Wayne Turett is an architect who built his own beautiful home to the Passivhaus standard, with what is described as a sustainable, healthy, energy-efficient, and beautiful kitchen. We received his “11 Tips for Creating a Sustainable Kitchen” over the transom and, given the many posts we have written on the subject and given the fabulous photos, I thought it would be interesting to share and discuss these.
What Is Passivhaus?
Passive House or Passivhaus is a building concept where heat loss or gain through the walls, roof, and windows is drastically reduced by the use of insulation, high-quality windows, and careful sealing. It’s called “passive” because much of the heating required is met through “passive” sources such as solar radiation or the heat emitted by occupants and technical appliances.
We start off with an odd pitch for Passivhaus, with the statement that “the way to design a more environmentally-friendly kitchen is to take as many steps as possible towards Passive House standards.” We are always fans of this, although the kitchen, with its power consumption and ventilation, are among the most problematic elements of Passivhaus design.
And I don’t agree with the statement: “But you don’t have to go full-on Passive – small steps, a desire for change, and a positive mindset can all contribute to a more sustainable world.” Nope, thoughts and prayers are not enough.
Buy Local; Consider Longevity and Repurposing
“Perhaps the important factor to consider here is the quality of your materials. In order to make the most sustainable choice, you want to choose long-lasting materials that will stay in your home and out of landfills.”
Turett has certainly picked the best with Valcucine; they can last for generations. Not exactly local though—they are made in Italy. There is a really interesting detail in this one. Notice the shelving running in front of the window: The upper cabinets are not on top of the kitchen counter but behind them, with the counter pushed out a foot from the wall.
Mind the Glue
“For cabinets, a great material option is a wood-based substrate called MDF. However, MDFs are often accompanied by formaldehyde glue, so you’ll want to make sure it is a formaldehyde-free MDF.”
Absolutely. Cabinets are often made of medium density fiberboard (MDF) which is basically sawdust and glue and can outgas a serious amount of formaldehyde. But there are now lots of low- and zero-emission MDFs that are NAF (no added formaldehyde).
Do Your Homework on ENERGY STAR® Appliances and Lighting
“When it comes to appliances, most will fit within the ENERGY STAR® category of saving electricity. But if you want to substantially reduce your energy consumption (and really save on the power bill), you will need to research how much each appliance costs to run versus its competitors.”
Energy Star is fine as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far. For example, a refrigerator only has to be 15% better than the minimum federal efficiency standard. I would add that you have to look at the size—the bigger the fridge, the more embodied carbon emitted and operating energy consumed. I used to say small fridges make good cities but the pandemic changed all that. Bigger fridges are convenient when you want to take fewer shopping trips.
Reduce Food Waste by Selecting a Fridge with Blue-Light Technology
“Invest in a refrigerator with food-preserving technology, like the Beko HarvestFreshTM, which uses blue-light to trick fruits and vegetables into thinking they are still in natural light, keeping produce fresh for up to 30 days.”
Whoa, what’s this? Wasn’t it proven that blue LEDs actually shorten the life of food and make milk go bad, way back when LED lighting replaced fluorescent in refrigerated grocery cases? In fact, the Beko Harvest Fresh technology is not blue light. It is circadian light that starts blue, goes green in midday, and then red at sunset, “breathing life into your veg throughout the day.”
I thought this was totally bizarre pseudoscience. Are dead fruits and vegetables in a bin actually affected by the changing color of light? Yes! Digging into the back of the fridge, I found research to back it up: “Light/dark cycles during postharvest storage improved several aspects of plant tissue performance comparable to that provided by refrigeration. Tissue integrity, green coloration, and chlorophyll content were generally enhanced by cycling of light and darkness compared to constant light or darkness during storage.” It’s real science.
Goodbye Gas, Hello Induction Cooking
“Cooking with gas has long been touted as the method of choice by professional chefs, but it also produces carbon-rich fossil fuels which pollute the air. According to the World Health Organization and a recent Stanford Study, this can have significantly harmful health implications.”
