When she set out to remodel her 1960s Bethesda kitchen a decade ago, interior designer Sheryl Steinberg was ahead of the green design curve. “My goal was to create a completely clean, sustainable, high-quality, modern and inviting kitchen,” she says. This meant installing an induction cooktop instead of a potentially polluting gas range, choosing cabinets manufactured with no VOCs (volatile organic compounds) or PVC (polyvinyl chloride), and making other earth-conscious choices.
Sustainable design was important to her then, and it has become more important to homeowners redoing or updating their kitchens in recent years. In fact, the 2023 U.S. Houzz Kitchen Trends Study found that 92% of homeowners were incorporating sustainable features during a kitchen renovation, with choices including LED bulbs (65%), energy-efficient appliances (61%) and water-efficient fixtures (34%).
But remodeling or updating a kitchen with sustainability in mind isn’t just bamboo cabinetry and Energy Star appliances. “Green building can encompass everything from the raw materials you use—countertops, tiles—to how you get your supplies delivered, how you install things, and how you use your space,” Steinberg says. “Your entire kitchen doesn’t have to be LEED-
certified products, but maybe choose three or four things to concentrate on.”
Jennifer Owens is the quality director of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED Residential program, which educates architects, builders and designers about sustainable building practices. “With a green kitchen, you’ll want to think about energy, water and materials first,” she says. “And then keep in mind indoor air quality and how the room works for you.”
Here’s how to design a kitchen that’s easy on the planet without sacrificing style or function.
Save energy—and your health—with the right appliances
Technological advances in the past 10 or 15 years have made kitchen appliances more efficient and better performing. Think dishwashers that use less water yet clean pots and pans effectively, and “smart” refrigerators that can track expiration dates on your food, cutting down on waste. “There’s no reason not to use energy-efficient appliances all the time,” Owens says.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s Energy Star rating program, created in 1992, evaluates appliances and other products according to their energy use and savings. Since the program launched, Energy Star has helped American families and businesses save more than $500 billion in energy costs; a typical family saves about $450 a year when using certified appliances, according to the EPA. And it’s easy to shop for stoves, fridges and other products with Energy Star cred; just look for the program’s blue label.
Pay attention to the great gas stove debate
Choosing a new stove, however, has become more complex. Scientific studies—including a major 2022 report from the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health—have shown that gas stoves emit methane, a greenhouse gas, as well as nitrogen dioxide and tiny airborne particles that can irritate the respiratory system and cause health problems. The greener choice? An induction stove, which uses a metal coil underneath a smooth glass cooktop to generate electromagnetic energy that transfers to your cookware, making it hot enough to prepare food. According to Energy Star, induction cookers are about three times more energy-efficient than gas units.
“I’m a huge proponent of induction cooking, since these stoves are easier to clean, require less ventilation and they’re so energy-efficient,” says Silver Spring-based kitchen designer Nadia Subaran of Aidan Design. She also installed a steam oven in her home. It heats food by pumping in steam, not blowing in hot air, which means faster meal prep as well as less energy expended.
Cabinetry is usually the biggest expense—and takes up the most space—in a kitchen redo. There are several green ways you can replace it or refinish it.
First, if you aren’t changing your kitchen’s footprint and your cabinets are in good shape, think about simply repainting or refinishing them. “We have several clients now who just want light updates of their kitchen, so we’re sanding down and repainting their existing cabinets and updating the hinges and pulls,” says Allie Mann, an interior designer with Case Architects & Remodelers, which has offices in Bethesda; Falls Church, Virginia; and Washington, D.C. “They’re also keeping things out of the landfill by doing this.”
Whether you’re repainting old cabinets or purchasing new ones, choose or have your refinisher use no- or low-VOC paints. “This means, if you’re redoing cabinets, steering clear of oils and acrylics and going for a water-based paint,” Owens says. Paints with little to no VOC are better for the environment and less hazardous for whoever lives in your house, she says.
Topcoats are important, too. “After putting on low-VOC paint, we finish all our cabinets with honeybee oil and simple wax,” says Tanya Smith-Shiflett, founder of Unique Kitchens & Baths, a local custom cabinetry company with three area showrooms and frequent projects in Montgomery County.
If you’re opting to replace your cabinets, ask what kind of wood is used in your choices, and where it was harvested. Look for cabinetry with a seal of approval from either the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or the Environmental Stewardship Program (ESP), which signifies that it meets stringent requirements related to air quality, environmental responsibility and product resource management.
Another greener idea is to purchase cabinetry that’s made nearby, eliminating the carbon footprint and saving the costs of overseas or long-range shipping. Local showrooms that offer
cabinetry made in America include Unique Kitchens & Baths, which has its own factory in Pennsylvania, and Kitchen and Bath Studios Inc. in Chevy Chase, which carries several U.S.-made lines as well as FSC- and ESP-certified products such as Greenquest Cabinetry by Crystal and Earth Friendly Cabinetry by Christiana.
Consider countertop materials
In her kitchen redo, Steinberg put in countertops made of Silestone, which is composed of natural quartz crystals mixed with polyester resins and color pigments. “They’re Greenguard-certified, which means there’s limited off-gassing,” she says, referring to the release of organic chemicals from products (like when you smell fresh paint or a new mattress). Mann often steers eco-conscious clients toward IceStone countertops. “They take recycled glass pieces and cast them in some concrete,” she says. “If you like the veining of natural stone or marble, it’s a different way to get that.”
Other greener choices for countertops include renewable, fast-growing bamboo; stainless steel (typically made of recycled metal); and even PaperStone, a composite material made from post-consumer paper waste and resin. Still, with countertops—and all surfaces going into your kitchen—remember that any adhesives used for installation could be toxic. “For example, bamboo might be renewable, but find out what will be used to attach it,” Steinberg says.
Think from the floor up
Like countertops, the way you install floors matters nearly as much as the material that was used to make them. “Think about how materials are going to be laid into place,” Owens says. “Anything that uses adhesive is going to carry more risks of emitting dangerous chemicals.” You’ll also want to be mindful of popular vinyl flooring, which tends to emit smelly, potentially toxic fumes during installation and for weeks or years to come, she says.
Among the most earth-friendly floors are sustainable hardwood, fast-growing cork, or old-fashioned linoleum—which is made from linseed oil, resin and other natural materials.
But ceramic tiles can also be a good choice. “Tiles are a cement aggregate, and it doesn’t have the need for adhesive,” Owens says. “And the grout you use to install it is a natural-based material in and of itself.” Plus, tiles are durable, meaning a longer-lasting floor, and they can be ground up and recycled into cement if you remodel again.
When shopping for tiles, “look at the manufacturer’s website to see what materials they’re made of and how they’re made,” Steinberg says. For instance, some companies, like respected California tile maker Heath Ceramics, even use recycled water in their manufacturing process; others use recycled glass in their products.
Reclaimed wood is another option and can add a modern farmhouse vibe.
Go with the flow
Kitchen faucets, like bathroom toilets and showers before them, are evolving to use less water. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the standard flow rate is 2.2 gallons per minute (GPM). More efficient faucets flow at 1.5 or less GPM. Low-flow faucets also have air-infusion technology, which mixes air and water to cut down on water usage. Big-box stores such as Lowe’s and Home Depot offer guidance on purchasing water-saving faucets. “It might mean that you fill your pasta pot a little more slowly,” Mann says. “But after all, we got used to toilets that went from flushing with 6 gallons of water to 1.5 gallons.”
Jennifer Barger is a local design and travel writer. Follow her on Instagram @dcjnell.
This story appears in the September/October issue of Bethesda Magazine.