Question

Can you recommend affordable green kitchen cabinets, flooring, and countertops?

Asked by Ann Wylie, Colorado Springs, CO

I am trying to plan a kitchen remodel in a green-building "dead zone." I live in Colorado Springs, not far from Denver. Most contractors roll their eyes when I mention anything remotely odd. Prices on the materials I can find locally seem astronomical—I am not rich! If I choose to spend more on green flooring, cabinets, or countertops, what materials would have the most impact for the cost?

Answer

Cynthia Phakos

Answered by Cynthia Phakos

Los Angeles, CA

Koffka Phakos Design

November 26, 2008

There are many components to a sustainable, green kitchen. Here are several affordable ideas for you:

  • One green step that doesn't add to your costs is to select Energy Star appliances. Your refrigerator represents up to 15 percent of your total electric bill. Energy Star refrigerators today use 40 percent less energy than 2001 models, so an upgrade is likely to save you money.
  • You can also save a considerable amount of energy by using fluorescent or LED lighting.
  • Limiting the size of your kitchen is another important consideration—according to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average size of an American kitchen increased 215 percent from 1950 to 2004. Consider how much space you really need.
  • You can also incorporate sustainability into the function of your kitchen by recycling food containers and composting food waste.

When it comes to selecting materials for green flooring, green cabinets, and green countertops, sustainable options can be more expensive—but they don't have to be.

Flooring

Let's start with flooring. Two relatively inexpensive options have been around for a long time: linoleum flooring and cork. Both are extremely durable and come from natural, renewable resources. They are resilient (soft), which makes them comfortable to stand on. They come in an extensive range of colors or patterns. Both linoleum and cork are available as tiles or click-together systems you can install yourself.

Linoleum is made from linseed oil, pigments, and pine rosin. There are no toxic products used in its production and it does not offgas VOCs. Chemically sensitive individuals should be warned that it does smell of linseed oil. Linoleum floors inhibit bacterial growth and if properly installed can last up to 50 years. Forbo offers beautiful and durable products. (Be sure to stay away from sheet vinyl, which is sometimes referred to as linoleum in stores.)

Cork is made from the bark of cork-oak trees, which can be harvested every nine to ten years. The flooring sheets are made with waste from the manufacture of wine-bottle corks. For kitchen and bathroom floors, cork should be sealed. You can apply a water-based polyurethane at home, but I recommend ordering a floor with a factory-applied finish, which will last longer. Be sure to verify the VOC content, as factory finishes often contain harmful chemicals.

Wicanders makes a cork floor with a super-hard finish ideal for a kitchen. The product meets the U.S. Green Building Council's indoor air quality requirements and contains 92 percent recycled materials.

Cabinetry

Choosing green kitchen cabinetry can be confusing. There are many options:

  • low- to zero-VOC panel products,
  • FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified plywood,
  • rapidly renewable agrifiber boards (such as wheatboard, made from the shaft of the wheat stalk, an agricultural waste product), or
  • reclaimed wood.

Cabinetry can also be expensive. If you are considering spending more on any one aspect of a sustainable kitchen remodel, it might be worth investing in the cabinetry. On the other hand, as a low-cost, eco-friendly alternative you might consider reusing your existing cabinet boxes and replacing only the doors.

For my kitchen, I used wheatboard cabinet boxes painted with a water-based lacquer. For the drawers, where plywood is recommended for durability, I used ApplePly, an FSC plywood.

If wheatboard is not available locally, you could use a zero-VOC, paint-grade MDF (medium density fiberboard), such as Medite II, for your cabinet boxes. Or you could opt for the less expensive Roseburg Skyblend, a non-urea-formaldehyde particleboard made with 100 percent post-consumer recycled wood fiber. Roseburg Skyblend can be ordered with a melamine surface that requires no additional finish.

For the face of your cabinets—drawer panels and doors—you could use painted Medite II. Roseburg makes a hardwood plywood with Skyblend as the core; this would be another option for the finished face.

PureBond, a wheatboard core with a variety of FSC veneers, is a beautiful panel material. A more expensive option would be Plyboo, a very strong bamboo plywood.

If you choose to seal, rather than paint, your wood cabinets, I recommend Vermont Natural Coatings, a line of sealers made with whey protein, a byproduct of the dairy industry.

Countertops

The high cost of green countertops like IceStone and Vetrazzo may contribute to the perception that green materials cost more. A new material we have in our showroom, Trend Q, is a recycled-glass agglomerate that looks like Vetrazzo but is thinner (¼" thick). Depending on the complexity of the installation, Trend Q can cost half as much as Vetrazzo. (The product requires a certified installer.)

Paperstone is another countertop you might consider. Again, the cost of the material and the installation is considerably less than IceStone or Vetrazzo. A ¾"-thick, very dense panel made from recycled paper, Paperstone is heat and water resistant. The surface can get scratched, but scratches can be buffed out.

Another option for your countertop (or for the backsplash) is Terra Green. This ceramic tile made with 55 percent recycled content is a high-quality, well-priced product.

Work with a Green Building Professional

No matter what green materials you select, your remodel will likely be more successful and enjoyable if you choose design and construction professionals who have green project experience. Check GreenHomeGuide's green professional directory, or contact your Colorado chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council or the American Institute of Architects to locate a professional with a background in sustainable construction.

Green building retailers—like GreenSpot, Inc. in Carbondale, Colorado—can often recommend professionals, too. They may even be able to help you find a local cabinetmaker who specializes in sustainable kitchens.

 

For more information:

Read Molly McCabe's Q&As "I would like a list of green kitchen cabinet manufacturers" and "What type of wood products are best to use for green kitchen cabinets?"

Tagged In: cork flooring, linoleum, energy efficient appliances, cabinets

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