My first thought was that no, it doesn’t produce carbon-rich fossil fuels, but the Stanford study did note gas stoves leak a lot of methane. The big problem is it produces products of combustion like carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and particulates. And as Turret notes, induction is faster and more efficient.
Install a Hood for Good (and Use it!)
“If you are unable to replace your gas stove or insist on keeping it, the second-most important step is to install a very good cooking hood to improve ventilation and extract polluted air.”
Actually, you need a good hood whether you are cooking with gas or induction. The cooking itself produces what engineer Robert Bean called “a soufflé of carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehydes, volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, fine and ultra fine particles and other pollutants associated with meal preparation.” I have called the kitchen exhaust the most screwed up, badly designed, inappropriately used appliance in your home and said you should not believe they should be on kitchen islands—they are far less effective there, especially when the bottom of it is so high above the counter.
Kitchen exhausts are a particular issue in Passivhaus designs, where the buildings are almost airtight. See how the Passive House Institute’s look at kitchen fans is less than exhaustive.
Forget Washing by Hand, You’ll Save More Water With the Dishwasher
“You have Turett’s permission to opt for dishwasher use as much as possible! Dishwashers actually conserve more water than washing by hand.”
You will also save the energy it took to heat all the hot water. It should be noted that none of these calculations ever take the upfront carbon emitted while making the dishwasher into account, although the one study I could find shows it to be a relatively small proportion of its full lifecycle energy use.
Don’t Take Your Countertops for Granite
“With one-third of homeowners splurging on this area of the kitchen in 2021, it’s clear that homeowners are prioritizing countertops in their renovations. Quartz and granite are the most popular countertop materials and are reasonably sustainable options as they are long-lasting and fairly easy to mine.”
Quartz countertops are not mined, they are made up of ground-up quartz in resin, and I would argue that granite is not sustainable, and rarely local. But Turret wins my heart with his choice: “Not always thought of as a sought-after material, durable, easy to clean and reliable plastic laminate countertops like the one used in Turett own Passive House from Abet Laminati can be both a cost-saving and an environmentally-friendly option.”
Whenever I have said that plastic laminate was the best choice, readers have either laughed or yelled at me, but I stand by it. In my post, “Counter Intelligence: What’s the Right Choice for a Kitchen Counter?,” I concluded:
“People want granite and stone because they have been sold a bill of goods, paying more for a lousy counter because it’s all the fashion. They may look good, but they aren’t practical, they aren’t light and they certainly aren’t green. But laminate is the economical, minimalist, and I believe the green solution. And did I say it was cheap?”
Look for Versa-Tile Flooring and Consider a Woca Finish on Your Wood Floors
“In terms of flooring, Turett typically runs the same flooring material from the living room to the kitchen, because many of his clients prefer an open plan look to enlarge their space. However, if you prefer separate material for the kitchen flooring, tile is an incredible option, as porcelain is pretty much indestructible with great hygienic properties.”
Kitchen floors are hard, in both senses of the word. One reason I am not a fan of open kitchens is you do tend to run the same materials through the space, and I have never thought wood floors played well with water. I have never been fond of tile because it is really hard underfoot.
One interesting point that is not mentioned is that this is what used to be known as a “French Farmhouse Plan” where the kitchen and living spaces are upstairs and the cows were downstairs, to be replaced later by bedrooms. They are also known as upside-down or reverse plans.
This is actually a great idea. You can do wonderful things with the ceilings, and if there is anything to look at, you get a better view as Turett is demonstrating here. It makes sense structurally, as it is easier to do big spans with the roof. It is easier to ventilate: As Le Corbusier wrote in “Towards a New Architecture” in 1927, “If you can, put the kitchen at the top of the house to avoid smells.” The only downside is that you have to schlep all your groceries up a flight of stairs.
There are so many different takes on kitchen design. I still don’t much like the idea of open kitchens, especially in a Passivhaus where air quality is such a big deal. But my views about how kitchens are used have changed a lot through the pandemic. I used to believe the kitchen would disappear as the sewing room did, but my own daughter has both—people are doing more stuff at home.
So while I may not agree with everything here, there is a lot to learn from Turett’s kitchen.