The Sustainable Kitchen

By Feifei Sun / April 29, 2014

Creating a beautiful kitchen that maximizes use and minimizes waste

sustainable kitchen

Photography by Ken Skalski

When a newly divorced client approached Kaja Gam about a whole house renovation in Briarcliff Manor, NY, the interior designer knew she had just come across the opportunity to truly flex her creative muscle. “The house hadn’t been touched since the 1980s, and my client wanted to do something completely new and fresh for himself,” she says. “That was really exciting to hear as a designer.”

At the heart of Gam’s redesign was a kitchen that was more than 40 years old. The space had particular meaning to Gam’s client, a passionate foodie and devoted cook, but its potential was completely untapped. “The layout was horrendous—it was almost a full square space, but all the corners were underused,” the New York-based designer says. “There was no order to the way the appliances were placed, making it difficult to have more than one person in the kitchen.”

Gam’s first move was to maximize that space, giving the kitchen a loft-like feel with convenience in usability. In fact, an entire wall was even taken down to create an open floor plan with ample space for guests and the client’s children to enjoy. Gam and her client decided to build the kitchen primarily with bamboo, an increasingly popular material for green-minded dwellers. As the designer explains, bamboo is coveted for its renewability.

“Most woods take a much longer time to grow, but bamboo is a grass that grows very quickly,” Gam says. “It takes a shorter time to replenish, so it’s a renewable source that also happens to be incredibly strong and durable.” Elsewhere, raised cabinets and mobile carts inside a walk-in pantry added ease and convenience to both kitchen use and clean-up. A double-drawer dishwasher allowed Gam’s client to just run the top load when he was alone, or both drawers when he had the kids, to save water and energy.

“When we talk about sustainable kitchens, it’s more than just LED lights or energy-saving appliances,” Gam says. “It’s really about creating a kitchen that maximizes use and minimizes waste. That’s truly sustainable living.”

How can you create your own green kitchen?

Kaja Gam ( offers five top tips

1. Invest in a green water system, especially in houses where you can divert flow from the kitchen sink or dishwasher into a green water tank system that can be used to water your garden. It’s a fairly expensive investment, but one that Gam thinks is worth the cost, particularly if you’re doing major gut renovations on a property that would require new plumbing anyway.

2. Consider adding indoor grow cabinets to your overall cabinet set-up. These green growing spaces allow you to produce your own sprouts and vegetables right at home—for very little cost.

3. Choose radiant heat in floors. This kind of heat comes through the floor to heat actual objects, which then retain and spread that heat. It’s much more efficient than forced-air heating systems, which just spread hot air around. With radiant heat, Gam says you can set the overall temperature a couple degrees lower and still feel just as warm.

4. Pick energy-saving appliances, such as an Energy Star dishwasher that takes very little energy to run and shuts itself off automatically after use. German company Liebherr makes Gam’s favorite green refrigerator. And when it comes to lighting, consider having different sources of light on different switches, so flipping one switch won’t light up an entire space.

5. Go green for the right reasons. Gam is quick to point out that the cost of replacing items, from flooring to fridges, often defeats the sustainability benefit. “Ask yourself, ‘Do I really need to change this because of the way I live?’” she says. “If the answer is yes, then great, do it. But if it’s because you’re tired of looking at it, then that change is maybe not so sustainable.”

Feifei Sun

Feifei Sun

Feifei Sun is a freelance writer based in Atlanta. She began her career at Vanity Fair and later worked as an editor at TIME, where she wrote about fashion and politics and helped edit the magazine's special issues, including the TIME 100 and Person of the Year. Her writing has also appeared in Real Simple, Marie Claire and the Huffington Post.
Feifei Sun

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