Green Renovation and Remodeling: The Kitchen

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Redoing the kitchen is the number one renovation project. We spend a lot time there, cooking, eating, or just lounging around, so it might as well be the best room in the house.

Fixing up the kitchen also has a tremendous impact on the resale value of your home, and can be a great investment. Like the other rooms in this Section, we will divide our discussion of the kitchen into the generic categories basic to remodeling projects (site, plumbing, electrical, etc.) and emphasize an important upgrade for the kitchen when considering energy use — appliances.

Job Site and Landscaping

It is always a good idea to try to reuse materials in the kitchen, from countertops and ceramic dishware to flooring and appliances. Check your regional waste management authority to find out who can use the materials you don’t want. If a material can be reused, look into recycling it construction materials, glass, fluorescent light bulbs, telephones, sinks, and appliances can all be recycled.

As you’re designing your kitchen, think about creating a space that won’t have to be remodeled again, thereby saving energy and resources in the future. You should be able to move around three key cooking areas — the stove, the sink, and the refrigerator — easily. Consider adding features that allow you to do more than just cook and eat — like adding a small desk in an unused space or creating an area for entertaining. Also, installing a recycling center into the cabinetry makes recycling kitchen waste more convenient.

Green kitchen options, remodeled for efficient use of space could include:

• upgrade single-pane windows

• windows that open

• window coverings for shade

• landscaping for shade

• light pipes

• range hood venting to outside

• water filters

• low VOC water-based finishes

• formaldehyde-free materials

• sealed particleboard and MDF

• Energy Star” appliances

• low water-use dishwasher

• best-available technology refrigeration

• recycled-content tiles

Structural Framing

For information regarding structural changes you may need to make to the kitchen, please refer to Section 9, Structural Framing.


As long as you do not move or add plumbing fixtures, you can use existing hookups for a new sink or dishwasher. More drastic changes may require new plumbing. Try to avoid moving your sink, because this can significantly increase the cost of the job. Again, if your house was built before 1950, the pipes may be lead, in which case they need to be replaced to protect your health (see “Lead” in Section 5)

For minimal cost, you can insulate your hot water pipes so that energy does not escape as you are running water. To further save water, install a low-flow faucet that uses less water but with seemingly no effect on water pressure because the spray is mixed with air.

Water quality can be improved simply by adding a carbon filter to your tap. Each water filtration method filters distinct pollutants from the water, so you should find out what’s in your water from your regional water authority before you purchase a filter. (See “Water Quality” in Section 5).


In general, people prefer bright kitchens. While light colors and big windows help, good general lighting and task lighting will provide for the best cooking, eating, and socializing environment, any time of day or night. The most energy-efficient lights are fluorescent and halogen lights. Energy-efficient dimmers are available that can create an intimate dining area. You can also save energy by wiring lights to different switches, allowing you to illuminate specific areas of the kitchen. For safety and energy-saving purposes, recessed lights should be labeled “IC-AT,” meaning they’re designed for direct insulation contact and an airtight housing.

In terms of circuitry, new appliances may require new circuits and /or upgrading of existing circuitry. Many old kitchens can overload existing circuits, causing a fire hazard. Stoves need a heavy-duty circuit, and other appliances also need their own circuits. New circuits in the kitchen are a good investment since there will always be a new gadget to plug in.

Kitchen lingo:

Backsplash: The part of the wall surface behind the sink or countertop. As it is splashed frequently, it should be finished with a waterproof surface.

Kickspace: The recessed space at the bottom of a base cabinet. The kickspace allows you to stand close to the cabinet without stubbing your toes.

Soffit: The space above the upper cabinets. This can be left open for storage or display, covered with molding, or boxed in with drywall. Sometimes it is used to hide the vent duct running from your range hood.


If you’ve opened up walls in your kitchen for the renovation, this is a cost-effective time to upgrade your insulation. Uneven insulation distribution and blackened wood or other signs of moisture damage are indications that your insulation needs to be replaced. Otherwise, you might just consider adding more insulation to improve the comfort and overall energy-efficiency of your home. Green insulation options include recycled content cellulose, cotton batts made from trimmings in jeans factories, and recycled-content fiberglass. Advanced infiltration reduction practices will also help you save energy. This involves looking out for leaks in doors, windows, plumbing, ducting, and electrical wire, and penetrations through exterior walls, floors, ceilings, and soffits over cabinets. Leaks should be sealed with a low-toxic caulk, sealant, or expansive foam.

