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sustainable kitchen

Designing a Sustainable Kitchen

By Tobias Roberts Rise Writer
Jul 2, 2020

People from most cultures worldwide agree that the kitchen is the heart and soul of the home. Entire families in the mountains of Guatemala gather around a fire that is roasting freshly made corn tortillas. Families in North America come together for the traditional Thanksgiving meal. The kitchens in our homes certainly have a way of bringing us together.

Unfortunately, most modern-day kitchens tend to be spaces in our home that use enormous amounts of energy while creating significant quantities of waste.

The following tips will help you discover ways to design a genuinely sustainable kitchen designed around energy efficiency principles, sustainable sourcing, healthy livelihoods, and upcycling waste into regenerative abundance.

FSC Kitchen Cabinets Winsome Construction
FSC Kitchen Cabinets. Photo Credit: Winsome Construction

Sustainably Sourced and Healthy Cabinets

The cabinets you choose can either make or break your overall kitchen design. Many building contractors might lower the total cost of the homes they build by installing inferior quality plastic laminate or melamine cabinets. These types of cabinetry and cupboards are not aesthetically appealing, and they also are sourced from resources that aren't typically renewable.

Wood cabinets are usually the better option, both for overall appearance and for sustainability. The cheaper options, traditionally made from medium-density fiberboard (MDF), are linked to health concerns due to high levels of formaldehyde and other off-gassing chemicals. If your budget does not allow you to opt for hardwood cabinets, it is best to search for formaldehyde-free MDF cabinets.

There are sourcing concerns with exotic hardwood cabinets and cupboards, like the carbon associated with imports from far away places and irresponsible forest management. So, while cabinets made from solid mahogany or other fine, tropical hardwoods will look beautiful in your kitchen and have fewer issues with off-gassing, they are not the most sustainable option.

According to a study by the World Wildlife Fund, global demand for low-cost timber leads to illegal logging in some of the most endangered tropical forests worldwide. Up to 50% of all harvested tropical hardwoods in particular forests can be the product of illegal logging.

However, the good news is that demand for high-quality tropical hardwoods can protect forests when sustainably managed. Responsible forest management can offer sustainable income to rural populations worldwide while also giving your kitchen a beautiful and natural cabinetry alternative. When searching for natural hardwood cabinets, ensure that the product is FSC-certified (Forest Stewardship Council).

Other sustainable options for natural wood cabinets include those made from salvaged wood, such as old barn boards. Also, some companies have begun to offer cabinets made from bamboo. Bamboo grows quickly and is often able to be sustainably harvested after only five years. A natural steaming process can provide natural, dark stains to bamboo veneers without chemical stains or varnishes. But, bamboo isn't without its faults. It is usually sourced from Asia. It has to travel worldwide to get to North America, giving it a much higher embodied energy than local wood has.

Helios design kitchen
Photo Credit: Helios Design Group

Sustainable Kitchen Countertop Options

While marble and granite countertops are undoubtedly beautiful, there is a high environmental cost of getting these products into your kitchen.

Ecosystems can suffer irreparable damage by the mining and quarrying of these natural materials. Also, their weight leads to a substantial amount of energy required to transport slabs from quarry to store to your kitchen.

Fortunately, several recyclable materials can be used to create beautiful kitchen countertops. Like the cabinetry option discussed above, salvaged wood can also be upcycled into beautiful vintage countertops. It is essential to search for used wood that has not been treated with chemicals or painted with lead paint.

If you want a more modern look to your kitchen, IceStone is a Brooklyn-based company specializing in recycled kitchen countertops that are sustainable and artistic. Their IceStone line of countertops is made from recycled glass. Also, their PaperStone series is made from post-consumer recycled paper bonded together by non-petroleum resins. If you have your heart set on a stone countertop in your kitchen, the QuartzStone line might fit the bill. It is sourced from over 90% crushed waste quartz leftover in quarries.

Ma Maison Verte Kitchen
Photo Credit: Ma Maison Verte

The Right Appliances

Every week, it seems, some company comes up with a new kitchen appliance that is branded as a "must-have." For reductions in energy consumption in your kitchen, the first (and most important) rule of thumb is to limit the number of appliances you have. Do you really need the electric can opener when a manual can opener is just as efficient? Also, instead of an electric coffee pot, why not opt for a French Press or one of these other human-powered kitchen appliances.

For the essential kitchen appliances (think refrigerator), make sure that you opt for Energy-Star certified models. These models lower the energy consumption of your kitchen, and they will also save you money over the long run.

It is a common assumption that washing dishes by hand will save energy. However, if you buy an Energy-Star certified dishwasher, some studies suggest that dishwashers save water (especially when you only run the dishwasher when full), energy AND money. An efficient dishwasher, then, is a vital addition to any sustainably designed kitchen.

Homes by Highgate kitchen
Photo Credit: Homes by Highgate

Proper Kitchen Ventilation

We often think that the only time we need ventilation in the kitchen is when we accidentally burn dinner and set off the smoke alarms throughout the house. However, kitchens that use a gas oven or stovetop need good ventilation to avoid the buildup of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and other potentially dangerous gasses. One study has shown that excess nitrogen dioxide levels in the home can deplete tissue antioxidant defenses, leading to injury and inflammation.

During the summertime, a lack of kitchen ventilation will also raise the temperature inside your home, leading to an increased need for air conditioning and higher energy consumption.

Range hoods are kitchen ventilation systems that are usually placed over a stovetop. They help get rid of cooking odors, combustion gasses from your stove, airborne grease, and other air pollutants that come with food preparation. An Energy-Star certified range hood will use a high-performance motor that maximizes efficient airflow.

They don't have to be ugly either - many kitchens are designed with the range hood as a statement piece. Others are tucked away neatly inside cabinetry. You'll want to look for a high enough CFM (cubic feet per minute of air that the unit can move) to meet the requirements of your stove (also making sure the range hood is at proper height). If quiet operation is a concern, you may want to look for a unit with a low sone rating, usually below 1.5 sones is considered quiet.

conscious builder kitchen
Photo Credit: The Conscious Builder

Kitchen Flooring

Every kitchen needs a resilient, durable, and healthy floor. If wood flooring is what you're after, you should look for wood flooring for your kitchen that is FSC-certified and that ranks high on the Janka Scale for hardness. The harder the wood used for your flooring, the fewer dents and damage will occur over the years.

You can also opt for natural stone floors made from marble, granite, quartz, or other rocks available from local stone quarries. This flooring option has no issues with VOCs and can absorb heat from the sun to add natural warmth to your home during the long winter months. Ensure to search for local sources of stone flooring since there is a substantial energetic cost of transporting this heavy material over long distances. The same natural stone flooring material can also make beautiful and natural backsplashes for your kitchen.

Efficient Lighting Plaidfox
Efficient Lighting. Photo Credit: Plaidfox


Perhaps the best room in the home to show off beautiful lighting fixtures is also one where functional/task lighting plays a crucial role. So the requirements are simple, choose beautiful lighting that is both functional and money-saving. Often, the best lighting combinations are accomplished in 'layers.' Consider recessed lighting (think Integrated LEDs) to light up the bulk of the room. Then, have task lighting adorning walls (with LED bulbs) and pendants over the island (using LED Filament bulbs). No matter the fixture, you should opt for LEDs that warm up the room. Don't forget to include dimmers (especially for recessed and pendant lighting) to help get the light just right.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-07-21T20:57:38+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.