According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more and more scientific researchers
are concluding that the indoor air quality in homes and offices can be seriously polluted
and therefore even less healthy than the outdoor air of the largest and most industrialized
cities. Piggybacked with this research are the findings that on average, people spend
approximately 90% of their time indoors. This gives the opportunity for more exposure to
a lower quality of air than even those roaming the streets of metropolitan areas – and that
exposure is over a longer period of time.
As individuals, people have little influence on overall outdoor air quality. But, these same
individuals do have the ability to greatly improve the indoor air quality of their homes.
With more research into Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), there also arrives more press coverage
about the problem. People are becoming better educated about IAQ and, in turn, they are
approaching designers for solutions.
Ironically, part of the problem we currently see with IAQ occurs because construction
techniques and materials have improved so much over the years. In old houses that were
constructed with the usage of natural materials more prone to expanding or contracting
depending on the weather, houses had the ability to “breathe” easier. That is to say, the
drafts that our grandparents may have complained about in their houses growing up have
been sealed off. Coupled with air conditioning in the summer, windows aren’t left wide
open as often during warm weather. All this translates to trapped, stale air being recycled
by the home’s inhabitants. This stale air also holds high concentrations of unhealthy
fumes and toxins – unless steps are taken to prevent the problem.
Fortunately, many of those preventative measures are readily available and more are
being created daily. And along with manufacturers, those creating the buildings and
rooms are able to bring those solutions to clients that will appreciate the thoroughness
and thoughtfulness of the services provided.
In order to build green (at least in regards to health issues), it is important to be informed.
Designers need to be aware of which materials can cause problems, and once that’s taken
care of, they need to explore alternative methods of supplying materials that can
contribute to a healthier living space. “There’s a difference between people who are
doing it for true medical reasons and those doing it for environment. If you’re selling an
eco-floor, you need to be sure of the materials, including the glue. If for example, a client
has a family member particularly sensitive to indoor pollutants, it’s important to verify
the materials you’re using won’t be an irritant for that individual,” said Scott Martin of
Blue Plum Design.
For health concerns, there are many different chemicals and compounds that can trigger a
reaction in certain individuals. One of the most common offenders in the home is
formaldehyde. Formaldehyde is a naturally occurring chemical, but can also be
manmade. While the naturally occurring formaldehyde levels are minimal and generally
not harmful, the manmade levels can be more of a problem. In homes, formaldehyde can
be found in pressed wood products made using adhesives. Often, urea-formaldehyde or
UF resins are present. Urea-formaldehyde is the formaldehyde that affects health the
most. It can be found in sub-flooring and cabinetry, hardwood plywood paneling, and in
medium density fingerboard. The medium density fingerboard typically contains and
releases off-gasses with the highest level of UF out of all pressed wood product.
Teresa Shannon of Green Spot Design talked about her decision to build green and offer
that service to her customers. “My biggest thing is indoor air quality. Houses are so much
more tightly built now, so everything that’s in your house that’s off-gassing, you’re
breathing in. Toxins in many building materials are detrimental to health. There’s
plywood out that has no added urea-formaldehydes, I can appreciate the use of that. It
really is a noticeable difference with healthier wood treatments. I have always tried to
live healthy, and I would literally become ill when installing standard cabinets in a
client’s home due to the off-gassing. I’ve since become a dealer in Neil Kelly cabinets,
the company practices green design and it has made a difference for me. The greatest
amount of UF release occurs when pieces are being installed, so if you’re using nongreen
cabinetry, make sure the area is ventilated. For the local custom type places, when
the cabinets get finished at the home, it’s less healthy. Do it off site, so that you can
use better ventilation.”
So, formaldehyde and more specifically, urea-formaldehyde can both have a negative
affect on health. The question is: What can be done about it? Besides using proper
ventilation when it’s necessary to work with materials that off-gas UF (and keeping in
mind that a good ventilation system is a welcome addition to many new homes),
kitchen and bath professionals do have another option – avoidance.
Manufacturers are going green based on an awakening public knowledge of the trend and
materials that don’t off-gas are already on the market. One such product, wheatboard, has
a two-fold benefit, both touching upon the interior health aspect of green design as well
as the earthly environmental aspects. Made with wheat straw, a material which is usually
an agricultural waste product that is normally burned, thereby emitting harmful gases and
particles into the atmosphere, the wheatboard is compressed with formaldehyde-free
binders and finished with a UV-cured finish. At the present time, there are a number of
color choices, but as demand increases, more color choices will become available.
Currently, the biggest battle facing those wishing to use wheatboard or other greendesign
materials like agraboard or primeboard is the lack of distribution channels. All
these materials are relatively new to the market and for the smaller manufacturers, it does
take some time to get up to speed on supply to meet the demand.
“All group involved need to constantly be educated to make things happen.
