Going green when you're building a home from the ground up is more common than ever these days. But what can you do about the home you already occupy? Lots, it turns out, and you can start with that kitchen remodeling project you're planning.
Remodeling green doesn't have to be scary. You can do it on a small or large scale, depending on how much time, money and effort you want to invest, and you can seek the aid of contractors and how-to guides to get it done. In fact, simply adding real flowers to your kitchen can help make it greener by turning carbon dioxide into oxygen that wouldn't have been there otherwise. And that oxygen adds up over time. But there's the big picture to consider, too: Most investments you make today will pay off tomorrow or down the road. Green renovations can lower your electricity bills and will eventually pay for themselves.
One Canadian couple believed so much in the benefits of a green home that they built their own house with solar panels, rain water reclamation systems, a living roof, earthen floors and air purifiers. Their environmental impact bottoms out every year at zero, and their home earned the prestigious Petal Recognition from the International Living Building Institute, an award very few buildings in the world have earned [source: International Living Building Institute].
You may not be able to save all the world's environmental problems with a few home renovations. But for those willing to pay upfront to slash consumption of natural resources in the future -- and perhaps cut utilities bills in the process -- your first step for greening your kitchen awaits: Install some solar window shutters.
Solar Window Shutters
Solar power is no longer reserved for the extremely wealthy, or homeowners willing to stick solar panels on their roofs. Just about anyone can reap the benefits of solar power by installing solar window shutters.
Solar window shutters do just what you think: They make energy. While you're walking through the kitchen, making coffee or checking the crock pot, the shutters are busy collecting solar rays. Like solar panels, the shutters harvest electrons straight from the particles of sunlight hitting them. Then, they queue the electrons into a straight line, otherwise known as a current, and voila: electricity. This electric current can be wired to supply your plugs just like energy you would buy from a utility company. So the next time you would use your microwave or other kitchen appliance, your energy might come totally from the shutters' current. And that means you're not paying for it.
A few companies, such as Colt, offer window shutters that closely resemble familiar blue solar panels. Others, such as Plug 'n Save, offer shutters that are built to mimic the appearance of typical wooden shutters you might find on any home.
Neither company will release pricing information unless you make a serious query into purchasing them, but expect to pay more than typical window shutters. But here's one way to save a little: Don't bother installing them on windows that usually sit in shade all day.
If you've ever driven along a rural highway, you've probably seen abandon barns and may have wondered what can be done with the wood. It turns out, after some treatment, the wood can be reclaimed and given new life, most often as hardwood floors.
Reclaimed hardwoods can come from almost any place hardwood is first used in construction, especially old or abandoned buildings. Wood from antique wine tanks, vintage steel mills and of course oak beams from old barns, can all be recycled and re-used [source: Case Western Reserve University]. The wood is typically kiln-dried twice. The drying hardens the wood, which often makes reclaimed wood a stronger construction material than new lumber [source: Case Western Reserve University]. And using reclaimed hardwoods means consumers are reducing the need to cut timber that is already endangered [source: National Geographic].
The price of reclaimed hardwood floors varies greatly based on the species of wood you select, but expect to pay anywhere from $4 to $30 per square foot, compared to $3 to $20 per square foot for new, uninstalled hardwood floors [source: Home Style Choices]. However, prices will vary based on your distributor's supply and the rarity of the wood. For instance, antique chestnut floors could run as much as $45 per square foot [source: AntiqueWoods.net].
But you're not limited to wood. Glass is another green flooring option we'll discuss next.
Recycled Glass Floors
Some people think after you use glass once, its lifespan is over. But that's not necessarily true. Although glass is expensive to recycle, some companies have found profitable uses for recycled glass scraps, and kitchen flooring is just one of them.
Recycled glass floors are made from crushed glass, usually taken from unused pieces at industrial sites or recycled glass bottles. Some companies even add porcelain from crushed bathtubs and sinks [source: EnviroGLAS]. The result is a colorful floor that looks like a stained-glass mosaic. And the best part is it's totally green.
