Sustainable kitchens: ‘Design well to live well’

Excitement is not a word usually associated with sustainability. There are however a whole set of new approaches to creating home environments that do not cost the earth. Designer Johnny Grey looks at some of the ways sustainable design has evolved over the years, enabling designers to work for the common good

Why have we taken so long to realise that sustainability and protecting nature is not just about insulating our homes, avoiding too much packaging at the supermarket and travelling less?

While not denying the value of these practices, we are entering a period of enormous opportunity for positive change. The kitchen is the ideal place to put ideas of living more healthily, compassionately and greenly into practice. The layout of separate rooms to cook, relax and dine in is making way for a holistic concept that is also a return to an old tradition: one-room living.

World-class design groups such as IDEO and Tangerine, whose clients include Amazon, Netflix and Apple, talk about designing an experience not a product, with an emphasis on ‘design’. This offers a route to sustainable thinking, as it references how we live, not what we buy. Key to making this work is an accurate reading of current consumer trends. Helen Lord who runs the Used Kitchen Exchange (UKE) says “over 80% of consumers have changed their purchasing behaviour. Brands such as Ikea, Waitrose and Iceland have responded quickly, despite their size and lack of agility, by making very public changes to the way they handle their waste, as well as the ethics behind the products they sell”.

There is a message here that UK consumers want to feel they are part of solutions to, for example, climate change, and that forward-thinking companies have capitalised on this. Lord estimates that more than 20,000 underused UK kitchens are removed before the end of their natural lives, many or even most headed for landfill. Using UKE’s Carbon Calculator from Liverpool John Moores University, this equates to approximately 120,000 tons of carbon waste with embodied and operational carbon contributing the most. The resale of one average kitchen offsets the amount of carbon waste a family of four produces in an entire year.

At the recent Wood and Wellness conference organised by Timber Trades Journal in London, Oliver Heath, founder of Oliver Heath Design – a sustainable architecture and interior design practice – outlined his definition of ‘biophilic design’. It is based on our inherited need to connect with nature and other natural forms, both for survival and personal fulfilment. In Heath’s words: “The use of real forms of nature such as plants, water and fresh air [and] also in the colours, textures and materials, evoking a sense of nature has numerous benefits,

including the ability to improve our physical and mental well-being.” This applies to all the places we live and work in.

Interior spaces that are restorative, energising and kind on ourselves are also beneficial for our biosphere, because higher levels of well-being teach and enable people to behave in a more caring way. Aim for the opposite of Donald Trump’s lifestyle of fast food, TV addiction and sleep deprivation. I am convinced that a ‘biophilic’ approach has particular value in the area of kitchen design.

JG: “Emotional engagement is the key to good kitchen design. Eye contact, desire to touch the cabinetry, using curves to enjoy movement, exploiting the surface temperature or texture of materials to add sensuality, pleasure and warmth”

The Global Wellness Institute was set up in 2015 to educate the public and private sectors about preventative health and wellness. Wellness is a field in which the argument for sustainability moves beyond the physical to the psychological, with professionals’ choices of materials and avoidance of pollution brought together with behavioural considerations within communities. It has developed its own Build Well to Live Well standards. Architects, designers, developers, politicians and scientists can use this as a basis to create sustainable buildings. They underline that kitchens should be emotionally engaging spaces.

Another Wood and Wellness speaker Dr Oliver Jones – research director at Ryder Architecture – explained how the Wellbeing Economy works. Related to Joseph Pine and James Gilmore’s Experience Economy [the next in line after the agrarian and industrial economies], the Wellness Economy has potential value for addressing a range of disruptive forces being experienced by the construction sector.

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These include labour shortages and the prospect of modular construction, more design-savvy and toxicity-aware consumers requiring healthier products, issues with air quality and the invasive collection of data from smartphones.

That said, smart kitchen appliances are where we are headed. It also looks possible for lighting and cabinet companies as well as appliance manufacturers to harness smart capabilities. Data protection in the smart home is an urgent challenge for the future, one that offers great rewards for companies that respond to growing realisation of the need to protect people’s privacy.

Ryder Architecture is working on Future Homes as an Experimental Community along with the Future Homes Alliance National Innovation Centre for Ageing, where I am a design ambassador. The scheme, based in central Newcastle, will design new types of homes offering flexible living, smart technology and low energy systems for people in any life-stage. Ryder is pushing the boundaries when it comes to integrating sensor technology into buildings to create smarter environments that are healthier. Jones states that “in the future, good design must have quantifiable, measurable health benefits, a renewed focus on human and social health is imperative”. The Ryder approach to the building as a lab enables people to track the environment’s impact upon their health by providing actionable advice on well-being.

Included will be the 4G kitchens I have been asked to develop in response to the growth of multigenerational living. Technically specialist kitchen design is a key way to support the ageing population, easing crises such as loneliness and the housing shortage. The project has the recognition of the government Department of Health and Social Care. All of this is not green thinking in the traditional sense, but it will encourage the building of long-lasting and healthy homes.

In 2002, American architect William McDonough and German chemist Michael Braungart took up the sustainability challenge in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, where they describe the use of waste to regrow new materials in a continuous life, similar to the way a tree blossoms and produces seeds that grow another tree. This is a more energy-efficient and inspiring way to think about recycling than the widespread practices of crushing and melting waste into new forms that tend themselves to have a shorter life than is generally known.

Another valuable expression of green thinking is the concept of the circular economy, a recent focus of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation – known for its work on plastic pollution of the seas. The circular model builds economic, natural, and social capital together based on three principles: designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in continuous use and regenerating natural systems.

JG: “Think of a kitchen being the content of a future antique shop. A sustainable kitchen could, as a kit of parts or exchangeable components, be put together around a simple planning concept”

Brighton University professor Jonathan Chap- man calls, in his book Emotionally Durable Design (2005), for better understanding of our psychological connections with the objects we use. If we love things we keep them for longer, is the message. I take this to mean we should be making kitchens that are well crafted enough to become part of our psyche. I realise this is a tall order, but 65% of all Rolls Royce cars ever built are still on the road. Can we not try to emulate this? My approach is expressed in my concept of the Unfitted Kitchen, made with freestanding furniture with finely tuned spatial ergonomics. This can easily be recycled, its pieces old become friends I would hope. Antique shops can be considered recycling centres, started long ago as ways of profitable upcycling.

The first business I ran as a student with my brother was upcycling Irish pine furniture, as Smallbone did with their first kitchens. I still have a few pieces I could never bring myself to sell.

Looking to the future, maybe there is pointer here towards the reselling of kitchens. We could make them as a kit of parts with exchangeable components, put together around simplified planning with a central working table and walk-in pantry, with the sink and appliances installed as built-in units.

The industry should stop thinking of kitchens as commodities. They can in fact be collages of life, made up of furniture, accessories, food displays, scents, companionship and conversation. Washing up and burnt saucepans, too – but that’s life.

With a new, rounded definition of sustainability, we can move ahead in a satisfying way to more instinct-based design, underpinned by our hard- wired needs for heat, shelter, food, water, familiar faces, good smells and views of nature.

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