I recently returned from the Greenbuild 2014 conference in New Orleans. This is an annual conference put on by the United States Green Building Committee (USGBC.) It is three days of intensive learning about a wide range of design and construction concepts that relate to creating a smarter and healthier built environment.
My favorite sessions this year had to do with Biophilia, which is the study of the positive effects of nature in our lives and ways to increase our exposure to nature in the built environment. The term and general concept has been around for many years, introduced by E. O. Wilson in his book by the same name. But it has only relatively recently been picked up by the design community.
This is a thrilling development for us at Stearns Design Build, as it is so similar to our own theory of design that we call Transitions. Transitions is built on the knowledge that connection to nature and natural rhythms creates happiness. We know, for example, that people who know what time the sun rises and sets, or what phase the moon is in, consistently report a higher level of happiness and contentment. So the question becomes: in the modern world of rather insular homes, how do we create these connections for people?
The most predominant feature on the modern American home is the cavernous garage, with doors that open mechanically, swallowing cars, saving drivers and passengers from interaction with neighbors that they do not know. The backyards of most homes are no less isolating. Surrounded by a tall privacy fence, maintaining protection form neighbors and natural surroundings. Most of the trees that the yard may have once had were taken down during construction and replaced with turf that requires weekly maintenance and large amounts of pesticides and herbicides.
At one time American homes had large front porches that provide a fresh air room with access to neighbors who were frequently out for a walk. Those porches have shrunk and, if they exist at all, are a façade feature too narrow to accommodate a chair.
Modern residential design creates homes that isolate us from both community and nature.
The Ancient Greek word for community was koinonia. But it was more often used as a verb rather than a noun. It also translated as share, participate jointly and intimacy. This is the word that got translated to “fellowship” in the New Testament of the Bible. For us, community has become a place or a group of people: a passive noun, not an active verb describing how we are in community.
The philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his book What Is Called Thinking, spoke about the separation of the self from nature in language and in thought. This separation is the source of modern angst. This angst belongs to us and to all of nature. When we do not view ourselves as a part of nature, it becomes easy to view nature only as expendable resource. Heidegger said, “Nature becomes a gigantic gasoline station, an energy source for modern technology and industry.” Angst manifest in nature as climate change, habitat destruction, smog and extinction.
Our Transitions theory of design seeks to assuage modern angst through the phenomenology of design. By placing us in the context of our surroundings, both natural and community, we can impact who we are and provide a sense of connection and transcendence in the world. This bold undertaking is the essence of humbling, as we must recognize that we are a part of, and not apart from, larger systems.
To the extent that we seek “green” or sustainable solutions, it is not enough to consider the resources that we use in building, we must consider our relationship to all resources. We must design homes that put us into relationship with life’s resources so that we can become aware of our part of a process of dynamic balance.
For years we confidently recommended tankless water heaters. This recommendation was backed up by quite a bit of well documented research that was easily understood from a theoretic perspective. Conventional water systems keep all of that water hot all of the time. New research shows that the truth is somewhat counterintuitive. This article does a nice job of explaining the problem with tankless water heaters.
Counter tops are the crown of the kitchen not only because they are one of the most pronounced design elements, but also because they are in constant use. In the 1950’s your choices for counter tops were laminate or tile. Now there are a myriad of additional countertop options.
Laminate and Tile
Though the old standbys are often maligned, they remain good choices. Laminate is the most cost effective counter top material. It is a hard, water resistant material that holds up well to wear. Used in combination with other materials it can even provide an interesting design element.
Tile is usually avoided because of the grout lines which can collect dirt and require maintenance. New epoxy grouts can eliminate most of this concern. And luckily your tile choice isn’t limited to the Pepto-Bismol colored hexagons of your grandmother’s kitchen. In the right setting, tile counter tops provide a great option.
Granite and Engineered Stone
The most common material these days for kitchen counters is granite. It is considered by many to be overdone and thus not a good design choice. But, not only is granite durable, it is also quite varied in its appearance. If you want distinctive granite, you are likely to pay a little (or maybe a lot) more for it. Granite has gotten a bad name because it requires some maintenance and because it can stain. But in our experience, the maintenance is light and infrequent. Granite sealers are best protected by not using acidic cleaners or setting hot pots directly on the counter. And, spills that do not sit for a long time are not likely to stain.
There are also artificial stones which include stone fragments in heavy duty resins. These materials are often more durable than natural stone and look and feel very similar. The most common of these is Silestone which is manufactured in Spain.
Solid Surfacing and Recycled Materials
About 45 years ago Corian began the evolution of our modern kitchen counter tops. This solid surface material now has many competitors such as Avonite, Gibraltar and Surrell. The reason that this material grew so fast in popularity is because it is durable and blemishes can be sanded out. It is also easy to work with. It is nonporous and easily cleaned.
Another relatively new material is paper that through a combination of pressure, temperature, and resins is made to be somewhat stone-like. This material is nonporous, scratch resistant, and easy to work with. This is a popular choice with those seeking to be eco-friendly.
