Choosing Green Kitchen Surfaces

The perfect green product doesn't pollute the home's air or use energy, is manufactured locally with no harmful chemicals and no environmental impact, and lasts forever. There's just one problem: it doesn't exist.

Even so, the sum of all products used in a green project should score high in each of the above areas. How high a product scores on the green scale has as much to do with how it's used as how it's made. In fact, choosing green materials for kitchen surfaces, countertops, cabinets, and floors means recognizing how each material contributes to the overall green design goals. It's part of what green architect Peter Pfeiffer of Barley & Pfeiffer Architecture in Austin, Texas, calls "being green by design, not by device."

Choose green materials to design your kitchen

Reflecting energy savings

The right surfaces can help green a kitchen by reducing the need for artificial light, says Pfeiffer. Black granite countertops and dark-colored cabinets absorb sunlight rather than reflecting it, so people have to provide more light to see that tomato they are chopping. Bright surfaces help minimize the problem.

At Pringle Creek, an award-winning community in Salem, Ore., designers used lots of glass and light-reflecting materials. "Our goal was to maximize light and space," says Mark Kogut, project architect. "The lighter and brighter materials minimized our need for artificial lighting."

The right surfaces can help green a kitchen by reducing the need for artificial light

A good example of a reflective countertop material is IceStone, made from 75 percent recycled glass and shells bound together with cement. It performs comparably to granite with shimmering glass pieces that help brighten a space. It contains no epoxy or petrochemicals, so there is no off-gassing.

Other green countertop products include paper-based fiber composite PaperStone and the terrazzo product EnviroGLAS. You should do your homework to determine whether these are right for your homes and buyers.

Although engineered countertops look good in modern kitchens, Northport, N.Y.-based interior designer Susan Serra advises builders to try before they buy. "Get as big a sample as you can; ideally, a 12-by-12-inch piece, and test it. Leave wine, coffee and vinegar on it for 24 hours, wipe it off the next day, and see what you see. That really tells the story."

For clients who insist on marbles and granites, Serra says these can be considered green if quarried locally, because of the stone's durability and lack of transportation costs.

Image courtesy of PaperStone®

Experiment with different materials to find a green solution to a kitchen countertop

Cutting-edge cupboards

Transportation costs are an issue with most materials, but advocates say that the greenest products compensate. That's the case with a line of cabinets that Serra designed for Denmark-based Hansen Living. "This is 100 percent eco-friendly furniture. The adhesives are water based and the factory process produces little waste, which is documented," she says. She adds that because Hansen's hardwood cabinets are beautifully designed by an architect, they will likely be kept forever, unlike standard cabinets that are often yanked out after just 20 years. "It is a solid wood with natural finishes that you can sand and oil. People will collect this like they do furniture," Serra says.

Green panel products are also becoming available for cabinets. Neil Kelly of Portland, Ore., was the first green-certified cabinetmaker in the United States. The solid wood in his cabinets is all FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified, while the panels are Columbia Forest Products' PureBond, which Kelly calls the Holy Grail of green engineered products. PureBond uses a soy-based binder and can be used in cabinets, as paneling or in flooring.

Image courtesy of Hansen Living

Include eco-friendly furniture in your kitchen

Under foot

Green choices abound for kitchen floors, but while products like bamboo and cork became big hits quickly, not all brands are created equal. For instance, cork flooring is comfortable and made from a renewable resource, but you should read the product literature and research user reviews to make sure it will hold up over time.

As for wood floors, one of the best choices is locally reclaimed wood. If new wood floors are required, domestically harvested wood will reduce embodied energy costs. Wood from an FSC-certified forest is grown and harvested using sustainable practices.

Laminate flooring, which uses younger trees in a process that yields a very durable floor, is a good choice provided it's manufactured with no- or low-VOC products.

Include eco-friendly furniture in your kitchen

Final tally

Be aware that some buyers are still gun-shy when it comes to green products. "[People] like the idea of green, but they don't want to be guinea pigs for new products," says Serra. "They want to be assured that the products are durable and offer solid benefits."

That's why she advises builders to do their homework. The research includes testing product samples, as well as calling distributors and manufacturers to ask hard questions about the materials: where they come from, what testing results they have, and whether they are covered by warranties.

Finally, remember that a green kitchen doesn't have to have 100 percent green products. "It's the strength of the overall green story," says Kelly. "It's all the upsides put up against the downsides."

Include eco-friendly furniture in your kitchen