Younger generations are buying with the future in mind.
By Kenn Busch
Now more than ever, kitchens are the heart and the heartbeat of the home. And, surprise, they’re also an important player in addressing climate change with material solutions. Over the last couple of years of the “Zoom Pandemic”, we’ve all seen more of our colleagues’ homes than we ever wanted to, and that includes a fair few kitchens. This should be no surprise, of course. Kitchens, more than any other room in the house, are designed for working, with all the most important productivity elements: good lighting and air flow, intelligent layout, fewer leisure and entertainment distractions, and of course, easy access to the coffee maker.
Because we’re still blessed with an overabundance of wood, kitchens in America are still more “craftsman” oriented than in Europe or even Canada. We still love our face-frame kitchens, a construction method that allows for more variations in design, and the freedom to fill odd-sized spaces and gaps as required. Frameless “European style” kitchens are gaining in popularity with younger renters and homeowners, and are certainly a more practical choice when it comes to optimizing materials and storage space.
There was even a moment of excitement when the “tiny homes” concept hit the mainstream, with fantasies of ever-more practical kitchen design aided by clever hardware innovations. But this trend has run up against a harsh reality: America is struggling with a serious shortage of tiny Americans. This one included.
As the relentlessly practical millennial and zoomer populations reach financial maturity we’ll no doubt see face-frame cabinetry fade to a niche. In the meantime, our main industry exhibition in February, KBIS in Orlando, revealed some specific currents.
More color, richer tones
All-white kitchens are waning. As families found themselves spending much more time at home. Richer color palettes and the return of natural wood finishes anchored by boldly colored appliances add liveliness for families stuck at home … and (knock wood) for guests and relatives.
Mixing it up: matte and gloss combinations
On solid colors, mixing matte and gloss textures add a level of depth, interest, and dimension to a kitchen. The anti-fingerprint matte finishes have been a game-changer in darker hues, and on woodgrains the matte finish evokes a raw, natural feel that would be a disaster in veneer or solid wood.
Appliance garages are back
They were here, they went away, now they’re back. This might be related to the desire to conceal charging stations and tablet docks, but as we spend more time in the kitchen, technology apparently should be used, but not seen.
Bigger drawers, quieter hardware
Fewer and bigger visible drawer fronts, sometimes concealing smaller drawers, serving the demand for more organized spaces for kitchen tools. Decorative pulls are being supplanted by “touch to open” technology in contemporary design.
Transitional design bridging the gap
As frameless “full access” construction slowly takes more of the American market, kitchens are in the midst of an evolution (not a revolution). Lighting, color, space utilization and functionality have put us somewhere between Little House on the Prairie and Bladerunner. Let’s just call it “eclecticism.”
Health and wellness
Spending more time (stuck) at home. Eating healthier. Surface materials that are easy to clean and keep clean. Air fryers and steam ovens. Because of their hierarchy in the home, kitchens tend to reflect our values first and more intensely than other spaces in the home.
Energy-efficient appliances and new cooking methods are only part of the story. Consumers are acting on a greater awareness of materials and material resources, with an eye toward their impact on climate change. Upkeep and longevity – lifetime costs and impacts – are bigger factors in purchase decisions than they were before. Natural stones are giving way to engineered stones, and solid surface, often sold as a 30-year countertop, has consumers wondering: “Who the hell wants a to live with counter for 30 years? And then have it sit in a landfill for 10,000 years?”
This is the kind of “wondering” you hear from those relentlessly practical millennials and zoomers. They want materials that make more sense for future generations, not just in the present trends. Research shows that ecological and wellness factors are paramount in the purchase decisions, and retailers are taking notice.
One thing that unites kitchen producers and consumers alike is, frustration over how to have a real-world impact on climate change. Some leading kitchen and furniture manufacturers, and several producers of materials used in those products, have begun to work together to share a surprisingly hopeful message with architects, interior designers and consumers. This effort is based on some facts and factors that are known to younger generations, but seeping into the common consciousness:
Earth Overshoot Day
“Earth Overshoot Day,” shared by the Global Footprint Network, is the date in the calendar when mankind has essentially exhausted our planet’s ability to supply the raw materials we need to support our current standard of living, and to absorb the waste and pollution we produce. In 2021, Earth Overshoot Day was July 29. This means that from July 30 to December 31, we are essentially borrowing from the future. Put another way, projections indicate that by 2030 we will be consuming the equivalent of 1.7 Earths, every year. In 2022 the GFN frames Overshoot Day as, “If the entire world’s population lived like” specific countries. For instance, if the entire world lived like:
America, the entire planet would be exhausted by 13 March;
Germany, 4 May;
Italy, 15 May;
Qatar, 10 February; and
Jamaica, 20 December.
Impact of the built environment
This is pretty sobering information. Here’s more: Research shows that buildings are responsible for 40 per cent of all the CO2 released every year. That’s more than the top two gassiest countries (China and the US) combined. It was originally assumed that the bulk of these emissions come from the construction of the building envelope, but more recent data indicates that renovating and replacing interior elements over the life of a building might be the bigger contributor.
Further: We’re finally coming to grips with the fact that consumer recycling isn’t going to save us from ourselves. The Atlantic Magazine recently reported that the impacts of recycling fall “well below the median, trailing geothermal power, effcient aviation, forest protection, and dozens of other actions.”
