Kitchen & Bath: Turning the Kitchen and Bath Green
In steadily increasing numbers, consumers are seeking out
renewable materials for their new homes and improvement
projects. Not coincidentally, environmentally oriented building
material suppliers are more than holding their own. According
to the CEO of one ecology-minded building materials supplier in
the Northwest, business is growing spectacularly and despite
being defined more or less on the fly.
After visiting Seattle's Environmental Home Center and noting
a predominant selection of kitchen- and bath-oriented
materials, I decided to catalog some of the products that are
apparently selling so well there and elsewhere.
Bamboo lumber is harvested from an inexhaustible supply and
looks like a real comer, emerging in OSB, engineered LBL
(laminated bamboo lumber), particleboard, and various laminated
flooring and sheet goods. The latter two are well adapted to
Bamboo surpasses other common hardwoods like oak and maple in
hardness and can be worked, glued, and finished much like any
solid wood or plywood, with a few cautions. Naturally occurring
sugars in the bamboo darken, or caramelize, when heated;
friction from router bits, shapers, and saw blades can discolor
the material. Some experimentation with feed rates, blade
types, and cutter shapes may be necessary to avoid unwanted
effects. To prevent splitting, be sure to predrill for all
Bamboo can be stained and finished with water-based and
oil-based finishes, although it's always best to test results
on a scrap before committing.
Applications: Flooring, countertops, edging, hardwood
Natural cork is sustainably harvested from the bark of the
cork oak tree, Quercus suber, in Portugal, Spain, and other
Mediterranean countries. The cork oak is not harmed by
harvesting, which may be done every 9 years of the trees'
100-year life expectancy. Harvesters strip the thick bark in
long, wide slabs and stamp out wine corks first. The cork scrap
is then ground and fused together under high heat and pressure
into slabs that can be cut into floor tiles.
Surprisingly vivid colors are available in the cork line,
permitting geometric patterns and creative inlaid designs.
Tiles are usually purchased prefinished with either matte
polyurethane or the traditional finish for cork floors, natural
Solid cork tile creates a completely natural flooring that's
"warm" to the touch and resilient underfoot. Because cork
consists of millions of tiny closed cells filled with air, it
doesn't absorb moisture, making it suitable even for bathroom
applications. But for bathroom installations, it's best to
order unfinished tiles and apply the finish on site, since a
site-applied finish will help seal the seams.
Applications: Flooring, countertops, decorative
If there's beauty in simplicity, the Niagara Flapperless
(Niagara Conservation, 800/831-8383,
is one beautiful toilet. The Niagara has no chain, lever, or
flapper to empty the tank into the bowl. Instead, a
conventional lever flush flips a water tub inside the tank,
dumping its 1.6-gallon contents into the bowl in a sudden surge
said to be more powerful than a 3.5-gallon flush. There are no
submerged parts to corrode or wear out, no leaking flapper
valve, a guaranteed 1.6-gallon flush every time, and, because
the tub is suspended inside the ordinary-looking ceramic tank,
there's no tank sweat. All this ingenuity can be had cheap,
too; the round-bowl model costs $165 and the elongated model,
$180, including shipping.
Applications: Every bathroom in the country
"Sintered" glass tile requires far less energy to produce than
standard glass, which must be melted to a fully liquid state.
Recycled glass is crushed to a sandlike texture, then heated
only until the glass particles soften and fuse together. The
addition of various metallic oxides to the mixture produces
brilliantly colored tiles, impervious to water and suitable for
wall and countertop applications. Not all glass tile is
sintered, nor is all recycled glass tile transparent.
Opaque Terra Classic (Terra Green, 765/935-4760,
www.terragreenceramics.com) ceramic tile
(above) contains 55% recycled glass and is available in 16
"jewel-tone" colors. Transparent glass tile must be installed
with its transparency in mind. High-polymer white thinset
adhesive bonds firmly and shows the glass colors to best
Applications: Walls, countertops, accent strips
Clear Natural Finish
Polyx-Oil (Osmo Holz und Color GmbH & Co.,
www.osmo.de) is a clear,
satin-matte floor finish created from natural vegetable oils
and waxes, made for wood and cork floors. It's also used on
wood trim, cabinets, and unglazed terra cotta tile. Polyx-Oil
is said to be as durable as polyurethane but far easier to fix
when scratched or worn.
Two thin coats is the standard, recommended application, with
no need to sand between coats, as the finish won't raise the
wood grain. Coverage is said to be about 200 square feet per
liter at a material cost of about $30.
Applications: Floors, cabinets, trim, woodwork
The ingredients in Safecoat Cabinet & Trim Enamel
(American Formulating & Manufacturing, 619/239-0321,
www.afmsafecoat.com) link through chemical
bonding, unlike most water-based latex paints. This tight,
chemical "weave" over the surface allegedly makes Safecoat a
good choice for sealing materials like particleboard, which
might otherwise "off-gas" into the room and pollute the air.
Chemical linking also creates a durable and water-resistant
surface, ideal for frequent cleaning.
