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Natural Awakenings Chicago

Extreme Green Kitchen Makeover

Mar 31, 2011 11:08AM ● By Linda Sechrist

ABC TV’s Extreme Home Makeover has undoubtedly inspired many homeowners to not only dream of a perfect kitchen retrofit but also take steps to make it happen. Whether choosing a renovation or a totally new installation, beautiful wood cabinetry is an important focal point in any design for the heart of the home.

From the classic traditional style to the sleek and modern look, cabinetry that adds sophistication, warmth and elegance can also be eco-friendly. Homeowners who aim to be “carbon-footprint-conscious” can hit their target when they can “speak green” and align with designers, architects, cabinetry makers and suppliers who can help them achieve their sustainable standard.

To help homeowners better understand essential green industry terms and make the most sustainable buying decisions possible, Natural Awakenings turned to local experts learn about eco-friendly cabinetry.

Does new cabinetry affect indoor air quality?

“Formaldehyde is a human carcinogen, which off-gasses most from hardwood plywood, the glues that bond pressed-wood particle board together and medium-density fiberboard,” advises James Chambers AIA, co-owner of FWC Architects, Inc., a design firm specializing in the high-end single-family residential market. Particle board is used underneath wood veneer and plastic laminate, as sub-flooring and shelving, and in cabinetry as well as in furniture. Medium-density fiberboard is used for drawer fronts, cabinets and furniture tops. Levels of formaldehyde, present in all woods, do decrease over time, although room temperature and relative humidity can elevate emissions because of formaldehyde’s high vapor pressure.

“A properly designed and installed ventilation system is key to ensuring that these types of air pollutants, which can be introduced into the home by new cabinetry, are removed from the home and a healthy indoor environment is maintained,” says Chambers.

Irritation of the eyes and nasal mucous membranes can be a reaction to formaldehyde, as can headaches, a burning sensation in the throat and difficulty breathing. Formaldehyde can also trigger or aggravate asthma symptoms.

Is “green-certified” cabinetry more expensive?

“It is a myth that ‘green’ cabinets have to be more expensive,” says Maggie Wilkins, co-owner of C&M Wilkins, a builder that focuses on the craft of renovation, design and sustainable living and that frequently incorporates principles of feng shui. “A $3,000 galley kitchen can be just as sustainable as a $100,000 custom kitchen, which uses exactly the same green-certified cabinetry; the difference is in the quantity of cabinets used and the finish of the doors,” notes Wilkins, who has been working with eco-friendly designs for 30 years.

“Living green is no longer just a conversation about a healthier home environment; it is taking action toward living a better lifestyle and using sustainable practices that benefit our lives and our planet,” adds Wilkins. Cabinetry is one of the largest and costliest features of the home, and to both balance that cost and support global ecologies, consider purchasing cabinetry that offers the certified Environmental Stewardship Program Seal (ESP) from the Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA).

The ESP seal lets consumers identify environmentally friendly cabinetry, helping them to recognize it as “green”. ESP certification guarantees that consumers are purchasing a product that meets the rigorous industry standards created for sustainable living. To be ESP certified, applicant manufacturers must earn points in five categories: air quality, product resource management, process resource management, environmental stewardship and community relations. These standards are also met by being compliant to the standards of the California Air Resource Board (CARB) for allowable formaldehyde emissions.

Do eco-friendly cabinets have to be solid wood?

Cabinets with an eco-label, such as GREENGUARD Environmental Institute as GREENGUARD Indoor Air Quality Certified, can be made of wheat or straw-based particle board boxes that are constructed with a non-formaldehyde-based binder, such as polyurethane.

“These new formaldehyde-free particle boards do not have an adverse effect on our indoor air quality,” advises Paula O’Connell ASID, owner of Environmentally Sustainable Designs. Organizations such as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the American Lung Association and the World Health Organization stress the importance of indoor air quality because it directly affects our health.

The mission of the GREENGUARD Environmental Institute is to protect human health and improve quality of life by enhancing indoor air quality and reducing people’s exposure to chemicals and other pollutants. “As a third-party organization, the institute certifies products and materials for low chemical emissions,” says the environmentally conscious interior designer, who draws on her more than 25 years of experience as well as the principles of feng shui.

