Archive for the ‘Kitchens’ Category


Old Beams Get New Life

January 19, 2014

America’s history — tons of it — rests in the Distinguished Boards and Beams lumberyard. The timber here comes from old factories and barns all across the United States, a few dating baBarn375ck to before there was a United States.

“Right now we have wood from a 1775 Kentucky chestnut cabin and a barn built in 1890 in Michigan,” DB&B owner Robbie Williams told the Sopris Sun. “We took those buildings down ourselves and numbered all the boards, so they can be put back up again.” The barn was huge: 40-by-70 feet with a roof peak 48 feet high. The trees harvested to build it were at least 100 years old, so they began their lives around the time when Peter the Great was crowned Czar of Russia.

It would be tough today to find lumber this massive; some beams measure as much two feet square by 36 feet long and weigh more than a ton. The wood is denser than modern lumber because it came from slow-to-mature species in first-growth forests: hardwood oak, elm, ash, hickory and maple. The yard also holds softer woods like Douglas fir, redwood and longleaf heart pine.

Because DB&B relies on scouts across the U.S. to find outdated barns and buildings slated for demolition, nearly all of the wood comes from domestic forests. DB&B re-manufactures all of the lumber here in Carbondale.


Restaurant interior made using lumber from Distinguished Boards & Beams

DB&B’s reclaimed wood is used for flooring, paneling and ceilings in custom homes, restaurants and office projects. It can be seen in the bar at Hattie Thompson’s restaurant in River Valley Ranch, and at Town restaurant and Fatbelly Burgers on Main Street. Architects and interior designers in the Roaring Fork Valley and beyond prize the lumber because weathering, saw and axe patterns, worm holes and hand-cut mortise and tenon joints give it exceptional character.

Right now, in addition to the Michigan barn, DB&B’s stock includes two complete cabins, redwood salvaged from wine and yeast vats, and white oak reclaimed from a defunct factory — all of it dated before 1910.


Detail of old, hand-hewn beams — lots of character!

“Every now and again, we find dates chiseled and signatures into the lumber,” Williams said. “We see Roman numerals cut in to tell carpenters how to put a building together. The builders would cut all of the wood and then move it and reassemble it in place.”

Although there are environmental benefits to recycling old trees, reclaimed lumber can contain rusty nails and hardware. It can host dirt, mold, bacteria and bugs. In addition, many types of wood shrinks and develops “face checking,” small cracks that parallel the grain, when lumber is moved from moister areas to Colorado’s dry climate.

To stabilize the wood, DB&B dries its lumber for five to 10 days in one of two kilns. Next, they square up the boards, trimming them to the client’s specifications, milling them to consistent depths and adding tongue-and-groove edges that prepare them for second lives as flooring or wall panels.

Met in college

Williams and his wife, Carbondale Board of Trustee member Pam Zentmyer, started Distinguished Boards & Beams about 10 years ago. The two met in Boulder during college. Williams, who grew up in Gunnison, spent a month climbing in Peru, and returned to the U.S. “completely broke.” He offered to housesit for friends in Zentmyer’s hometown and wound up becoming a Carbondale resident.


Flooring made from recycled wood.

The company now keeps 14 full-time staffers busy. Three of them, including Zentmyer, run the office. The rest sort wood for orders; run big, commercial Wood-Mizer saws that can churn out as much 15,000 board feet per run; and create custom millwork for clients.

Williams’s first exposure to reclaimed wood came after a friend who had done a demolition job in Crested Butte suggested, “we should try selling this to people.” Soon after, Williams’s brother Brad invited him to help him pull down a New Hampshire barn that had been built in 1780.

“We brought the barn back to Carbondale and sold it in pieces,” Williams recalls. “We rented some space and stored the barn. That got the inventory started. Then we had a bunch of wood that came out of a big auto factory in the Midwest. Those beams were 17-by-17 inches and 20 feet long. We had five semi loads of them.”