This paint has a low VOC content, is said to produce almost no
odor during application, and is odor free once cured. A high
solids content promises good coverage and a durable,
New wallboard or drywall should first be coated with Safecoat
New Wallboard Primecoat HPV. Safecoat Enamel dries to the touch
in about an hour, with a recommended wait of four hours between
coats. Tools and equipment clean up with water. At an average
$35 per gallon, Safecoat's price is comparable to that of other
top-quality paints. A gallon is said to cover up to 350 square
Applications: Cabinets, trim, woodwork
Vinyl flooring, with its vast selection of prints, patterns,
and price points, overtook linoleum in the 1960s and early
1970s. The last domestic linoleum factory closed in 1975;
today, the remaining producers -- all three of them -- are in
Linoleum is still made much as it was when invented 150 years
ago, from linseed oil, pigments, pine rosin, and cork and pine
flours. The mix is heated and rolled into sheets on a fabric
backing, then hung to cure.
Accidental burns can be rubbed away with a nylon pad or steel
wool -- its solid composition goes all the way through to the
natural jute backing material, enabling it to endure
decades-long use. Long service life reduces waste and the need
to produce replacement flooring. And unlike vinyl flooring,
linoleum is completely biodegradable.
A wide range of color options helps account for the resurgence
of interest in linoleum. It comes at a semipremium price
compared to vinyl, around $4 per square foot.
Synthetic latex adhesive, such as Roberts 2072 Premium
Linoleum Adhesive (Roberts Consolidated Industries,
800/423-6545, www.robertsconsolidated.com), is almost
equally benign, with a zero VOC content; wet adhesive can be
cleaned with warm, soapy water. Note: As with any product you
provide or install, "green" or otherwise, avoid making
specific, health-related promises, verbal or written, to
allergically sensitive or other clients.
Applications: Flooring, countertops
Careful breeding produces more than champion racehorses; a
fast-growing natural hybrid of Eucalyptus grandis and E.
urophylla is now successfully plantation grown and harvested in
commercially viable quantities from a fully sustainable and
The resulting tropical hardwood lumber is called Lyptus
(Weyerhaeuser, 800/ 525-5440,
www.weyerhaeuser.com) and is said to
compare favorably with oak and beech while resembling cherry
and mahogany in its color and fine grain (above). Custom
www.customcupboards.com) currently offers a
line of cabinets featuring Lyptus.
Neil Kelly (503/288-6345,
www.neilkellycabinets.com) has developed a
popular Naturals Collection, a line of cabinets with facings
made from lumber certified by the FSC (Forest Stewardship
Council) and recycled and reclaimed woods (above). The
frameless cabinets can be ordered in melamine-coated wheatboard
particleboard, a panel material made from post-harvest wheat
Applications: Kitchens, bathrooms
Recycled Rubber Flooring
Sure, old radial tires look great weighting down a flat
membrane roof. Unfortunately, there just aren't enough flat
roofs around to match the supply. Durable surfacing made from
old tires (minus the reinforcing scrim) is as strong and
resilient as the original tire rubber.
Slip-resistant recycled rubber flooring can withstand
temperature extremes and is recommended for indoor and outdoor
use. Its low-VOC emissions meet U.S. indoor air quality
specifications and guidelines. Pigments provide a rainbow of
color choices. Prices vary by style, thickness, and
Richlite (Rainier Richlite, 888/383-5533,
www.richlite.com) is a low-pressure
phenolic, made of paper infused with phenolic plastic. Much of
this completely homogenous, solid-surface-like product is
derived from renewable, managed forests. A decorative edge can
be routed into low-pressure phenolic, and inlays, undermount
sinks, and grooved drain boards are all equally feasible. The
heat-resistant material can be purchased in thicknesses of up
to 3 inches.
Richlite offers the twin advantages of durability and hygiene.
Not hard enough to dull knives, it also isn't nicked by them.
Thus, it contains no crevices that can harbor bacteria.
Richlite is worked similarly to wood, and, like wood, the
material is often described as smooth and warm to the touch,
not plastic or cold and stony feeling.
Although it can't be seamed invisibly, careful machining and
gluing with epoxy produces an inconspicuous joint. Richlite is
currently available in six muted and mottled earth-tone colors
-- the black resembles natural slate in appearance.
Richlite is said to be priced between decorative laminate and
conventional solid surface, at suggested retail prices of $24
per square foot for 1-inch-thick material, and $30 per square
foot for 1 1/4-inch.
Applications: Countertops, worktops, raised panels,
Wheatboard is said to be a lighter-weight, more
moisture-resistant product than its wood-based counterpart,
while exceeding industry standards for the highest-grade
particleboard. Primeboard (701/642-1152,
www.primeboard.com) currently produces its
panels from wheat chaff bonded with methyl-diphenyl-isocyanate
(MDI), a synthetic polymer resin, which accounts for 3.5% of
the panel's weight.
MDI contains no formaldehyde and emits no harmful fumes. The
MDI resin is not water soluble and is resistant to water
Applications: Cabinet panels, shelving, countertop