EnviroPLANK is one flooring product on the market that is made of 100 percent recycled glass and porcelain terrazzo tiles. It can be installed in several different patterns and designs, and the glass and porcelain are fully customizable [source: EnviroGLAS]. Check with your local kitchen and bath dealer to see if they carry this type of flooring, or go straight to the company to see if you can order online. Just beware: These products can be expensive. EnviroPLANK starts at about $25 per square foot for the most basic option, and you'll also pay additional for installation, plus crate and shipping fees if you purchase online.
If glass isn't for you, check out our next eco-option: cork.
Cork Flooring and Countertops
These days, you can find cork in more than just your wine bottles. The light-weight wood, infamous for having helped Antonie van Leeuwenhoek discover single cells, also doubles as an eco-friendly kitchen construction material. It's most popular as flooring and countertops. Cork comes from the bark of cork oak trees. The bark can be stripped about every 10 years, which makes cork very sustainable because the trees can live between 150 and 250 years without ever having to be cut down for the cork to be harvested [source: APCOR].
Cork flooring has been around for quite a while and has improved dramatically in appearance. You can find it in several different tile patterns and colors, so you're likely to find something on the market that will fit your home's style and design. But aside from the range of looks you can achieve, cork floors are extremely durable, easy to repair if damaged, and they are a natural thermal insulator, which means they can help keep rooms warm in the winter and cooler in the summer [source: Globus Cork].
And when it comes to countertops, SuBERRA is the company leading the way. All of its countertops are made of recycled, post-industrial cork rather than new cork [source: Ecosupplycenter.com]. The end result are countertops that are, like cork flooring, durable, heat and water resistant, and even impervious to bacteria like E.coli and salmonella [source: Ecosupplycenter.com].
Bamboo Flooring and Cabinets
If you want to remodel your kitchen in an eco-friendly way, and also make it elegant and exotic, try bamboo. It's one of the strongest of any kitchen building materials -- green or otherwise [source: Oikos]. And it has a lifespan of about 30 to 50 years, and only takes three to five years for the plant to regenerate enough so it's ready to be harvested again.
If you do opt for bamboo flooring or cabinets, ask your supplier whether or not it is treated to withstand high-moisture areas. Bamboo can sometimes suffer under high-moisture conditions, and in a kitchen where steam and liquids are abundant, this can be a concern. A supplier should be able to point you to the right products that can hold up fine in the kitchen, but be sure to ask about any steps you need to take to prevent problems, just in case.
Bamboo flooring will cost about $3 to $9 per square foot (without installation), and quality will get better as the prices get higher [source: Milioti]. Cabinet doors vary widely in prices. A single door could cost as little as about $30, but an entire kitchen of custom bamboo cabinets could cost you thousands of dollars.
Wheatboard cabinets are essentially a hardened combination of plant fibers. Plant fibers such as wheat, cornstalk, hemp, rice hulls, rye grass, straw, seed husks and palm trees can be mixed together in a mash -- not unlike a beer mash -- and hardened to create a wood-like construction material.
The plant fibers that compose this material are taken from what would have been unusable portions of already-harvested fiber products, so there is little environmental impact on the planet in addition to the impact from the initial harvest. The biggest environmental footprint probably comes from the fuel consumption to deliver the product to your home.
The fibers' biggest drawback is their looks, which to some might appear a lot like cork, in that there are very definable grains. If you like the idea of wheatboard, but not necessarily the appearance, choose some that have been finished with a sleek veneer, shellac or stain; these can make the cabinets more closely resemble wood, and the effect can be impressive.
Wheatboard is often sold in sheets, and as with many other cabinet construction materials, getting a price quote generally means consulting a local distributor. The U.S. Green Building Council lists plenty of wheatboard manufacturers, so its Web site is a good starting point. Because of the abundance of fiber scraps, wheatboard is readily available and an extremely affordable material for cabinet construction.
Use Low- or No-VOC Paint
Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the chemical components in paints that make them dry fast. They are also what create paint's distinct odor -- and sometimes cause health problems. In fact, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that some VOCs are suspected of or known to cause cancer in humans [source: EPA]. Additional health complications VOCs can cause include nose and throat discomfort, headaches, allergic skin reaction, nausea, fatigue and dizziness [source: EPA]. So, doesn't it just make sense to eliminate paints with VOCs from your kitchen?