Although the auto factory is long gone, Williams still has a piece of the barn. It’s a chunk of weathered wood that holds an inscribed brass plaque and a photo, a commemorative gift to Williams from brother Brad.


NOTE: This story originally
appeared in the Sopris Sun,
Carbondale’s community newspaper. Images courtesy of
Distinguished Boards & Beams.


All That Glitters is Not Gold – It May be Porcelain

November 10, 2012

These days, as the proud showroom manager for the Balentine Collection in Aspen, Colorado, I get to see a lot of handsome new ceramic, porcelain and stone tile products making their way onto the market. Lately, I have been having a flirtation with metal tile.

Usually, metal tile is not made only of metal. Often, the metal is a cap over porcelain or ceramic tile, or the metal shine comes from a glaze. Sometimes, pieces of metal or metal tiles are combined with stone (and/or glass) in a mosaic. Here’s an example. This travertine and copper border comes from Australian tile manufacturer Maniscalco.


Bondi Beach Borders: Hotel Bondi

I love the interplay of color and light in the copper, and the contrast of textures between the metal and the travertine. This 3 in x 11 3/4 inch border is called Hotel Bondi and is part of the Bondi Beach Borders™ series. It would be stunning in a kitchen or a bathroom, or as an accent on a mantel.


Porcelanosa: Ironker Cobre

The image above is Ironker Cobre from Porcelanosa. This is a large format porcelain tile — 17″x 26″ — with a metallic shine, and it’s extremely versatile because the pieces are so large. Because it’s durable and somewhat textured, Ironker makes a great, non-slip flooring material. Porcelanosa features it as flooring in their installation shots. Can you visualize this in a bistro-styled dining room or around a home bar?




Copper Flashing

Flashier still is La Nova’s Metaluxe Flashing. The Metaluxe collection is metal tile over a porcelain substrate. That means that while it’s pretty enough to be installed inside, it’s also tough enough for exterior applications. You could install this around your grill on the patio.

This tile comes in a choice of 6″ x 12″,  6″ x 24″ and 12″ x 24″ formats, as well as several colors and brushed metal patterns. In addition to the silver and gold tones shown here to the left and right, there’s also a pale platinum tile.

Because of their industrial chic, I can envision these tiles making a handsome kitchen backsplash. Because of their reflectivity, they would also be good at opening up a too-small or too-dark foyer.

Cobre’s Cousin

The Porcelanosa tile shown above has lots of relatives, all members of Porcelanosa’s Stonker line of porcelains. The Cobre (copper) shown above is actually part of the Ironker (iron) family, which also includes an Ironker Acero. Even more extensive is the Ferroker group, which includes Ferroker Alumino, Ferroker Caldera, Ferroker Niquel, Ferroker Titanio and their handsome parent: Ferroker, shown in the detail below.


Porcelanosa: Ferroker

Ferroker is a Stone-Ker porcelain tile, which can be used on indoor or outdoor walls and floors. It can even live outside happily during Aspen’s ski season, which makes it a great choice here in the Rockies. Stone-Ker tiles are made with 95% recycled materials, as an added benefit.


Daltile: Fashion Accents: Fortress Shimmer

The handsome mosaic above is a nickel blend from Daltile’s Fashion accent series. It comes in 12″ x 12″ sheets on a mesh backing, so it’s easy to install. The series includes silvers, coppers and wrought iron tiles mixed with glass and stone tile for lots of choice.


Maniscalco: Bondi Beach Borders, Mermaid Rocks

Above is another stunning border from the Maniscalco Bondi Beach series. I recently helped a woman from Michigan redesign her powder room, using it to top a large-scale porcelain that looks like stone with rusty iron accents in it. The room will also have an underlit, translucent onyx countertop holding a beaten copper sink.

We’ll be sending her the tile from our showroom in Aspen. (Given that it’s an international destination, Balentine sells to customers from all over the world. ) This particular combo of stone and metal sounds so gorgeous, it makes me want to fly to the Great Lakes to see it.

