The original kitchen was sun-filled but worn-down, replete with scratched counters and torn vinyl floors that always looked dirty. It was the home of the mouse that once occupied my house and became a space that was used for quickly reheating store-bought food rather than cooking from scratch. In order to reclaim that piece of myself that loves good food made by my own hands, I had to lure myself back into the kitchen. I had to create a space that was beautiful, functional, easy and efficient; a space that reflected what I love and would make me want to, again, feed myself.
With the help of LEED AP certified green contractor Danny Veerkamp of Prairie Designs, cabinet-maker Scott Dixon, and a few foodie friends (including The Cleaner Plate Club by author Beth Bader), I did just that. (Deepest thanks to all of you. I owe you a meal.) I like to call it “Eat, Save, Love.”
The first question I needed to answer was, “What would make me want to cook again?” or, more precisely, “What would cajole me back into the kitchen so eventually I would cook?” My answer had something to do with beauty and ease-of-use. I needed something to visually draw me back to the space. That attraction came in many forms: low and zero-VOC paints that made up a brilliant peacock blue accent wall; thin, narrow shelves Scott built to hold the beautiful ceramic mugs made by dear friend and brilliant artist Sam Clarkson; stainless steel knobs that hook under my index finger just so and shine like little jewels; and a built-in butcher block from a piece of wood that was salvaged from our recent microburst.
I interpreted the idea of “saving” in a few different ways. My top commitments were to reusing materials I already had (namely, the solid wood cabinets that would have likely been replaced with lesser quality MDF or particle board) and conserving energy and water (in that order). The first contractor I met was adamant that I would not be happy with a mash-up of old and new. I persevered. It would have been a lot easier on a contractor to work with a clean slate, but I knew that certain parts of my kitchen could be salvaged. Finding someone who was willing to work with my vision not only saved financial and natural resources, it bolstered my confidence that I, indeed, would be happy with the kitchen I requested.
When it came to energy and water savings, opportunities were plentiful. According to my calculations (based on this incredible research from Gerald Gardner and Paul Stern), at least 10 percent of our energy usage is within the kitchen. This expenditure (ranked here from greatest to lowest usage) is derived from space heating and cooling, water heating, lighting, refrigeration, the powering of appliances, cooking and dishwashers. That is why it was a priority for me to ensure all my appliances were not only Energy Star rated, but ranked at the lower end of the usage continuum that Energy Start’s created. If you have older appliances you’d like to upgrade, the federal government has created incentives, offering federal tax credits for consumer energy efficiency program—a “cash for clunkers” initiative for home appliances. The program has been extended through 2011; I can think of no better time to upgrade.
Water is one of the most urgent areas to illuminate. According to the non –profit group Water.org, a child dies every 20 seconds because of lack of access to potable water. Add to this, the knowledge that an American family of four can use an average of 400 gallons of water every day, and, on average, approximately 70 percent of that water is consumed indoors.
The biggest water expenditures are within our bathrooms, but mindfulness in the kitchen is also important because about 15 percent of our water usage within our homes comes from our collective faucets. That’s why my faucet is a very eco, very sexy, and, I will admit, pretty pricey, Grohe. The faucet uses 30 percent less water than a traditional faucet and is one of a number of products certified under the EPA’s WaterSense program for water conservation. Because I use this item so frequently, the extra cost was worth it. Ditto for the dishwasher, a dual whammy when it comes to water and energy usage. I have a lot of nostalgia for this item (my first big ticket purchase). I can’t say this about any other major appliance, but my Bosch dishwasher, purchased on clearance at Sears, will always hold a special place in my heart. Boschwas also my choice for a washer and dryer because they offer some of the most energy- and water-efficient front-loading washers on the market. What I find especially encouraging is that the company has started to consider the energy generated over the entire life cycle of its products—from manufacturing and shipping all the way to disposal.
I have never been a bottled water kind of gal for what I think are obvious environmental reasons, but I have to admit I hate Kansas water. My water tastes like it’s come out of a garden house and has left me dehydrated and dissatisfied. This remodel gave me a great opportunity to install an undermount Zuvo Water Filtration System that makes my water taste, well, less like a garden hose. Zuvo filters use a five-step process to remove odors and flavors, chlorine, lead, and particulates. It’s not perfect, but that’s because we have to consider the source.
Food is love. It its best incarnation, it comes from the earth, returns to the earth, and is healthy and safe. I wanted everything in the kitchen to reflect that integrity not only because it connects to my values but also because it makes common sense. If I am going to feed myself healthy food, I want to prepare it on non-toxic counters in kitchen with clean, healthy floors.
The flooring is Marmoleum, a natural linoleum composite of linseed oil, cork, limestone, and tree rosin — made without VOC’s and installed with solvent-free adhesives, so it doesn’t off-gas like vinyl. And, it costs about the same as other flooring options. The counter was a significantly pricier prospect. Comprised of compressed paper and made without the toxic, off-gassing adhesives and binders found in conventional counter products, my PaperStone counter has a presence that can only be described as classy.
Even when I am not in the middle of transforming my kitchen, I am always trying to move into a deeper place of alignment—from the fridge to what’s in the fridge, from the counter to how I clean the counter, from how I feed my belly to the kind of nourishment I give my brain and soul.
As we both continue the journey may our larders—all larders—be full.
Sethi is an associate professor of Journalismat the University of Kansas.
Follow her on Twitter @simransethi.
Photos by Simran Sethi; edited by Rebecca Evanhoe
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