Eco-Friendly in the Kitchen

The Gutermans' kitchen before renovation. Most designers were not interested in a job as small as this work space of about 55 square feet.
The Gutermans' kitchen before renovation. Most designers were not interested in a job as small as this work space of about 55 square feet.

By Lila Guterman
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, September 17, 2005

We're environmentally conscious, my husband and I, but there are certain things we can't live without, like air conditioning in Washington's sweltering summers.

When we decided to replace our sagging kitchen cabinets and wheezing refrigerator, we knew it would have been more earth-friendly to keep our kitchen renovations limited, to reuse what we already owned instead of consuming more materials. But one of the things I couldn't live without, I decided right away, was new cabinets.

Since the layout of our small kitchen was dreadful, we decided to start from scratch and create a new, environmentally friendly room.

We envisioned a kitchen outfitted with recycled materials, or with products from plants that could be sustainably harvested -- plants that grow quickly and are easily replenished, such as bamboo. We hoped our new products would be made without toxic chemicals that linger in the air.

We knew about the movement to create entire buildings using materials and methods that are easy on the earth, so we assumed that remodeling sustainably would be a snap. But when I called the few architects who had participated in last year's Green Festival, an annual event that brings together environmentalist consumers, speakers and merchants, they weren't interested in a job as small as our 6 1/2 -by-8 1/2-foot Northwest Washington kitchen.

Luckily, one of the architects referred me to Chris Donaghy, a designer whose Lorton firm, Kitchen Brokers, specializes in green renovations. Donaghy says that green kitchens are just a small part of his business -- he has designed about 14 in the past three years -- but that still makes him one of the East Coast's experts on green kitchen renovation.

I was unable to find any other local designers who specialized in green renovation, but for comparison, we contacted two other kitchen design firms. One told me its designers all had "green training," but then offered us granite for our countertop. We said "no thanks," knowing that granite is definitely not renewable -- once it's removed from the earth, it's gone forever.

And Donaghy's estimates fell in a range similar to the other two companies'. He said that green kitchens tend to cost 20 to 30 percent more than non-green kitchens, which can turn many people away from environmentally friendly materials. Environmentally conscious consumers, Donaghy said, often have "less disposable incomes than our regular clientele. They tend to be teachers, scientists, environmentalists." And new kitchens are expensive.

That was a problem for Scott Carlson and his family. When they moved into a house in Baltimore, Carlson said, the kitchen was "totally trashed and totally outdated." Carlson, a journalist who had written about green building, was hoping to do some himself, but he found many products he wanted to use were "super expensive."

So he made trade-offs and used some materials that were not as green as he would have liked. He built a countertop from Formica, which was not green but was inexpensive, allowing him to splurge a bit elsewhere.

That paid off in his environmentally friendly kitchen floor. Carlson's floor is made from Marmoleum, a brand of linoleum, that's made out of earth-friendly materials including linseed oil and natural pigment. He paid about $7 per square foot for it.

We did our new kitchen floor in cork. Cork floors are made from bark that is peeled off the tree and then allowed to grow back. Donaghy ordered our cork from Sustainable Flooring of Colorado, which offers 11 styles and colors of cork tiles for $2.50 to $5.50 per square foot.

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