Maybe she’ll send me a photo.


Maniscalco Metal Decos


A New Kitchen, A New Life Free from Fear

February 6, 2011

AFTER: Here's how the west kitchen will look after the remodeling. This side of the kitchen features wheelchair-accessible counters and sinks, and there's a handy counter where the kids can eat.

BEFORE: Here's what the west kitchen looks like now. It houses six refrigerators. In the new design, triple-wide, side-by-side commercial style refrigerators will as hold just as much food while taking up far less space.

I recently volunteered to redesign the kitchen of a domestic violence shelter. Quite a challenge!

Picture your own kitchen after a party, a potluck where a dozen people prepared different dishes. Now, imagine how it would look if it were used by 50 people every day! That’s roughly how many people use the kitchen in a domestic violence shelter, which provides a safe haven to as many as 25 women and their children all at once.

A shelter’s kitchen needs to be as tough as a restaurant or hospital kitchen. But considering the tough times the residents been through, I didn’t want it look or feel institutional. Having taken some similar lumps myself, I think I know how these women are feeling. They want to feel safe, cared for and valued. They need a warm, welcoming space.

Architectural plans and interior designs can’t fill all those needs, but the spaces in our homes – even temporary ones like this one – do carry strong messages. I wanted this one to deliver a very positive message.

I hope to do it with the golden glow of maple cabinetry, Formica 180 FX backsplashes, and counters that look like rosy granite. (A tip of the hat here to kitchen designer and fellow blogger Paul Anater, who suggested using Formica FX for backsplashes.) A handsome floor of Daltile Passagio Nocino ceramic adds an Italian flair. I opened up windows and let the light pour through, and opened doorways and pass-throughs to link the rooms.

Giving Back

I did this pro-bono job over the Christmas holidays. It was an offering I gave in recognition of the good souls who helped me through a crisis similar to those experienced by the residents of SAVE. SAVE, (Safe Alternatives to Violent Environments), is located in Fremont. California, but the address is kept secret to protect its resident women and children from stalking and further violence.

As I told Diane Anderson, Grant Writer and Counselor at SAVE, “What goes around comes around. I know that good will come from this for many people, me included.”

AFTER: The southwest corner of the kitchen will feature a pass-through that enhances safety by reducing kitchen traffic. A newly widened doorway and pocket door on the south wall will open the kitchen for wheelchair access. On the west wall, a Dutch door will prevent collisions and allow moms to keep an eye on kids in the dining/living room.

BEFORE: Here's how this cramped corner looks now.

My kitchen design is a contribution to SAVE’s “Raise the Roof” campaign, an accessibility and remodeling effort that began in 2010. I hope that my plans and drawings will help SAVE win a reconstruction grant from the City of Fremont, and to raise funds from private donors. If there was ever a kitchen remodel that deserved doing, this is it!

As SAVE writes in their grant application:

The kitchen was last renovated in 1998 after a fire destroyed it.

Since then, the kitchen has been used by about 25 people daily (resulting in more than 120,000 uses) and is in need of significant upgrading.

Our kitchen is also not wheelchair accessible, but this renovation will significantly improve our accessibility.

A New Life for the Kitchen

The SAVE kitchen is part of a large house that originally was home to a doctor’s practice and family. The kitchen wasn’t originally intended for the amount of traffic it now receives, and the strain is showing. The counter around the cook top has cracked and there’s a big gap in the surface. The vinyl flooring is curling and pulling up around the edges. Cabinet hardware is loose, and the cabinets are nicked, bumped, and bruised. The finishes and surfaces throughout the kitchen look very, very tired.

In addition, the kitchen suffers from accessibility and traffic problems.

