29 April 2009

Dimmable CFL floodlights

I did a walkthrough of the rough-in wiring with my electrician. As we talked about my recessed can lighting, he remarked to me that he had never seen a dimmable CFL flood light that worked reliably with a dimmer switch. He's not a random electrician, that's for sure -- he's clearly articulate and experienced. He has experience including some high-end houses who have been featured in Portland's annual "Street of Dreams" show.

I would like to go LED but can't afford that right now, so CFL is my choice. We've had CFLs in our kitchen for the last year (without dimming functionality) and while the CFL delay time to come to full brightness takes some getting used to -- it turns out to not be that big of a deal once you are accustomed to that pattern. But still -- I definitely would like to be able to dim my can lighting!

And when you tell me it can't be done, or even just that it's not common, that's kind of a challenge for me. :)

After some internet research, I uncovered a Lutron/Phillips combo that is supposed to work. Here is a page describing the combo:


I passed the info onto my electrician so that he can investigate. He was reasonably excited (passes the test for good customer service skills) and said he'd call some of his suppliers to ask for feedback on the dimmer.

Anyone out there with experience for this specific dimmer or Phillips dimmable CFL floodlights? (I don't have many readers yet, but I figured this was worth asking nonetheless!) I have used Lutron Diva dimmers before, but not this exact specific one.

Every Day is Earth Day

Earth Day (one week ago) caused a moment of reflection for me on the increased awareness I have experienced, and changes I have made, for being "green" over the last few years. I can safely say that three years ago, even two years ago, I barely recycled. What a chore to sort and carry items to the appropriate bins! I cared not a whit about energy or water conservation. People who shunned plastic bags seemed a little bit extreme and unrealistic.

Two major life events occurred since then: (1) I had a baby and (2) I moved to very green Portland, OR. The first event caused me to inevitably learn more about toxins, health, sustainability of the earth, etc. Suddenly, it was now important to not only set a good example for the next generation, but also to leave this world a better place, or at the very least shoot for a mediocre status quo. Moving to Oregon also clearly influenced me, in making a green attitude fairly mainstream and in making green resources easily accessible. I won't go into everything we do, but I was mildly amused yesterday as I realized I had just helped a neighbor with some composting tips.

Right, so this blog is about KITCHENS. In late 2007, I realized our move to Portland was imminent and I thought "hmm, I must learn about green kitchen design if I ever hope to have a career there." I set about my default initial research step: google. As I sorted and sifted through information, I realized there is much debate about how to define "green." How to measure "green." How to implement "green." This stuff was (and still is) all over the place. There was a smattering of "real" certifications (LEED, FSC, etc), but there were also some really fake marketing-oriented trendy "certifications" to keep you confused (I won't name those). The very same counter materials that some people thought were green, others thought were the opposite. There was far from any unanimous consensus or direction in the industry, at least as far as I could tell. Quite overwhelming when my goal was a scattershot broad-based effort to "learn as much about green kitchens as I can."

I have continued to patiently follow my various online resources for green and keep my eyes and ears open. I've attended the occasional green building classes and lectures. Being a full-time mom, I haven't done any deep dives into specific topics, but I have faithfully been skimming the top layer, if you will, for two years now. Here's my current take on organizing my thinking around "green kitchens":

Lower Carbon Footprint
Choose material and parts that reduce the carbon footprint (primarily through lowering fuel consumption)

o Consider distance that a source product has traveled from its source (e.g. almost all bamboo comes from China)

o Consider method of transport – in order from best choices to worst choices: boat, land vehicle, air

o Consider weight of material (e.g. natural stone shipped from Brazil is very heavy and thus requires more fuel to ship)

o Focus on proper house insulation (e.g., use efficient windows with a low e value) as well as appliance insulation (choose appliances with more insulation, e.g. self cleaning ovens often have more insulation than regular ovens)

o Include lots of natural light in design, to reduce dependence on artificial light and the energy it requires

o When choosing lighting, use low energy options – CFLs, LED

o Choose Energy Star appliances and read the yellow energy label (fridges, freezers, dishwashers). Minimize number and size of appliances that are “always on” (fridges, freezers, ice makers).

o Be conscious of fuel type. Renewable energy (electricity) is generally better than non-renewable (oil, gas)

o For the energy that is used, use it efficiently. For example, induction cooking directly uses 84% of the energy produced. Gas cooktops only use 40% of the energy produced by burning fuel (the rest goes primarily to heating the air around the cooking vessel)

o Try to build small and smart. Larger square footage requires more material, which then in turn incurs more fuel consumption. Also, consider material used per square foot. For example, using open shelving or frameless cabinets in your design generally requires less material than traditional framed cabinetry.