Another popular choice among those seeking earth-kind-alternatives is a counter that includes recycled materials such as glass. These counters are heat and scratch resistant. They are also as durable as granite but do not require maintenance.
Butcher block counters can provide the warmth of wood and a practical working surface.
Some of the more trendy and often difficult to work with products available include, glass, concrete and stainless steel counter tops.
Often it is a good idea to utilize more than one countertop material. This can create pleasing contrast and also provide utilitarian workability. Often a work station with butcher block can be paired with stone (natural or artificial) to create hard and soft surfaces that provide a very organic feel.
Counters are used for many tasks including storing small appliances, chopping, and mixing. Make sure that you have the right counter top material, storage, lighting and working height for all who will be engaged in the kitchen. And be sure to explore unique features that will customize your counters! For example, my family and I like to garden. We have two round pans set into a butcher block counter in our kitchen that allow us to easily whisk peals and other cooking refuge off the counter as we chop and later take these to the compost.
Three types of Cabinets
In many parts of the country, this is the most common type of cabinet. It provides the widest spectrum of quality (from cheap cabinets that can be purchased at any home supply big box store to very high end cabinets with piano grade finishes). Manufactured cabinets have less flexibility when it comes to customization — If it is not in the catalog it is not available.
Site Built Cabinets
This is the most common type of cabinet from volume builders in our area. These cabinets are custom built on site. They take advantage of existing walls to provide the backs and sides of the cabinets. Often the face frames are made of plywood rather than solid stock wood. This helps reduce the cost of the cabinet but also tends to make them weaker. These cabinets cannot be as easily modified or changed later. They also do not endure as well because they are assembled with weaker joinery.
Custom Shop Built Cabinets
This is our preference for quality cabinets. Like site built cabinets, they are completely customizable. And like manufactured cabinets, they allow for complete boxes and tightly assembled face frames. Building cabinets in our shop allows us to control the quality of materials that go into their construction. Many cabinet makers will use Medium Density Fiberboard (MDF.) This material does not react well to water and it usually has high levels of unhealthy VOCs. Another common practice is for cabinet manufactures to save money by using thinner plywood or less durable hardware. By building cabinets in our shop, we can guaranty quality construction and materials. For example, we use no or low formaldehyde plywood. Formaldehyde is one of the more common and carcinogenic VOCs found in building materials. While this material choice slightly increases the cost of cabinets, it insures a healthy home.
Cabinets Doors and Drawers
The most visible parts of a cabinet are the doors and drawers. It is largely this element that defines the style of the cabinets. For example, ornate raised panel doors can provide a lot of detail but they are also more difficult to keep clean. Glass doors, on the other hand, show off nice dishes or pottery, but unless you are a fastidious cleaner and organizer, you may want to keep these to a few featured locations highlighted with their own lighting. With a wide range of options, you should have no problem finding doors and drawers that make your cabinetry fit your kitchen’s needs and your style.
As mentioned above, there is a wide array of plywood that can be used to build cabinets. Choosing the right plywood will make a great deal of difference in how healthy your home is over time and how well your cabinets will endure. Most of the time this is not a choice offered to the consumer.
There is nothing more frustrating than a drawer that sticks and will not close properly. A well made drawer slide will add to the initial cost, but greatly increases the drawer’s durability.
There are three basic doors styles: partial overlay, full overlay and inset doors. The hinges for each are slightly different. These days the most popular hinges are concealed or euro style hinges. These hinges are often better made and provide a greater amount of adjustment so that they can be tuned as the cabinets age and the house moves. There are also hinges and slides that are self closing. It is wise to pay attention to the quality of hardware that is offered with the cabinets that you buy.
Knobs and Pulls
This visible hardware helps define the cabinet’s style. There is no limit to what is available, unless you are buying manufactured cabinets that only offer a limited selection. One option is no knobs or pulls at all. Many people like to go this way because it is easier to clean and it provides a sleek look. This is done by easing the edges of the doors and drawers to provide a lip that allows for easy opening from the edge.
Paints and Finishes
One of the biggest differences in the way the cabinets will look is made when choosing a finish. Will they be painted or stained? Stained cabinets tend to show fewer blemishes as the cabinets age. Site built cabinets are often finished with lacquer because it dries faster, but it also yellows over time. Many people are choosing to use a combination of painted and stain cabinets. This is most common for kitchens designed in a French country style.
Layout and Design
A well designed kitchen with smart cabinet layout can be one of the most beloved features of a house. Having the right amount of cabinets and counter top space is key. While some kitchen designers will tell you that you can never have enough of either, our approach is a little different. We often encourage our clients to reduce the number of upper cabinets, which are often difficult to access, in order to provide room for more windows. We also encourage a reduction of cabinets as a means of helping the budget. Pantry space is less expensive to create and it is usually easier to work with. Like most everything else, the quantity of cabinets is less of an issue than the quality of the design of the kitchen.