If the kitchen is indeed "the heart of the home," then our home was in dire need of a heart transplant. Thanks to the previous homeowners, our kitchen made us shudder the very first time we walked through it with the realtor, and the chill never went away. It was like a bad 1980's concept of what "The Future" was supposed to look like, complete with high-gloss laminated cabinets, formica countertops, and rounded corners everywhere. This was a custom-designed kitchen that (most likely) cost the previous homeowners a pretty penny, but it just never fit the way we live or our own personal style. It didn't even fit the style of the house, as we live in a transitional Colonial. So, while we liked pretty much everything else about the house when we bought it, the kitchen left a bad taste in our mouths. Sooner or later, we knew we would need to deal with it. It turned out to be later--six years after we bought the house--when the appliances began to break down one after another, like some sort of culinary conspiracy, driving us toward a renovation.
It might seem that the most earth-friendly thing you can do is not to renovate at all. Just keep all of the old stuff if it's still semi-functional, right? However, in May 2011, as chair of our school's Green Team, I participated in a webinar run by Greenfaith and the Jewish National Fund, entitled "Energy Conservation Strategies for Synagogues & Schools." I was surprised to learn that keeping old appliances--or even passing them onto others who are less fortunate--doesn't make good green sense because the energy standards of older appliances are much lower and they eat up a disproportionate amount of non-renewable resources to run them. According to Greenfaith, if the appliance is older than 2001, give it to the delivery service from the appliance store, if they responsibly recycle old appliances. (Most major chains, such as Best Buy and P.C. Richards, provide this service.) This is how we handled our old appliances for our renovation.
As for the cabinets and countertops, our plan was to find a new home for them. They were still in very good condition. Two separate kitchen design companies took a look at our old kitchen and told us it wouldn't be a problem. After all, even though the old kitchen didn't match us, it might be the perfect match for somebody else. Or not...
At the advice of both design companies, we contacted Green Demolitions and emailed them four photos of the kitchen. They got back to us within one day, telling us that they appreciated the offer, but they couldn't accept contemporary-style kitchens because the overwhelming majority of their customers want a more traditional look (just like we did). I appreciated the speed and courtesy of their response.
Then I contacted the local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, via phone and the web, where I sent them the same four photographs of the old kitchen, one of which is below:
Even though we had heard from several sources that Habitat ReStore is notoriously picky about donations, we personally had a good track record with them. A couple of years earlier, they had gratefully accepted from us an entire truckload of unused carpet rolls, shelving, hardware, and light fixtures that were left over from the previous owners--all items that had been just sitting in our basement taking up space.They even filmed a video for YouTube in our driveway as they hauled away all of the stuff (although I never found the finished piece online).
This time, we weren't as fortunate. It took about two weeks to finally get some communication with an actual person at Habitat, but after those two weeks, we were told that YES, they would indeed accept the kitchen. Success! Or not...
Habitat for Humanity does not remove the kitchen for you except in extreme situations (e.g., the house is in foreclosure, being demolished, etc.). So, we needed to pay a kitchen cabinet installer to "de-install" our cabinets. Extra time and money right there. Then, when the truck for Habitat showed up as scheduled, the volunteers took one look at all of the cabinets and countertops, which by then were in our driveway, and told us right away that they could not sell laminated cabinets in their ReStore locations. They ended up taking one small cabinet (throwing us a bone, I think) and the double wall oven. I was fuming at the wasted time and expense for us, not to mention that we had counted on the tax deduction for the sizable donation of several cabinets and countertops. I told them that while I could appreciate the fact that they didn't want the old kitchen stuff (after all, neither did we!), they sorely need better communication between the people in their office who accept the items and the people who actually pick them up. The driver said they're all volunteers, so they can only do so much. Again, I understand their plight as a charitable organization, but communication gaps between their office and their pick-up staff just waste their own resources (gas, time, staff).
After a few more unsuccessful inquiries to personal contacts who might accept the kitchen, we spent an additional $1,800 for the unwanted kitchen to be taken to the dump in two truckloads. (Insert heavy sigh here.) This was exactly what I didn't want to happen, as one of my hottest green buttons is the landfill crisis in this country. It was especially painful to see our old kitchen island chainsawed in half to fit on the truck. So much for our 100% green renovation. Photo below: There goes the backsplash...
Well, since this blog is called "Joyfully Green" and not "Depressingly Earth-Unfriendly," I'll move onto the successful parts of our green renovation. Here's what we did accomplish:
- We switched out old, energy-hogging appliances for Energy Star rated appliances.
- We used paint that contained zero volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Nearly every major paint company today will sell you eco-friendly versions of the colors you want, without the toxic fumes and chemicals that you and your family would otherwise breathe in for years. Sherwin-Williams (which we used this time) and Benjamin Moore (which we've used other times) both offer these options, the former with their Emerald and Harmony lines, and the latter with their Natura line. The added bonus with these eco-friendly paints is that you can eat or sleep in the same room on the same night you had painting completed, because there is very little--if any--paint odor.
- We installed under-cabinet LED lights (light-emitting diodes) for the perimeter counter space. This was an expensive initial outlay, but it quickly pays off because LEDs are long-lasting bulbs that don't require much maintenance, are more energy-efficient than any other bulb, and they don't pose the mercury problem that CFL (compact fluorescent light) bulbs do. As our CFL lights die out in our recessed ceiling fixtures, we're going to switch in LED bulbs there as well. (You can safely dispose of your CFL bulbs at big box stores like Home Depot and Lowe's. Don't just throw them out in the trash, due to the mercury hazard.)
- We kept the flooring. While we might have preferred wood flooring, the existing tiles were in excellent shape, a classic style, and still compatible with our new color scheme.
- We didn't change the footprint of the kitchen, so no new construction was necessary.
- We kept the dining table, chairs, counter stools, window treatments, and pendant light for the table, as we had changed to all of these options when we first moved in six years ago, and had given the previous owners' pendant light and window treatments to our painters.
- For the cabinets, we chose wood that was certified as responsibly forested.
- We chose quartz countertops over granite. Mark, the owner at Stone Surfaces in East Rutherford, NJ, reinforced for us the many environmental advantages of quartz countertops that we had already read about: (1) Quartz rates higher on the hardness scale, so it's more durable. (2) Unlike granite, quartz does not require any regular maintenance or sealing. (3) It's non-porous, so it resists staining as well as pathogens. (4) It has no invisible cracks just waiting to split open. (5) Unlike granite, quartz is not quarried directly from the ground. Quarrying is, generally, not an environmentally friendly operation. (6) Quartz was less expensive than granite and looked very attractive. (Unfortunately, we could not say the same about the recycled glass countertop samples that we saw--it was just as expensive as granite and didn't fit our aesthetic.) Concrete is another earth-friendly option, and amazing things can be done with it now. (For example, some concrete countertops were designed to look exactly like wood--they fooled us, as well as our kitchen designer.) However, depending on what you choose, the cost can run high. Quartz won out for price, looks, and eco-friendliness.
So, in the end, we weren't able to do a 100% green kitchen renovation. But we tried our best, given our budget constraints and the resources available to us, and we're thrilled with the results. The heart of our home is now healthy and happy.
Our kitchen renovation was handled by Sage Design Studio (www.sageds.com) in Chester, NJ, and their whole crew was exceedingly professional and pleasant, from the designer (Tom Kehoe), to the contractor (Pete Aiello), to the electrician (Anthony Pantiliano of Jade Electric). Best of all: the entire project was completed in just a little over two weeks. Now that's cooking!
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