Environmental Stewardship
Be proactive in protecting and sustaining the environment (beyond greenhouse gas issues)

o Choose materials that have been sustainably harvested from the Earth, i.e. using good environmental practices (i.e. protecting wildlife, water, air, other) (e.g. FSC-certified lumber)

o Choose materials that can be and are easily renewed (e.g. bamboo)

o Or, choose materials that include recycled content (e.g. recycled glass countertops)

o Also consider durability of a material; if it is claimed using good environment practice but will then wear out in a few years, then you are setting up a cycle of guaranteed consumption. Cheap can be expensive.

o Choose low flow faucets and efficient dishwashers (Energy Star) to conserve water resources

o Keep stuff out of landfills. Use salvaged materials. Donate discarded materials for reuse. Consider if your material choice is biodegradable or recyclable

o Choose construction companies that proactively employ green policies and guidelines, such as recycling construction waste.

o Choose products from companies that make efforts to reduce manufacturing waste

Protect health through avoidance and ongoing removal of toxic materials that pollute indoor air

o Use non-toxic materials in construction (e.g. avoid urea formaldehyde used in resins in particleboard, flooring, and other materials; use low-/no-voc paint and finishes, etc)

o Avoid toxic finishes (sealers, etc) that can touch foods and leach or flake

o Provide both natural and machine ventilation to provide new air into space and to allow toxins/airborne cooking byproducts to escape. (Natural ventilation – windows, skylights that open; machine ventilation – venthoods that remove air to the outside, exhaust fans.) If your machine ventilation needs are high, consider also supplying makeup air to bring fresh air back into the room.

o Use surfaces that are easily cleaned and maintained with healthy solutions (e.g. grout is one to avoid because it is hard to clean well with gentle cleaners)

Support green habits in everyday living
Use good kitchen design to encourage a lifestyle that honors the first three goals

o Provide for easily accessed recycling containers

o Incorporate composting space into the kitchen

o Provide ample and easily accessible storage and/or hooks for kitchen towels, cloth napkins, reusable plates, cups, utensils. Also consider storage for reusable bags

o Encourage ongoing efficient water use with hands-free faucets – either electronic sensors or using foot pedals to turn on water

o Incorporate living plants into the design to help clean the air

o Plan carefully for fresh food storage to promote healthy diet/nutrition

I wonder if two years from now, I will come back to this post and wonder "oh what was I naively thinking?" There is still so much to learn!

21 April 2009

Counters: Soapstone

My husband asked what I would write as the subject for my next post. I decided the topic would have to be about our choice for soapstone counters. It was the first decision I made in the design process, so it's only appropriate that this be one of my first posts as well.

(I have been mentally blogging about my kitchen for months now. We are completely through the design phase of the project and in fact are well into rough-in, so I have quite a bit of catchup posting to do!)

Once upon a time, I thought that soapstone was a poor choice for counters. I had read all sorts of information about how it scratches and chips so easily. I even had friends who considered putting soapstone into their kitchen, and I spoke vocally against it. Since that time I have continued learning about different counter choices and have realized that there is a lot of misunderstanding about soapstone out there. In fact, it can be a wonderful countertop surface -- for certain people. There is no one countertop material that is perfect for everyone.

