Green Cabinets Guide
As a rule, it’s best to select the least toxic materials, which is not always as simple as it appears. In attempting to build in a truly green fashion, there will be trade-offs. At times, a more toxic material may be a better performer and less expensive. In general, the risk to occupants from a toxic building product or building assembly – whether synthetic or natural – is lower if the agent is not inhaled or touched.
Much of the standard cabinetry on the market today contains particleboard made with urea formaldehyde binder that emits formaldehyde and other harmful chemicals. Worse than new carpeting. most adhesives and binders for wood products contain high levels of formaldehyde than can off-gas for years.
To make the most of alternative materials and understanding the trade-offs of your decisions, we recommend following these steps:
- Ask the Right Questions
- Formulate a Design Plan
- Understand Indoor Air Quality & Resource Conservation
- Review our Green Cabinet Materials and Checklist
Step 1: Ask the Right Questions
Before making any decisions, we recommend you ask yourself the following questions:
- What will be stored in these cabinets?
- Are there oversized items that need to be accommodated?
- How deep, wide and tall should the cabinets be?
- Do you want to store any items on open shelving?
- Do any of the cabinets require special lighting?
- Which cabinets should be accessible to children?
- Which cabinets should be child-proof?
- Should cabinets accommodate shorter people?
- Are there people with disabilities?
Layout of Existing Cabinetry
- Are cabinets conveniently located to important activities (dishwashing, cooking etc.)?
- Do cabinets open awkwardly into walkways?
- Is there enough storage where it’s needed?
- Is there enough counter space where it’s needed?
Aesthetics of Existing Cabinetry
- If existing cabinets are not aesthetically appealing to you, why not?
- Could you change the cabinet hardware or refinish the surface to achieve your desired aesthetic?
- Could the existing cabinets be useful in a different room?
Look and Feel of New Cabinets
- Do the cabinets need to match a particular aesthetic?
- What “feel” do you want in the room? How can cabinets add to that “feel?”
Planning for the Future
- What changes in family structure/occupancy do you anticipate?
- Does your cabinet design accommodate different users?
Step 2: Formulate a Design Plan
Using your answers to the questions above, you should draft a few informal paragraphs to sum up what you want from your new cabinets. It may seem silly, but the act of writing down what you want can make all the difference in the world.
Your short write-up also makes a great gift for your designer, contractor, cabinet-maker or other professional. S/he will appreciate you being clear about what you want.
Step 3: Understanding Indoor Air Quality & Resource Conservation
Green building is a tripod of three interrelated goals:
- Energy Efficiency
- Conservation of Natural Resources
- Indoor Air Quality
When you are remodeling or replacing cabinets, two legs of the tripod are particularly important: Indoor Air Quality and Resource Conservation.
Indoor Air Quality
Cabinets typically are made with a particleboard underlayment. The particleboard contains glue that uses Urea Formaldehyde. At room temperature, urea formaldehyde easily converts from a solid (glue) to a gas (formaldehyde fumes). It’s this property that makes urea formaldehyde a Volatile Organic Compound, or VOC.
During both new home construction and remodels, countless products are introduced to the home at one time. Particleboard is used as an underlayment not only in cabinets, but also in countertops and some furniture. Adhesives, wood finishes, paints and carpeting contribute to the chemical build-up.
Some products may off-gas for months or years after people have moved in to the house. Some people might not notice any symptoms from repeated exposure to the chemical fumes. Other people, however, could become quite ill.
Health Consequences of Chemical Exposure
Chemical exposure can trigger both acute and chronic conditions, from headache, nausea, and eye irritations to liver damage and cancer. Thus far, scientific studies have focused on exposure to a single chemical; we know less about the effects of exposure to multiple chemicals over a long period of time.
Building a new home or remodeling an existing home inevitably means resource consumption. We can, however, do everything in our power to minimize the impact of our construction by making smart choices about the materials we use.
The fundamental issues in conserving resources with cabinets are:
- Sustainable Sourcing
Reuse Your Cabinets – If you are remodeling, your old cabinets may be useful somewhere else in the house. Many people find, for instance, that they can use old kitchen cabinets for additional storage in the garage, a workshop or in the utility room.
Refinish Your Existing Cabinets – Maybe you can paint or sand and refinish your cabinets to give them a whole new look. You might also try shopping around for new drawer pulls and handles. Replacing your old hardware with new high-end hardware is still much less expensive than all new cabinets.
Donate Your Old Cabinets – If you have explored all the possibilities and you are sure you do not need your old cabinets in your own home, be sure to find your local building supplies donation center. Habitat for Humanity is a good place to start.