Why is it important to buy cabinetry with a Forestry Stewardship (FSC) label?

A wood product bearing the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) label has a well-known history. In order to earn this label, its source wood must be sustainably harvested and tracked throughout its “life cycle.” The Chain of Custody (CoC) includes its final destination in your home. Only “FSC-CoC” products are granted the privilege of hosting FSC trademarks.

“FSC-Certified Bamboo plywood is a great sustainable product,” because it grows an average of a foot a day,” says Terrence Black, owner of Living Green Now, an eco-consulting company and provider of high-quality, earth-friendly, energy- and water-smart products.

Why use local wood sources?

“Cabinetry made with an exotic wood veneer is less sustainable than that made by local craftsmen who build with locally harvested wood,” says Danielle Jokela, showroom director and designer at Green Living Designs. “Because of their import status and long-distance shipping, exotic woods will never be as sustainable as local woods, such as maple, poplar, oak, ash, and American cherry,” advises Jokela.

“If you are looking for a certain color or grain pattern, the key is to do research first and ask for something similar in a domestic species,” suggests Jokela. If what you want doesn’t exist in any domestic species, look for the FSC label to guarantee that the tree is not from a forest that has been clear-cut or otherwise managed in an unsustainable method.

What can be done with the old cabinets?

Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore is a place where contractors, suppliers, and individuals donate their used or excess construction materials. ReStore sells the materials—everything from lumber, doors and windows to cabinets, sheetrock and even carpet in good condition—at a steep discount to raise funds to erect homes. Habitat workers occasionally use the materials in new or refurbished homes. The ReBuilding Exchange, which also takes in used or excess building materials for resale, goes one step beyond Restore by providing deconstruction job training and placement.

Purchasing reclaimed materials prevents them from going into a landfill. “Cabinets from a bygone era can add character, detailing, and craftsmanship that can be difficult and expensive to replicate today,” says Jokela.

Is a kitchen more sustainable if it makes better use of existing space?

U.S. Green Building Council Residential Green Building Advocate Pam Garetto, owner of Vireo Designs, suggests, whenever possible, working within a home’s existing footprint. “We often think we need more space, but the answer may be better use of existing space,” says Garetto. Re-using good-quality existing cabinetry may also be possible. “Changing doors, adding glass inserts to upper cabinets, and new handles on drawers and doors can work wonders,” she notes. “Re-use also allows you to choose non-toxic finishes, which promotes good indoor air quality.” In Garetto’s opinion, a kitchen should sustain health as well as conserve natural resources.

FWC Architects, Inc., is located at 303 Waukegan Ave., Highwood 60040. For more information, call 847-579-5200, email [email protected] or visit

C&M Wilkins; for more information, call 847-648-0606, email [email protected] or visit

Paula O’Connell, ASID Allied; for more information, call 847-404-7766, email [email protected] or visit

Living Green Now is located at 425 Huehl, Ste. 19A, Northbrook 60062. For more information, call 847-282-0031, email [email protected] or visit

Green Living Designs / Globus Sustainable Construction is located at 1930 First St., Highland Park 60035. For more information, call 847-681-0126, email [email protected] or visit

Pam Garetto, USGBC-Illinois Residential Green Building Advocate, is based at Vireo Design, 2515 Versailles Ave., Naperville 60540. For more information, call 630-864-1621, email [email protected] or visit

Habitat for Humanity ReStore–Lake County is located at 3545 Grand Ave., Gurnee 60031. Call 847-249-3160 or visit Habitat for Humanity ReStore is located at 800 N. State St., #1, Elgin 60123. Call 847-742-3160 or visit

The Rebuilding Exchange, 3335 W. 47th St., Chicago 60632. Call 773-847-3761 or visit

GREENGUARD Environmental Institute,

Forest Stewardship Council,

ESP Seal, Green Cabinet Source, KCMA Environmental Stewardship Program,

Kitchen Cabinet Manufacturers Association (KCMA),