Some myths about soapstone:
  • it scratches too easily
  • it chips
  • it stains
  • it doesn't take heat well
  • it doesn't react well to humidity
  • it can't be repaired
Some truths:
  • There are many different varieties of soapstone. These range from very soft soapstones which are used for purposes like carvings, to quite hard soapstones that are suitable for counters. Just about all soapstone IS scratchable, or chippable, but it is not nearly as prone to this damage if you select a harder variety. Scratches and chips definitely do not happen as often as some extreme opinions would suggest.
  • It definitely does not stain. Soapstone is non porous. It is also inert. Consider: there is a reason that soapstone is often used as counters for science labs!
  • Soapstone does not need sealing of any sort, because it does not stain. You can oil or otherwise treat the surface, but that is purely for cosmetic reasons. Oiling has nothing to do with sealing or protecting the stone.
  • Soapstone is absolutely fine with both heat and water/humidity. That is why you find 100+ year old soapstone sinks in salvage yards! That is also why you find soapstone in fireplaces and stoves. It is not damaged by heat.
  • Soapstone can be repaired more easily by the average homeowner than most other counter surfaces. Minor scratches will wear away on their own over a few days. Most deep scratches or dings (which ARE more frequent with soapstone than mainstream counters) can easily be repaired by sanding. That said, part of the allure/character of soapstone, for some owners, are the scratches and dings.
Here are some of the reasons we selected soapstone for our kitchen:
  • The main reason, really, is that it's just beautiful in our eyes. I didn't choose soapstone. Soapstone chose me.
  • The second biggest reason, is that soapstone is the only truly "organic" countertop that I know of (other than wood). I was happiest choosing a kitchen counter that did not require any level of synthetic material. Granites and other stones require sealers. Quartz composite and other man-made counters have resins/binders/etc. Soapstone is a completely natural product and the only typical treatment is oil (mineral oil, bees oil, being popular choices).
  • I don't like hunting for trivets or pads for hot pots. Of the organic counter choices (soapstone and wood), soapstone is the only one that can take a hot pot set directly on the counter without burning or cracking.
  • I want the kitchen to feel used and well loved. We are an active family and I am sure as the kids get older that they will not be careful with the counters. I don't want a kitchen that makes me get upset when I see a scratch, so my approach is to expect and plan for scratches. So in that sense, a few chips and dings here and there, are very welcome in the right setting. Chips and dings go with soapstone.
  • With the same counter, we can get the unfinished lighter natural stone look, or the oiled darker stone look. It's kind of nice to have that choice, at least at the beginning. (Not so much a choice later on when the stone has naturally darkened.)
  • I'm tired of the glossy look. I love the calm matte of soapstone. I also hear some people fall in love with the "soapy" texture of the counter (how the stone got its name). I don't know if that will happen to me- I'm not a touch person. We'll see.
  • It is easy to clean and maintain. Because it is non porous and doesn't stain, you don't have to wipe up a spill of red wine right away. It does not harbor bacteria. You don't have to reapply sealer once every year or two. If you choose to have the oiled look, you DO have to oil it frequently in the first few weeks and then consistently in the first couple years, but eventually your stone will naturally darken and you don't even need to oil it. But really, if you choose not to oil, then your counters are zero-maintenance.
I definitely would not recommend soapstone to everyone. If you don't want patina, it's a bad choice. If you like the oiled look but don't like the thought of oiling weekly right off the bat, it's a bad choice. If you want gloss, go to almost any other counter choice. Soapstone is also an expensive choice (comparable to higher end granite). Soapstone also varies so much by variety that if you are not willing to get samples and test, then you could easily end up with a soft stone that you hate. Another negative is that soapstone is highly misunderstood and therefore I think could lower the resale value of a house, if the potential buyer is wary.

My only real regret with choosing soapstone is that it has to be shipped from Brazil. There are some options within the US but they are all (as far as I know) on the east coast, so still a considerable shipping effort. As I am trying to be conscious of making green choices, knowing that my counter material requires shipping from South America is disappointing.

The soapstone variety that I eventually selected is Duro Minas. I tested a few different varieties and Minas (not Duro Minas) came out on top. Once I had decided on Minas then I had to choose a slab. The available slabs in the warehouse at that particular time however left me completely apathetic on emotion. The owner emailed me some pictures of the next shipment of Duro Minas, expected to arrive in a month. When I opened the email, my heart skipped a beat (see photo at the top). I love the veining of this slab and what looks to be the caramel inclusions. I tagged the slab immediately. My only concern - which is minor -- is that I have never tested Duro Minas and am relying on the owner's very confident statement that Duro Minas is just like Minas, only harder. I hope that is indeed the case.

Here is a picture of my main slab, partially oiled. I think I have three slabs total tagged for my kitchen. I can't adequately express how much I love this slab.