SAVE’s leaders have been gradually upgrading the house to make it accessible to those who are disabled. The shelter usually serves two people each year who are wheelchair-dependent, and many more who have mobility limitations. As they write:

These residents can remain with us for up to 90 days. We recently had a resident who decided not to bring her teenage wheelchair-dependent daughter into our shelter because of the kitchen accessibility limitations. This event really highlighted for us the need to do what we can for all our residents to be as accessible as possible.

The need is especially keen because none of the other three other domestic violence shelters in the area are accessible to those who are mobility impaired.

To fill the gap, SAVE has already installed ramps in the house and built an ADA-compliant bathroom on the first floor. The kitchen is next. My plans will enable SAVE to  make the kitchen wheelchair accessible with widened doors and passages, a pocket door and a wheelchair-height sink and cooking area.

SAVE: Providing More than Walls

The damage that is inflicted on the body in cases of domestic violence heals faster than the emotional, social and financial wounds. As one woman told me eloquently years ago, “The bones have long since healed, but the nightmares remain.”

This visualization was created by the author, interior designer Nicolette Toussaint, using the Revit software program and Photoshop.

Women who muster the courage to escape from their abusers must often leave behind friends, family and jobs, severing ties for their own safety and that of their children. (Although men do sometimes suffer domestic violence, more than 90% of the victims are women.) To survive, some women must leave with nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

To understand how hard this is, I ask men and women to visualize the process: Put your wallet, your keys, your credit cards, and all your money on the table. Now walk out of your house. Leave your car. Keep walking. Could you do that? Could you go to a new city where you know no one and start over? Could you leave all your friends and family? Call no one? Ask for nothing? And could you do it without using any part of your identity – education, licenses, business contacts – that could enable your abuser to track you down?

Tools for Starting Over

Because the clients of domestic violence shelters face the daunting task of re-creating virtually every aspect of their lives – as well as those of their children – domestic violence shelters try to offer far more than the safety of their four walls. Here, again quoting from the grant application, is what SAVE has to say about the enormity of the challenge, and what they provide:

Victims of domestic violence suffer hunger, homelessness, underemployment, psychological trauma, substance abuse and a range of mental health issues secondary to the abuse. Children suffer too, with a myriad of problems from poor academic achievement to increased rates of depression, anxiety and conduct disorders. Our program addresses the barriers that victims of domestic violence face on their path toward safety and self-sufficiency.

Formica has changed! This handsome surface is the new FX 180 from Formica, Red Montana pattern. Extremely beautiful, but durable enough to stand up to lots of kids.

Daltile Passaggio 12 x 12 Nocino, a beautiful floor that will withstand traffic and water.

We provide safe housing, food, clothing, financial literacy, employment readiness, and counseling among many other services.the period between July 2009 and June 2010 we received over 4,000 calls to our crisis hotline and provided more than 7,500 shelter and motel bednights. We served about 250 women and children where 94% of the families served had an annual income below $35,000.

Putting a Face on the Issue

Who are these women?

Statistics say that nearly one-third of American women (31 percent) report being physically or sexually abused by a husband or boyfriend at some point in their lives. I was once one of them, despite having two university degrees and the social privilege that comes with white skin.

The fear sparked by that experience led me to leave my home state of Colorado, severing ties with all but one friend and my parents. I moved to Illinois. Years later, I became a domestic peace advocate and spoke and wrote publicly about the topic in California and other states, but I always remained wary of publicity in Colorado.

The physical bruises fade, but the emotional ones can linger for years.

Thus, I feel a kinship with the women of SAVE. I met a few of them in the process of measuring their kitchen and drilling a few exploratory holes in the wall. The women’s names, like the address of the shelter, must remain secret to ensure their safety. But profiles of some of them are sketched on the SAVE website, and I have taken the liberty of reprinting them here, so that my readers can meet them. Please meet:

  1. Sara, who graduated from SAVE’s transitional housing program,  got a great job with the County and is raising her son in a violence-free home.
  2. Elena, who told SAVE that the first night she spent in our shelter was the first night she had slept without fear in 10 years.
  3. Annie, who got her son back and who told us that the people at SAVE were the first people who believed that she could be a good mother.
  4. Hosina, who told the staff at SAVE so matter-of-factly about all the terrible things her daddy had done to her.
  5. Shelly, who just today got the keys to her new apartment, after 17 years of abuse and almost a year in shelter.

