The kitchen is the heart of the home. The social, nourishment, energy, waste, and vitality flows converge here. Mother Earth’s bounty is transformed into an archetypal experience of gastronomic pleasure, physical nourishment, and conviviality.
It’s also where the most energy is consumed, the most airborne toxins are released, and the most noise is produced. Furthermore, the choices we make here affect everything from our health to global warming. Nowhere does “think globally, act locally” apply more.
By all rights, the kitchen should be a temple of life. But instead, many kitchens demonstrate how far we’ve gone in the direction of too busy. We’re so good at “saving labor” that we often deny ourselves the very function of the kitchen: nourishment. Tossing manufactured food from the freezer to the microwave doesn’t count. If we don’t have time to nourish ourselves and our loved ones, what are we doing that’s more valuable?
The heart of the matter
The main act in the ecological kitchen isn’t energy efficient appliances or recycled-content countertops. Kitchens are about food. And food is about many things we tend to forget in this era of industrialized agriculture: plants, soil, rain, pollinators, farmers, weather, seasons. Unfortunately, for most people it’s also about genetic engineering, monocrops, pesticides, soil destruction, water table depletion, nutrient loss, and combustion of vast quantities of fossil fuels to chill and ship the stuff around the globe.
So the most important, far-reaching thing we can do in our kitchens is pay attention to the source of our food. When we eat locally and organically grown food, we support family farms, reduce the pesticide load, decrease fuel use (and thereby global warming), minimize packaging waste, and encourage ourselves to eat food in season—which is both tastier and healthier.
Better yet, we can grow our own food. When your whole body grasps the importance of healthy soil to thriving plants, the connection between freshness and flavor, the oneness of healthy food and happy people, and the satisfaction of nourishing the garden with composted food scraps, you know most of what you need to know about ecology.
That connection with growing food is the heart of the natural kitchen. If a door opens from your kitchen onto your garden, you’ve got it good. But you can bring the life of the garden into any kitchen. If all you have is a windowsill, grow herbs there; cutting them fresh and dropping them into the pot brings a joy and vitality that can’t be matched by opening a spice jar. If you don’t have even a kitchen window, plant those herbs nearby and hang them to dry in the kitchen. At the least, hang pictures of gardens and vegetables on your kitchen walls.
A wholesome relationship with food also has design implications. You’ll want a place to save food scraps for composting; a pullout bin below the main cutting surface is useful. Grains and produce should be kept cool but not cold, so it’s helpful to create a natural cooler; it can be as small as a cupboard or as large as a small room. The essential features are screened vents high and low on an outside north-facing wall, slatted shelves for air circulation, and insulation all around. Such a cooler may mean that you only need a small refrigerator, which saves both space and energy.
Who’s in the kitchen?
Let’s not forget the other living element in the kitchen: the cook. In many traditions, it is believed that the cook’s mood profoundly affects the food. Meals prepared with love will be nurturing and healthful, while food cooked with tension can leave people unsatisfied and out of sorts. This, too, is part of ecology.
With this in mind, let the kitchen be a place of peace, happiness, and love. A convenient layout helps—neither cramped nor inconveniently large. Store tools where they are needed and minimize annoying clutter. Appliance noise can fray a cook’s nerves, so ask yourself whether you really need all those electrical tools; many people find more pleasure in using a cleaver than a food processor. Finally, a resilient floor surface and counters set at different heights for different tasks will keep the cook’s limbs and spine supple.
With the heart of the kitchen in place, the physical components should further enhance global and personal health. Here are some things to keep in mind:
• Allow sunlight to illuminate your kitchen, but avoid south and west sun, which can overheat the room.
• Choose energy efficient, pleasant electrical lighting (warm-colored, electronic-ballast fluorescents). Switch the lights separately so you can regulate the degree of illumination.
• Use energy efficient appliances (and only the ones you really need). Clean and service them regularly.
• Don’t overcook food, and bake several dishes in the oven at once to save energy.
• Cook outdoors in summer to lessen the cooling load on the house.
• Use a solar cooker.
• Reconsider the microwave. It may be energy efficient, but it can damage food and create strong electromagnetic fields.
• Filter tap water if necessary.
• Conserve water. Use a low-flow faucet, and don’t heat more water than needed for recipes.
• Reuse water (install a graywater system).
• Use copper or PEX pipes; avoid PVC pipes and high-lead solder.
• Use an energy efficient dishwasher or hand-wash dishes with modest amounts of water.
• Cabinets: Reuse old ones or use new ones of solid sustainable wood, metal, or least-toxic board products. Seal off existing toxic cabinets; avoid vinyl.
• Countertops: Consider recycled-content materials.
• Floors: Use natural linoleum, tile (with resilient mats where the cook stands), wood, or sealed cork. Avoid vinyl.
• Provide good ventilation (an extracting range fan, operable windows).
• Use low-toxic cleaning supplies.
• Have composting and recycling centers in or near the kitchen.
• Buy good-quality appliances that last longer. Repair rather than discard them.
The most important aspect of the ecological kitchen is life itself. If your kitchen increases vitality, supports the natural world, and promotes awareness of the web of life, it is a natural kitchen. The rest is mere detail.
Carol Venolia is an architect, author of Healing Environments: Your Guide to Indoor Well-Being (Celestial Arts, 1988), and former publisher of Building with Nature Newsletter.