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Green movement
Eco-friendly products make their way into kitchen design



Think that "green design" is as drab as a rice cake? Guess again. Some of the hottest-looking kitchen products around are made of renewable resources. Consumers now can choose richly textured bamboo floors, exotic-looking paper countertops and shiny backsplashes made of recycled glass. That’s a great combination for those who want their "dream kitchen" and want to be gentle on the environment, too.

Even in the tradition-minded Midwest, the environmental movement is starting to take hold. "A year ago, nobody was asking about (environmentally friendly) kitchen products," says Molly Madsen of AB&K in Mequon and Greenfield. "But that sure has changed." She says her customers are more aware of how products affect the environment. About 60 percent of her firm’s business involves kitchen design.

When you think about it, the kitchen is a perfect place to promote environmentally friendly practices. The many appliances a kitchen contains — refrigerator, stove, microwave, dishwasher etc. — consume a lot of energy. And a lot of water is used in food preparation and cleanup chores. Not to mention that the size of kitchens continues to grow, as people continue to gather in kitchens for entertaining and socializing.

Some might argue that natural materials already used in kitchens — such as tile, stone and wood — qualify as being environmentally friendly. This JFK Builders home was featured on the 2006 Metropolitan Builders Association Parade of Homes.

The trend toward environmentally friendly kitchens can be traced to a wide variety of sources. Some experts point to global design trends. Kerrie Lukasavitz of Colleen Horner in Milwaukee’s Third Ward and Pewaukee notes that kitchen trends surfacing in Europe and Asia incorporate products made from renewable resources. In the United States, she sees such trends in California (where strict building and water codes are enforced) and the East Coast (where people are more concerned with restoring historic homes).

The "Hollywood factor" is a big part of this renewable resource movement, according to Susan Hirschberg of Wisconsin Kitchen Mart in Milwaukee. "When you have people such as former Vice President Al Gore and actor Leonardo DiCaprio talking about saving the environment, people start paying attention." She predicts this trend will continue to grow in popularity, especially as natural materials dwindle and therefore become more expensive to use.

Milwaukee-area designers see two distinct types of people who are looking to turn their kitchens "green." One type makes such decisions as a lifestyle choice. This type may also be concerned about chemicals used to produce more conventional products. Madsen notes that people are asking about a manufacturer’s production techniques, and what chemicals are used to create their products. "People understand that new materials may emit gases once they’re installed," she says. "And it’s not just people with asthma or allergies who are concerned about this." They want to promote a healthy, safe environment.

The other type is drawn to the distinctive characteristics of these materials. "If it looks ‘hip,’ they are excited about it," Madsen says. "The fact that these products are environmentally friendly is seen as a bonus."

However, such materials won’t appeal to bargain hunters. In general, they are priced about the same as other items available in the marketplace. Despite the fact that many of these products incorporate "used" materials, it takes a lot of effort to make them beautiful and durable enough for daily use — especially in a kitchen. "We confine our products to those that will stand the test of time," Hirschberg says. "We don’t want unhappy customers coming to us later with their problems." Instead, she thoroughly explains the properties of each material before using it in the design. If you’re not using a professional designer, it’s important to learn the pros and cons of using these materials. Like granite and other natural products, eco-friendly materials may need occasional maintenance.

Some might argue that natural materials already used in kitchens — such as tile, stone and wood — qualify as being environmentally friendly. To an extent, this is true. However, when you think of how quickly a bamboo tree grows when compared to an oak tree, such arguments become debatable.

There are many options between these two extremes, however. Hirschberg points to the popular lyptus tree, which grows in South America. Although it’s a hardwood, it grows much more quickly than similar trees. It can be left in its natural state (which looks similar to cherry), or stained to mimic other woods. Hirschberg’s in-store display of an environmentally friendly kitchen uses lyptus for its cabinets. The shiny, dark cabinets reflect an espresso-colored stain topped with a black glaze.

If homeowners are wondering about whether a wood qualifies as "green," check for a marking by the Forest Stewardship Council. It will tell you if the wood is certified, salvaged or reclaimed from a sustainable managed forest.

As natural resources become scarce, it’s inevitable that environmentally friendly products will continue to grow in popularity. Simultaneously, the variety of products available will continue to grow to meet consumer demand. As innovators come out with new and improved products, many of them may end up in "dream" kitchens throughout the Milwaukee area.

The ‘e’ list

Many familiar products are finding new uses in kitchen design. Here are a few ways to incorporate an environmentally friendly feel to your existing kitchen:

Bamboo — Although often used as a wood substitute, bamboo is actually a fast-growing grass. In fact, bamboo can grow up to 2 feet per day and can be harvested every four years. Compare that to an oak tree, which takes 120 years to mature. Bamboo is known for its strength and durability. In the kitchen, bamboo is used for flooring, countertops, cabinets and furniture.

Cork — This renewable resource is actually nothing new; in fact, it was used by famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright as flooring material in some of his residences. Cork is popular for its softness and resiliency. It has tiny air pockets that make it easier on your legs and back, especially in a kitchen where you’re on your feet most of the time. It also absorbs sound. Cork is harvested from tree bark in a way that does not damage the tree. Cork flooring is popular in kitchens if it’s properly waterproofed.

Recycled glass — Although glass has been recycled for years, it’s finding new uses in products that add sparkle and color to a kitchen. Recycled glass tiles can be used for countertops or backsplashes in the same way that ceramic tile is used. The benefit of using recycled glass is that less of it ends up in landfills.

Recycled paper — A recent addition to the kitchen design marketplace, specially treated paper can be used in a number of ways. When combined with resin, paper countertops can withstand heat, stains and dents. Years of testing and research produced a wide array of colors and styles. A substance known as "Paper Stone" uses 100 percent post-consumer paper and nonpetroleum based resins.