If you would like to help these women, and others like them, I encourage you to visit SAVE’s website and make a donation. The shelter could certainly use your help. Last year, SAVE served more than 4,500 clients while having to cut staff due to loss of funding. What’s more, they desperately need a new kitchen (plans below)!

Floorplan for new SAVE kitchen. Designer: Nicolette Toussaint

I encourage any reader who has a friend or relative who has suffered from domestic violence to donate in the name of their loved one.

If you’re a contractor or manufacturer of appliances, cabinetry, tile or stainless steel countertops, you could do a good turn by making an in-kind donation of your products (hint, hint).

You will find links to SAVE’s website below.

Links for SAVE

Links for Author Nicolette Toussaint


Roundabout: All About Round Tile Options

June 10, 2010

“Round, round, round,
I get around…”

I wish!

Given the economy these days, my summer travels have been taking me more to design blogs than to exotic locales. But design blogs are wonderful places too; you’ll find many of my favorite design destinations in the blogroll at right. Coincidentally, several of those blogs have recently caught my attention with posts on unusual round tiles.

Pennies on the floor in the Standard Hotel. Design by Robin Standefer and Stephen Alesch of Roman and Williams.

Yesterday, I stumbled across this striking image on the Dornob blog. It’s a hotel entry where the floor has been paved with old copper pennies! An interestingly literal take on the idea of “penny-round tile.”

I’m not sure this application is entirely legal. Then again, I doubt that Uncle Sam would bother to go after these designers when he ignores all the tourists who are engraving little images of the Bay Bridge onto pennies with currency-crushing devices here in San Francisco every day.  In any case, I’m sure that the cost-per-square foot for this hotel flooring was pretty easy to calculate.

I would love to try this with mixed coins. It would be a great accent for someone who did a lot of foreign travel. (Sigh. I recall a time when I came back from Europe at least once a year, my pockets loaded with centimes, pence, and lira – dozens of interesting coins too small to merit putting back through the currency exchange process. They would have made a very interesting floor.)

This tile is from the 4mm Stainless Steel Collection. Photo courtesy of Remodelista.

Penny Round Makes a Comeback

Penny round tile is a classic, and one that’s appearing in some modern new guises, in part thanks to some new materials, including ceramic, glass, stone, cork and metals.

Metals other than copper can add panache to round tile, as the version at right attests. These penny round tiles are created by wrapping a thin stainless steel around porcelain and then mounting it on a mesh backing that is forgiving of imperfect surfaces and makes for easy installation.

Iceberg glass mosaic tiles from Evit, an Italian furniture company.

For its sheer beauty, my favorite round tile is a glass tile mosaic from Evit. This is high-end stuff and it comes with a high-end price tag. Because Evit is located in Italy (ah, to be in Tuscany this summer, or anytime, for that matter) their tile has to be shipped across the Big Pond. That means that it comes with a carbon footprint and it requires lead time to get here.

But, che bella! The mixed sizes of the round tile glass tile give this  mosaic a fanciful bubble-like quality. The subtle blue-green hues handsomely accent the cool steel shades of the modern faucet in Evit’s bathroom design.

Round Tile from Recycled Materials

A wall at an Australian winery "tiled" with bottles filled with water. In 2007, the winery received a grant from that state’s Sustainable Energy Development Office to study how the thermal properties of the wall help control temperatures in the winery. Photo by Treehugger.