Vinyl Windows: A Green Product?

We have discussed how “bad” vinyl and PVC are for your health (see Vinyl Chloride in Section 5). So why do we recommend it for windows? There are pros and cons to almost every material. Wood is expensive and uses wood resources. Vinyl is a low-cost option that has good temperature and sound insulation qualities, thereby helping you to save energy that would otherwise have to come from polluting, non-renewable energy sources. Many people are concerned about health risks associated with vinyl, but hard vinyl used in windows does not offgas vinyl chloride as much as soft vinyl (such as the kind in vinyl flooring).

Solar Energy

Windows can make the kitchen significantly brighter and will help to open the room up. Purchase the most energy-efficient windows you can afford for optimum energy-savings and comfort. At a minimum, they should be low emissivity (low-E) windows that block out unwanted heat during the summer, while allowing in plenty of sunlight, and should have low-conductivity frames like vinyl or wood. You may want to shade windows with overhangs or landscape features to prevent your kitchen from overheating in the summer.

Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC)

Unless you are adding major space to the kitchen, you won’t need extra heating for this room. However, you may want to relocate a register in the kickspace under your kitchen counter to fit a new design. If you are putting in new flooring or there is an unfinished basement below, you might also consider radiant floor heating, which uses water in tubes under the floor to deliver heat to the room. Not only does this make typically cold kitchen floors warmer, but it heats objects instead of air — efficiently making you more comfortable. As with all rooms in the house, ducts should be sealed with duct mastic for greatest efficiency, because duct tape deteriorates over time.

Given all the moisture created while cooking, ventilation should be a top priority in the kitchen to avoid mold, odors, and harmful combustion gases caused by cooking. Operable windows are always a good idea, but an impractical solution for many homeowners in the winter. A range hood directly over the stove effectively carries pollutions and odors outside through an air duct to the outside.

Vent hoods are mounted on a cabinet above the stove, while canopy hoods hang down from the ceiling over stoves on an island. The noise of fans is measured in sones: the lower the sone (typically below 4.5) the better.


The major appliances in your kitchen are the stove or range, the refrigerator, and the dishwasher. Stoves and ranges do not have great variations in efficiency, which is why there is no EnergyStar rating for them; however, another major issue with them is indoor air quality. Cooking releases particulates, odors and moisture. (Gas stoves can also emit harmful combustion gases; see “Combustion Gases” in Section 5.) To keep these things to a minimum, be sure to ventilate properly. The basic “recirculating” range hood does little more than blow everything back into the house; instead, install the hood close to the cooktop (25-30”), and vent it to the outside with as short a duct as possible to reduce the amount of fan power needed. A basic 190-360 cfm range hood fan should be adequate.

Refrigerator efficiency has improved significantly over the past decade, but it is still the biggest energy user in the kitchen. Don’t buy a bigger fridge than you need, as this will only increase its energy consumption. Likewise, keeping your old one for extra food storage will only increase your energy bills unnecessarily — it is best to buy a slightly larger new refrigerator that accommodates all your needs. Keep in mind that extra features, like water and ice dispensers, will make your refrigerator less efficient. Likewise, refrigerators with the freezer compartment to the side of the refrigerator are less efficient than models with the freezer door above or below the refrigerator door. Avoid locating your refrigerator close to heat sources like the stove or microwave that will reduce its cooling efficiency.

Most of the energy required for dishwashers is used to heat the water. Therefore, look for models that heat less water or include a booster heater that allows you to turn your main water heater down to save energy. A heat “on/off” setting allows you to turn off the heat and air-dry dishes to further save energy. Also look for water saving features. Extra-insulated models will operate more quietly.

Interior Materials/Finishes

Although many materials and finishes in a renovated kitchen can potentially cause serious health problems, there are ways to avoid this. For example, the particleboard and medium density fiberboard (MDF) used to make kitchen cabinets and counters contain urea formaldehyde glue which can cause a range of health issues (see “Formaldehyde” in Section 5 ). The toxins can be sealed into the materials with several coats of a water-based sealant, preferably at the factory, before the material gets into your home. Better, you can purchase exterior-grade plywood that contains less toxic phenol formaldehyde, or formaldehyde-free medium density fiberboard (MDF).

