Greening the Hub

By Jessica Dupuy
Photography by Valarie Campbell

For some, an environmentally conscious kitchen might resemble a luxury version of a centerfold spread from Dwell magazine—replete with every eco-friendly amenity imaginable, from the latest green building materials to built-in compost bins to solar-powered energy systems. For others, the vision might focus more on practicality and functionality, and include smart decisions about chemical usage, paint materials and energy-efficient appliances.

Wherever your idea of the eco-kitchen falls on the spectrum, if you’re in the market to build or rebuild the hub of your home to make it greener, there are a number of ways to make responsible decisions and still end up with a sleek, tailor-made design—even on a budget. 

Compared to other rooms of the house, the kitchen demands more thought when considering sustainability and environmental impact; appliances, water usage, lighting, energy for cooking and space maximization all come into play. With new construction, homeowners have the benefit of selecting everything from start to finish, which means knowing exactly where materials come from and where they end up (ideally avoiding the landfill).

For East Austin couple Teri Sperry and Matt Hollon, the goals in building their new home were to minimize land use and maximize space within the house. While they had certain objectives for each room, the kitchen required special attention.

“We’ve always had an environmental ethic and we’re always trying to do better, even if we’re not always perfect,” says Sperry. “We try to do what works for us as a family, but it’s so easy now to use sustainable materials and design in Austin. It was just a no-brainer.”

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The family enlisted the help of longtime Austin builder Bill Moore and his former partner Mary McLeod. For Moore, the challenge was a welcome and familiar one. Having an extensive background in both remodeling and new construction, as well as being featured in a three-part series on using green methods to renovate a Hyde Park home on PBS’s This Old House, Moore was confident he could meet the couple’s design and construction goals.

“Austin has always been a trendsetter,” Moore says. “There were all these little additional things we used to do for green building years ago, but the city has added all of them to the basic building requirements. It keeps raising the bar on what is expected for standard building, which is really great.”

In 1991, Austin was one of the first communities in the country to develop a green-building program to measure the sustainability of homes based on a star-rating system—five stars being the top prize. The rating system is applied to everything that uses energy in the home, from the HVAC system to lighting to water heating. It also takes into account the level of water conservation and preventative runoff measures, air quality and whether the space has used construction materials efficiently. In addition, Austin has recycling facilities that specialize in breaking down construction and demolition materials and dividing them into metal, Sheetrock, timber and wiring to be reused.

These were key factors for Sperry and Hollon. The couple selected cabinet framing made from recycled medium-density fiberboard (MDF), a Marmoleum tile floor made from linseed, cork and jute, no-VOC (volatile organic compound) paint, Wilsonart laminate countertops from a local manufacturer and, of course, certified energy-efficient appliances. In addition to this, Sperry really wanted a large window above the sink to overlook her garden. To minimize sun-generated heat, Moore not only used double-paned, energy-efficient windows, but added an extended roofline over the patio for additional shade. A storage shed was also added against the exterior of a bare west wall to shield it from the heat of the sun. These choices earned Sperry and Hollon the coveted five-star certification for their new home.

Beyond their kitchen decisions, the couple made a few other sustainable home selections, including rooftop solar paneling for energy and water heating, three rainwater cisterns for their garden irrigation and hardwood floors from a local mill. During construction, Moore also ensured that all construction debris and scraps including drywall, untreated framing wood and metal were recycled, with much of the material going into Sperry and Hollon’s backyard in a three-layer ground system for better soil irrigation and composting.

Starting from scratch is a good path to an eco-friendly kitchen, but remodeling also offers a number of options. Instead of scrapping the whole thing and starting over with brand-new materials, though, consider saving or reusing as much of the existing kitchen as possible.

“You could go 110 percent green with all new green materials and appliances, but you have to ask where all of your original construction is going,” says architect Cindy Black, who specializes in kitchen design through her company, Hello Kitchen. “It makes no sense to throw everything away and then say you’ve created a sustainable kitchen.”

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Black recently helped Anna and Michael Truchard address this issue with their West Austin home. Built by Austin architect Paul Lamb in the mid-90s, the Truchards’ home was already a good candidate for an eco-minded kitchen redo: perched atop a hillside overlooking Lake Austin, the house is situated in an energy-saving, south-facing direction with extra-long eaves for added shade. The problem for the Truchards was a closed-in kitchen that was cramped for space and walled off from guests when entertaining.

“There was a lot about the kitchen that already worked for us,” says Michael Truchard. “But the pantry was a big, tall island in the center of the room. Our goal was to do as little as possible to the house to keep down waste, while still opening the kitchen up.”

The layout of the kitchen included a contemporary European aesthetic with ample storage and simple lines—qualities the Truchards wanted to conserve. They agreed to keep the existing cabinetry and layout along the main walls of the kitchen, thus saving on waste. Instead of a large center pantry, the kitchen would now have a great island with small kitchen appliances stowed below counter level for easy access. The outer end of the island would include an open pocket for stool seating.

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Once this primary feature was addressed, the Truchards were able to make a few more minor adjustments. They brightened the kitchen with a fresh coat of no-VOC paint, refinished their wood floors with a low-VOC sealant and invested in a few new energy-efficient appliances (they donated their older, working kitchen appliances to a Habitat for Humanity ReStore). The kitchen counters were originally an older laminate material, which was difficult to keep clean. Black suggested a quartz-based countertop from Caesarstone that would resist stains and require little maintenance. In the end, the Truchards were able to build in a more eco-minded space without being wasteful with their existing construction—a good idea to keep in mind when renovating your own home.

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