efficiently when they are full. If your current dishwasher is consistently only half-full, consider buying a smaller model (this is true for refrigerators as well).
Refrigerator: As with dishwashers, older refrigerators are less efficient. An Energy Star fridge today is 70 percent more efficient than a model from 20 years ago, Holstine says.
The style of refrigerator can also affect energy use. Models with the freezer on the top use up to 25 percent less energy than comparable side-by-side refrigerator/freezer models.
Lighting: Go for the compact flourecent lamps (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs) rather than incandescent lights. LEDs are the more efficient of the two, using 80 percent less energy than incandescent lights and 15 percent less than fluorescents. They also do not contain mercury or other hazardous materials, taking away the stress of special disposal.
With a green remodel, you must expand your definition of "cost." Initial prices do not necessarily reflect the true cost of a product or design. Eco-friendly upgrades are about making lasting investments, so think long term. A higher purchase price can mean a better deal overall. Resource-efficient and durable materials will save you money in the future as they will lower monthly bills and require less repair.
"It’s a myth that green costs more," Holstine says. "Green is about quality - it’s about getting what you pay for. It’s about putting value on things like your health and our environment. Doing it well and doing it right might cost more."