Manufacturers need feedback from designers about what is needed in the field. Designers
need feedback from consumers letting them know what has the interest of clients. Plus,
there’s just a familiarity that needs to happen. Once the sub-contractor makes a cabinet
box out of wheatboard, they’ll be less hesitant to do it again. It’s harder in some areas
than others. A 60-mile difference between location to location may have a huge
difference on the perception of green building,” said Nina Marinkovich of MAK Design
To address the possible audience for green design, Marinkovich and her design partner
Ken Kirsch work hard to inform others. “We do place a lot of emphasis on education.
Myself and our staff, are certified in green design. We’ve also organized a committee to
adopt green building guidelines in our city. How we approach it is that we say, ‘we have
this knowledge, we work hard to educate on those options.’ The more we educate, the
solutions just fill in themselves,” said Marinkovich.
“It goes both ways between being asked and telling about green design. It is becoming
much more popular. There are many different little things that can be done to incorporate
green design into a home, and each bit can have a positive affect,” said Shannon
Environmentally, materials like recycled tile backsplashes or even recycled paper
countertops, such as those made by Richlite, ease the stress on the planet. Energy
conservation also helps the environment. Energy Star appliances typically price the same
as their non-green equivalents and for some environmentally focused individuals; it is
possible to actually have the electric company pay when your home pumps power back
into the grid. Marinkovich suggests solar panels to many of her clients. The panels are a
great investment in sunnier climes, helping both the environment and the bank account of
those using them.
In some sunnier climes, green design has become a necessity facilitated by state
governments. In California for example, there are different mandates as far as lighting
control. California Title 24 requires certain lighting considerations. Designers in the state
need to be aware of them, especially since Title 24 affects kitchen lighting the most.
California requires fluorescent lighting to be 50% of the available kitchen lighting since it
uses less electricity. The state also requires manual on motion sensors whereas other
places have automatic on.
Amanda Sokolow, of Leviton Manufacturing, provided a list of lighting methods and
their benefits. “Dimmer switches offer a substantial ability to save on energy costs. Each
dimmer, when properly used, can offset the average cost of the lighting it’s connected to
by at least 10%. Couple that benefit with sensors and many people can realize even
Sensors are available for many different arrangements. An occupancy sensor uses passive
infra red monitors that sense a change in temperature while a line of sight technology is
the most cost effective way. There’s also ultra sonic, which detects a change in
frequency. When using a sensor that detects changes in temperature don’t mount them
near a heating vent or a light bulb. For motion sensors, you avoid areas where
homeowners stay still for a long period of time. Some ideal spaces would be the laundry
rooms, utility rooms or the entrance to a garage. Sensors and dimmers install just like a
standard light switch, which makes them very convenient.”
With the trend of Green Design somewhat new to North America, working with green
materials can require a little bit of trial and error. Martin explained, “Keep in mind when
installing cabinets with wheatboard, they shouldn’t be picked up by their spanners or
rails. With that type of material, and dealing with the weight, you can rip them right out.
Basically, it’s usually a good idea to lift everything from the bottom.”
When it comes to stains and finishes, Martin also has suggestions, “What I would
recommend to a designer is that they get samples of woods that are stained with the
water-based stains and finishes, because it takes on a different sheen, and a different
depth of color. Properly set expectations by seeing the samples. Get a feeling for the
texture and finishes. On the water-based finishes, wood will show a little more of the
green texture, it won’t look as slick. It’ll look a little more natural and while it does look
nice, it may not show the depth seen in tradition finishes.”
As the trend continues to bloom, more regulations and definitions are likely to
emerge on what constitutes “green design.” Most likely, California will be one of
the leaders in those definitions, their legislatures being very active in pushing the
envelope forward on environmental reforms. But, it’s not really charting unmarked
territory. “We can look towards Europe to see green products not even stated as such. In
North America, we do approach clients with “green” products and building techniques
and say it’s a benefit, but we don’t enlist a testing standard. In Europe, they have a
different standard. Under that standard, to be declared “green” manufacturers must be
below a certain level of off-gassing. Canada works with these standards in order to be
able to ship their products abroad, there’s also a Japanese standard. In the United States,
products may be declared “green” just because they’re a healthier or more
environmentally friendly alternative, but they still may be somewhat unhealthy since all
the requirements haven’t been set yet,” said Martin.
Other than regulations, the final problem facing green design is perception. “I work with
a couple of pure eco stores. One of the things that kitchen designers can bring to the table
is the fact that green or eco-friendly is not a design style, it’s a choice of materials and
construction and selection. It’s going to be up to the designers to put it in their
showrooms and use a modern design, instead of just tying it to an Asian themed or
eclectic design,” said Martin.
Shannon concluded, “There are still people that don’t understand, people that think it’s
expensive and not obtainable, but that’s just not the case.” By going the extra
mile to educate themselves and their customers, kitchen and bath professionals will
discover that green design is a viable and vitally important design solution.