17 April 2009

Reasons to Remodel

The vast majority of people who walked into our old kitchen thought it was a "great!" kitchen. It is better than most people's kitchens, for sure. Yet, it was not at all a difficult decision for us to remodel the kitchen. We had so many reasons that were compelling to us. That said, I do remain a little self conscious about our remodel. It is excessive to discard a "perfectly good" kitchen in favor of indulging my fairly high standards for function, form, and feel. In my endeavors to lessen our family footprint, taking baby steps towards the prioritized steps of "reduce, reuse, recycle" -- to remodel this kitchen is in no way, shape, or form, a step to "reduce."

So why are we remodeling? The answer basically boils down to the fact that my heart, and our family's soul, is in the kitchen. It is by far the most important space in the house for us, and second place isn't even close. We are avid cooks as well as enjoy a fairly homebody-ish lifestyle. It is important for us to feel like the kitchen reflects our personality and our tastes. Would we be happy people if we didn't remodel the kitchen? Yes. Will we, however, be yet happier if we did remodel the kitchen? Unequivocally, yes! Having a space that resonates with our very core, and feels like an extension of our family and ourselves, is important to us. I learned this with my last house and kitchen remodel. Entering that remodel, I also felt self conscious and excessive, but once it was complete, I never once regretted any expense or result of the remodel.

Compared to most of our friends, we actually are quite thrifty and disciplined in our finances. This is not to say that our friends are wildly out of control spenders, by any means. I think most of our friends have a fairly normal level of spending for their incomes. But we definitely go out less, comparison shop more, and actively budget in areas that our friends and peers do not. Conversely, none of our friends would choose to spend our budget on a kitchen remodel. Each person and family makes choices of their own priorities. This is one priority for us. We try not to spend money on things or events that are easily forgotten. We choose to invest, alternatively, in experiences and memories where we can.

As a matter of curiosity, I decided to research the most common reasons for a kitchen remodel. The following are all common themes:
  • The kitchen needs repair. Appliances are broken. There is unsafe electrical. The plumbing is shot. etc
  • It's cheaper to remodel than to move, generally speaking, so if one is tired of their house, this is one way to go forward.
  • Investing for future sale. Kitchen and bathrooms are the highest ROI areas for house remodeling.
  • The style of the kitchen is terribly outdated. Dated finishes, bulky/awkward/energy guzzling appliances. Often older kitchens are completely walled off from neighboring rooms of the house, which is no longer popular.
  • The kitchen is too small, and/or poorly laid out. The fridge door opens into the oven, or you have to walk fifteen steps from the fridge to the sink.
None of these are directly applicable to our situation. We do have some cabinetry falling apart as well as some plumbing issues, but not enough to dictate a complete to-the-studs remodel. We're definitely not doing this to invest for future sale as we hope to stay in this house for two decades. The style of the kitchen is not "outdated" per se, but it definitely was incredibly bland and boring. I can definitely say for sure, however, that we had layout and function issues. We had no good space for in-kitchen dining, and a 10-foot-long island (which extended beyond the actual kitchen space!) definitely posed a traffic flow barrier. Appropriate lighting in certain spots was a definite problem as well.

Our kitchen remodel driving force can simply be summed up as: transforming the space to express ourselves and serve our family.

To say farewell to our old kitchen, we took these photos before Deconstruction.

We chose Deconstruction Services from the Rebuilding Center in Portland, to dismantle our kitchen. Deconstruction is basically a methodical and careful demolition in which materials are removed with care, so that they can be reused (often in affordable housing projects) instead of headed to a landfill. As a result of using a Deconstruction service, instead of typical demolition, we have been able to donate the following for reuse:
  • 320 square feet of carpet (living room adjacent to kitchen)
  • 84 linear feet of cabinetry
  • 2 sinks
  • 2 faucets (one which is so crappy that I hope it doesn't get reused as a whole, but rather taken apart for parts)
  • 1 dishwasher
  • 1 disposal
  • 8 ceiling lights
  • 4 undercounter lights
  • a 36 square foot slab of granite (this is the 10 foot long "barrier" island)
  • 1 sliding glass door
  • 1 large window
  • 1 interior door
  • some random pieces of granite tile, outlet covers, and construction materials like screws, etc