But VOCs don't just make paint dry fast; they also give it the high-quality look. (That's why high-gloss paint tends to smells more; it has more VOCs.) Remove the VOCs, and the paint doesn't look as good. But low-VOC and no-VOC paints are getting much better, as demand for the products rises.
The U.S. government regulates the amount of VOCs in paint, so in order to be considered low- or no-VOC, paint must meet certain criteria of chemical levels. You know paint has met the standard if its canister labels it "Low-VOC" or "No-VOC." When you buy paint with this label, you are getting fewer chemicals released into the air of your kitchen.
The higher-quality, reduced-VOC paint you purchase, the better final finish your walls will have. Higher quality usually means paying more, but in this case the price is typically a smart investment. Poor quality paints will usually leave an unappealing finish, and homeowners sometimes end up buying more buckets and coating their walls more times in order to compensate. Prices vary greatly, but you should be able to purchase reduced-VOC paint at $20 to $60 a gallon [source: Green-Living.com].
Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs
A lot of hype has been made about compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), particularly when it comes to trying to convince homeowners they really make a difference. But even ENERGY STAR promotes CFLs because of their significant reduction in energy use when compared to standard light bulbs [source: ENERGY STAR].
Installing CLFs in your kitchen can be an instant energy-saver. The kitchen will retain as much light as it had under traditional light bulbs, but the energy consumption could decrease by as much as 75 percent. This translates into a lower electricity bill which, over time, adds up to significant savings. That means a CFL bulb, which has a lifespan of about 10 years, can pay for itself. According to ENERGY STAR, one CLF bulb, which costs about $10, will burn for 6,000 hours, where it would take six traditional bulbs, which cost about $40 total, to burn for the same amount of time.
The CFL bulbs also produce 75 percent less heat, making them safer to the touch and, in summer, can lead to less air-conditioning needed to counteract heat from lighting [source: ENERGY STAR ]. Check out the ENERGY STAR Web site's interactive guide to learn about the different kinds of CFLs and how much you could save over the lifetime of the bulb.
CFLs aren't perfect, though. Many homeowners don't like the color of light they produce. And because CFLs contain mercury, they need to be disposed of properly -- usually that means taking them to a special facility that can discard them safely. The EPA offers an online guide via ENERGY STAR to help locate recycling facilities in your area [source: ENERGY STAR].
Despite its popularity in kitchens and industrial manufacturing sites, aluminum is a very scarce resource. The price of aluminum has risen so much recently, that it's caught the attention of major news outlets [source: Stablum]. If you want an aluminum countertop, which can be desirable for its appearance, durability and ease of cleaning, try looking into recycled aluminum.
Several companies offer recycled-aluminum countertops made from the scraps of industrially exploited aluminum. These countertops come in a variety of colors, with some companies offering as many as 12 different shades. Although the counters have a natural gloss, an artificial gloss is often available as an additional option.
The downside to aluminum countertops is that kitchen knives will easily scratch them, and this can allow food and bacteria to build up, so using a chopping board is always a good idea.
According to the Nebraska Energy Office, recycled aluminum costs as much as 95 percent less than original aluminum. Per square foot, recycled aluminum spans a range of prices, from as little as $39 to as much as $95 [source: Sunset magazine].
Recycled Finishing Touches
Your kitchen has parts that you can easily swap out toward the end of construction or remodeling. An assortment of places to find recycled phones, dish towels, clocks, framed artwork, vases, centerpieces, curtains, lighting fixtures, and even dishes and kitchenware exist today. You can find items to add to your kitchen at garage sales, vintage shops, the Salvation Army and other thrift stores. Additionally, online auction sites and online garage sale sites offer quick resources to find materials in your area.
The biggest benefit you'll notice is that pound for penny, you're getting these kitchen materials cheaply. But as the demand for these recycled goods grows, an added benefit is emerging, and that is that these recycled materials aren't ending up in landfills.
Watch out for online scams, though, especially if you're using a site operated largely based on user postings of sale items. Always use Web sites that offer a refund option or use a moderator to ensure secured sales. You might have to pay a bit more because the site is providing a service, but that service is your safety.
Green Roofs And White Roofs: Low Tech Ways To Save Tons Of Energy. Keep reading to learn about Low Tech Ways To Save Tons Of Energy.
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