Welcome to Second Nature, a Q+A series with Jute founder, Ali Davin, that explores all things healthy living, with a fond emphasis on that thing she does best—interior design.
We all know the importance of eating organic food: it means consuming fewer pesticides, antibiotics, and artificial ingredients, plus it’s better for the planet. But the health benefits of a clean diet can be greatly affected by storing your food—plus dishes, utensils, and cookware—in an environment that’s off-gassing toxic chemicals.
Of all the rooms in your home to renovate without using chemicals, your kitchen is one of the most important. Here’s how to design a kitchen that’s healthy for you and for the planet.
Always start by looking at what you can repurpose or reuse—the most sustainable thing to do is not throw anything away. In my kitchen, we are keeping the exposed wood ceiling, and we saved the range and the hood; they’re not what I would have chosen, but they’re fine for now. If there are perfectly good appliances or cabinets that don’t suit your needs, you can resell them or give them away—it’s a little more effort, but it keeps them out of the landfill.
You want to minimize any sheetrock and taping, because those will off-gas and you don’t want toxins in your kitchen. If you can manage not to open up any walls, that’s for the best. My kitchen is laid out so the fridge and a storage pantry are all on one side, and otherwise the cabinetry is pretty minimal—we’re not doing uppers or shelving.
Yes, they can be one of the worst offenders in your kitchen. The industry standard is plywood, which has formaldehyde in the glue holding it together so it won’t warp. That’s what my kitchen had, so I found a new home for them and I’m replacing them with solid white oak. It can be a challenge to find solid wood cabinetry, but it’s worth the investment and will last a lifetime.
Natural stone is the most sustainable material you can use. I recommend soapstone—it doesn’t show scratches or dirt, and it’s virtually indestructible. That’s what I’m using on my island, with an integrated sink. The rest of the countertops and backsplash are marble, which is a little more precious, but still incredibly durable. Avoid engineered quartz, which in spite of being marketed as eco-friendly, is actually far worse for the environment due to its manufacturing process.
For most clients, I usually recommend hardwood, but concrete and natural stone are great alternatives, especially if you have plumbed radiant heat in your floors like I do. It took a lot of research for us to figure out how to do nontoxic sealants for each type of surface. AFM Safecoat is a great resource for just about any surface you need to protect.
The refrigerator is usually a big offender, so I tend to recommend Liebherr, which is a German brand that’s built well and has a top Energy Star rating. Lighting can also use a lot of energy, so ideally you want as much natural light in your kitchen as possible, then use fixtures to supplement what nature is doing. Mine has a huge 30-foot-long skylight, and we were limited by exposed beams in terms of overhead lighting, so all we have is a monorail system with clip-on lights and spots, plus a couple sconces on the back wall. And you want LED lightbulbs in everything—they last forever and use so much less electricity than traditional bulbs.
Again, solid wood is the way to go, ideally with no stain. My bar stools are solid oak, and in the dining area, I had a solid oak table made. For seating, vintage is always a great option—I found 8 midcentury French chairs that we’re refinishing with a darker, non-VOC stain. The credenza is solid oak as well, and other than a great piece of art that I’m very excited about, there’s not a lot going on in terms of décor. The other wall is a 16-foot glass door that opens to the yard, and it’s almost like you’re dining outside, which is the best part.
You don’t want to store food, dishes, and cookware in an environment that is off-gassing chemicals.