Think about the materials used to construct your cabinets and keep in mind some basic questions:
- How long will your new cabinets last?
- Are the materials durable?
- Have your cabinets been designed to accommodate changes to your household?
- Will the next owners of your house feel like they need to install new cabinets?
- What will happen to these cabinets at the end of their lifetime? Are they recyclable?
To conserve resources, select cabinetry that is derived from a sustainable source. Options include:
Salvaged Cabinetry or Salvaged Wood
You can create a unique aesthetic by using salvaged cabinetry or salvaged wood. Many people enjoy the adventure of seeking out these one-of-a-kind materials. It gives people a chance to express their art-loving and treasure-hunting natures.
Some salvaged materials are cheap; trendier items might be expensive. There can be unique challenges to installing reclaimed materials so check talk with your building professional about labor costs.
Step 4: Green Cabinets Materials & Checklist
As interest in green products grow, manufacturers are responding with cabinet lines designed to satisfy consumer demands for a healthier indoor environment. Taking advantage of what’s available starts with knowing what to look for.
Wheat Straw Panels
Instead of particleboard, you can use panels made from compressed wheat straw. The glue used in this product is a non-toxic MDI resin. In addition to being healthier than particleboard, these panels conserve wood by instead using an agricultural waste product (wheat straw.)
Particleboard Without Urea Formaldehyde
Medite™ is a product that uses 100% recycled wood fiber and a formaldehyde-free resin.
SkyBlend® is a general use particleboard that uses phenol-formaldehyde rather than urea-formaldehyde. Phenol-formaldehyde is much less toxic than urea-formaldehyde.
Real Wood Veneer
Cabinet faces are often solid wood, but consider choosing a wood veneer instead. The veneer is still real wood, but is much thinner and thus utilizes only a fraction of the wood in solid cabinet facing. With veneers, your cabinets look the same but create a much smaller ecological footprint.
FSC stands for Forest Stewardship Council. This trusted non-profit certifies wood that has been sustainably harvested. The Council’s standards are rigorous and respected. Wood that is not FSC-certified may be derived from old growth forests or tree farms that are not sustainably managed.
Rapidly Renewable Materials
Bamboo is a grass that grows much more quickly than trees so it makes a popular green cabinetry choice. Before settling on a bamboo cabinet product, though, ask the manufacturer about what resins are used. Just as with particleboard, you should avoid toxic glues that may off-gas.
Green Cabinets Checklist
Choose a cabinet underlayment that does not contain urea-formaldehyde. Options include:
- Panels made of compressed wheat straw
- Formaldehyde-free wood fiber panels
- Wood fiber panels that use phenol- rather than urea-formaldehyde
- Consider simply refinishing your cabinets rather than replacing them
- Consider using your old cabinets in a different room
- If you don’t want your old cabinets, find a place to donate them
Choose durable and versatile materials. Think about:
- How long will your new cabinets last?
- Will they suit your household’s changing needs?
- Are they versatile enough to be liked by future owners of your home?
- Will the cabinets be recyclable at the end of their lifetime?
Choose a cabinet face material that is sustainably sourced. Consider using:
- Salvaged wood
- Wood Veneer
- FSC Certified Lumber
- Rapidly renewable materials
Deciding When Solar Hot Water Makes Sense
Solar hot-water collectors are common in net zero designs but not exactly a given. If the electrical output of other renewable energy systems (wind or PV) is sufficient, it probably makes more sense to heat water that way. This avoids the initial cost of solar collectors, including maintenance or repairs to the system, which can be considerable.
When to Add More PV or Invest in Solar Hot Water
This can be a vexing question. What pays the best dividends may not always be obvious, especially if the unpredictable habits of the whoever is living in the house can throw the best calculation right out the window. Consider this case, Habitat for Humanity house in Lenoir City, Tennessee built under the guidance of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Designers used computer modeling to look at solar hot-water options options and chose a system with 96 sq ft of collectors on the roof and a 200-gal. storage tank.
But the family of four used 20 gal. a day of hot water when 63 gal. had been predicted. This disparity was big enough for designers to wonder whether the $7,000 collector, plus the $1,300 tankless backup heater, was the best choice. It turns out that increasing the size of the PV system slightly and using and electric hot-water heater would have cost about $5,100 compared with the $9,300 total for the solar system that had been installed. Oak Ridge concluded that conventional wisdom may not be true in all cases and additional investigation into the comparison of solar water heating and PV investments may be needed.
Toward a Zero Energy Home
You can learn more about solar hot-water systems in Toward A Zero Energy Home