I’m sure you’re seeing the pattern in these realities:
We’re consuming raw materials more than the Earth can supply.
We’re emitting more waste than the Earth can absorb.
Buildings are the biggest emitter of CO2 on the planet.
CO2 traps heat and warms the planet.
Recycling isn’t enough to correct our course.
Forest protection has a much higher positive impact than recycling.
It would make sense, then, to focus our attention on the built environment, with particular efforts to ensure the fixtures, cabinets and furniture we buy have the lightest impact on our biosphere as possible.
Technologies for capturing and storing carbon
It also makes sense to invest in technologies that can capture and safely store atmospheric carbon. A Swedish company called Climeworks, for instance, has built a plant in Iceland that captures atmosphere CO2, mixes it with water, and drives it deep underground where it eventually becomes rock. I can see two challenges for this technology. First, it needs to be built, installed and maintained, all of which require energy. Second, it’s actually driving the oxygen into the ground, along with the carbon.
What if I told you there’s already an accessible technology that:
Builds itself using solar energy, water and just about any kind of soil;
Captures CO2 from air, splits off the carbon atom, and releases the oxygen back into the atmosphere…unlike Climeworks, which buries the oxygen with the carbon;
Produces an easily workable building material perfect for furniture, structure, and a myriad other products; and,
Stores its captured carbon for as long as products made with this material are in use?
This would be pretty big news, if it were a new invention. But as you have probably guessed, I’m talking about trees in a forest ecosystem, and products made from responsibly sourced wood and wood fiber. We’re just realizing the full health-and-wellness, lifecycle benefits of wood products, and composite wood materials in particular.
For instance, did you know that a standard sheet of particleboard stores at least 40 lbs. (18.5 kg) of captured carbon? MDF stores over 43 lbs., (over 19.5 kg)? That’s more carbon than is released in the harvest, production and use of these materials as furniture and cabinetry. This means the average kitchen is storing between 175 and 300 lbs. (133 – 204 kgs) of naturally captured carbon.
Composite wood panels, because of the density of the fibers, store about twice as much captured carbon as would the same volume of solid wood. This is the purest definition of a new term we’re hearing from companies like Ikea, H&M, and a growing list of other global brands: Climate Positive.
“Climate Positive” began as a better, more understandable way to say “carbon negative” – describing any process or product that pulls and stores more CO2 out of the atmosphere than is released, Unfortunately, “carbon negative” can be confusing to consumers.
Ikea’s plan is to be Climate Positive “in absolute terms” (with- out buying carbon offset credits) by 2030, which means as a company they will be removing more CO2 from the atmosphere than they release. Achieving this goal includes initiatives like adding solar panels to retail stores and addressing issues with textiles produced in third-world countries. Ulf Johansson, Ikea’s Global Wood Supply and Forestry Manager, told me recently that the company’s Climate Positive goals have inspired them to look to the forest for wood-based alternatives for plastics, cushion foam and even adhesives.
Your story: Composite wood is Climate Positive now
There’s an important distinction to be made here. Becoming Climate Positive as a company is a huge endeavor and requires addressing your own operations and supply chain. It’s a great story to be able to tell. Composite wood panels, like those used in almost every kitchen and piece of furniture, are the only material that is already Climate Positive… they are Climate Positive Now. The great thing about the term Climate Positive is that it takes the conversation beyond just carbon. In the case of products made with composite wood with decorative laminates, the story is literally, “from forests to furniture.” If you make composite wood decorative panels, or if you sell products made with these materials, this is the story you need to be sharing with your customers:
Composite wood panels begin life as a recycled product. When trees are harvested for lumber and flooring, half of that wood fiber is left on the forest floor. We use over 99 percent of that leftover fiber in our panels. The tiny bit still left over becomes fuel for heating our plants and kilns.
These panels are naturally Climate Positive. Trees absorb carbon from the atmosphere as they grow. Fully 50% of the chemical makeup of wood is stored carbon, which isn’t released until it decomposes or burns. Composite wood panels store more carbon than is released in their production. This is the definition of Climate Positive.
Decorative composite wood panels outlast solid wood and veneers in tough applications. The longer our materials are in use, the longer that carbon is stored, or “sequestered.” And we’re not wasting energy making and installing replacements.
We help maintain healthy forest ecosystems. Lumber-producing boreal forests are designed by nature to regrow after being decimated by fire or insects every 40 years or so. Well-intentioned humans have interrupted these cycles to protect property, resulting in catastrophic forest fires. Modern forestry management restores these cycles by harvesting plots of older trees before they lose their ability to absorb carbon and produce oxygen. The resulting open meadows are perfect for the next generation of young, healthy trees. Usually, only one out of eight harvest trees need to be replanted; the other seven regenerate naturally.
Decorative surfaces save rare and fragile hardwoods. We’re not saying never use solid wood or veneers. Just don’t use them in high-use settings where they’ll quickly fail…like a busy kitchen!
Our panels release less formaldehyde than natural wood, or a bowl of fruit. Formaldehyde is an organic compound, produced and released by every living thing. Our panels literally emit less formaldehyde than you would encounter walking through a forest.