Your best — but likely most expensive — option is custom cabinets made from solid wood, and solid surface countertops, which are durable and healthy. Finger-jointed wood is an excellent option for trim because it uses smaller diameter wood by joining the pieces like intertwined fingers, creating a stronger piece of wood which might otherwise have been cut from a larger tree. Also, use low- or no-VOC, formaldehyde-free paints, low-VOC wood finishes, and solvent-free adhesives where they are applicable. In general, paints are better for indoor air quality than wood finishes, but remember that the shinier and darker the paint, the more likely it is to offgas toxins into your living space. Calculate finish needs beforehand to avoid wasted leftovers; store, donate, or recycle finishes when leftovers are unavoidable.

Kitchen floors should be durable and washable, because chances are things will spill on the floor while people are cooking or eating. (My dogs also do a good job of making their own mud artwork on the kitchen floor.) The best options are wood, ceramic tile, exposed concrete, or natural linoleum. Wood should be FSC certified or come from a natural, rapidly-renewable resources like bamboo, to avoid cutting down old-growth forests that take hundreds of years to regenerate. Wood is relatively soft and comfortable, but may be damaged with long-term exposure to water; for example, oak turns black with repeated exposure to water. Always use low-toxic adhesives and water-based wood finishes to minimize indoor air pollution.

Recycled-content ceramic tile, stone tile, or exposed concrete are durable surfaces. Concrete can be mixed with various pigments to create beautiful, warm patterns. Although pigment adds to the cost of the concrete, it does not require any finishes or maintenance and therefore is a cost-effective option.

Natural linoleum — not to be mistaken with vinyl flooring — is made from natural materials like linseed oil, jute, cork dust, and wood dust. Unlike vinyl flooring, which offgases toxic vinyl components, this surface is relatively non- irritating (unless you are affected by linseed oil). Natural linoleum is durable, can be finished in solid colors or patterns, and can be installed without the need for adhesives.

Keep in mind that even though carpeting can be warm and cozy on your feet, it is not a recommended kitchen floor option because it traps dirt and moisture. Small, washable mats should be used instead.

Kitchen Checklist

Job Site and Landscaping (See Section 7)

  • Remodel for efficient use of space.
  • Reuse construction and deconstruction waste.
  • Recycle job site waste.

Plumbing (See Section 12)

  • Insulate pipes.
  • Install on-demand hot water circulation pump.
  • Investigate your water supply.
  • Install a whole-house water filtration system.
  • Install activated carbon filters.
  • Install water distillers.
  • Install a reverse osmosis system.

Electrical (See Section 13)

  • Install light pipes.
  • Install compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs.
  • Install halogen lighting.
  • Install lighting controls.
  • Install sealed or airtight IC recessed lighting.

Insulation (See Section 14)

  • Use formaldehyde-free, recycled-content fiberglass insulation.
  • Use cellulose insulation.
  • Caulk, seal, and weatherstrip.

Solar Energy (See Section 15)

  • Install double-paned windows.
  • Install low-e (low-emissivity) windows.
  • Install low-conductivity frames.
  • Install window coverings and overhangs.
  • Use landscaping to shade windows.

Heating, Ventilation, and Air Conditioning (HVAC) (See Section 16)

  • Install zoned, hydronic, radiant heating.
  • Use duct mastic or Aeroseal instead of duct tape.
  • Install operable windows for natural ventilation.
  • Vent kitchen range hood to the outside.

Appliances (See Section 18)

  • Replace your standard dishwasher with a low water- use model.
  • Look for EnergyStar label on gas appliances.
  • Buy best available technology refrigerator.

Interior Materials/Finishes (See Section 19)

  • Use formaldehyde-free materials.
  • Seal all exposed particleboard or MDF.
  • Use FSC-certified wood flooring.
  • Use rapidly renewable flooring materials.
  • Use recycled-content tile.
  • Replace vinyl flooring with natural linoleum.
  • Use exposed concrete as finish floor.
  • Calculate paint needs beforehand.
  • Use low- or no-VOC and formaldehyde-free paint.
  • Use low-VOC, water-based wood finishes.
  • Deal properly with finish leftovers.
  • Use solvent-free adhesives.

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