For creativity (sans currency) my prize in the round tile category would have to go to an organic winery in Western Australia that built a wall from more than 13,500 wine re-purposed glass wine bottles filled with water. The winery’s owner, Peter Little, a fomer architecture lecturer at Curtin University and long-time passive solar design advocate, noted that, “Water… can store more energy, heat, or cool than any material we know.” The winery received a government grant that has been used for a thermal imaging program that studies how the wall helps to control indoor temperatures.

Another interesting use of materials coming round to a second life is the recycling of wine corks into floor tiles. Although the corks can’t be used in wine bottles a second time, there’s no reason not to use them in flooring, and that’s just what Jelinek Cork does. The penny round cork tiles even come in a mixture of colors. Jelinek cuts the corks into discs about 1/4″ and glues them onto a special paper that is then afixed to a subfloor and grouted like tile. To seal it, the floor is covered with urethane.

Floor made from recycled wine corks by Jelinek Cork. Photo courtesy of Inhabitat.

More Round Tile Options

Emperador Dark Penny Round Mosaic; Mission Stone & Tile

Red Bubbles from the Tile Store Online.

Bubbles glass mosaic title from Italian firm Evit; available in 12 colors.

3/4" glazed porcelain Penny Tile from Subway Ceramics

Unglazed porcelain penny tile in sage from

Glazed ceramic penny tile in pink from

River rock tile - it's everywhere!

These choices barely begin to scratch the surface of the options I found when I made the rounds on the net, searching for interesting round tile.

Mission Tile offers a penny round mosaic tile called Emperador Dark Penny Round that is made of tumbled stone. The naturally mottled color of the slate gives this tile a handsome texture that would provide a handsome surface for bathroom floors or shower walls.

The Tile Store online offers a glass bubble tile, somewhat like the Evit tile featured above and at right. The Tile Store’s version comes not only in the red version shown, but also shades of green, blue and smoky grays. (Be careful about installing glass tile on floors; it’s easy to crack, and it’s also slippery. It’s much safer to save it for walls and back splashes.) offers both glossy glazed porcelain penny tiles in six colors, and matte porcelain penny tile in five more. (Porcelain is extremely hard and one of the most durable flooring materials you can install.) PennyTile also offers classic black and white versions.

Finally, this web walk-about would not be complete without mentioning the popularity of naturally rounded river stones and pebbles, which are now used as both flooring and back splashes. Because the manufacturers split them in half and adhere them to a backing, they can be installed and grouted with a reasonable minimum of fuss.

I’m seeing river rock everywhere. It’s being used for shower walls, bathroom floors, kitchen backsplashes, and fireplace surrounds. While I love the look, I would never recommend installing such an uneven surface as a kitchen backsplash (a cleaning nightmare) or as a shower floor (many tender-footed types would be unable to shower without wearing rubber thongs).  It would be great on a porch, on a fireplace, or on a bathroom wall that isn’t in the shower. It seems to be widely available, even at Home Depot, and comes in a rainbow of natural stone colors.

A Round Robin on
Blogs Featuring Round Tile

Resource Links:
Where to Find It

Agates: a recycled glass tile from Interstyle

Agates: a recycled glass tile from Interstyle


Flooring: Leave No Stone Unturned

May 26, 2010

This week, Living in Comfort and Joy welcomes guest blogger Wendy Clarke, the savant of stone and tile. Wendy writes the blog "Art, Earth and Stone Tiles." You will find links to her blog's homepage, and some particularly useful posts, below. Contact Wendy at

I believe that tile and stone is sustainable and eco-friendly because it doesn’t have to be replaced during the lifetime of the house. Do it right and do it once.

How to do it Right:
Ask a Lot of Questions

In helping a homeowner to select the right stone or tile, my first questions are all about lifestyle. I ask:

  • Do you have kids? If yes, how many children do you have and how old?
  • Same questions about their pets.
  • How long are you planning on living in your home before selling?
  • Do you cook all the time or occasionally?
  • What kind of feelings do you want to have when you walk into a room?

Secondly, I look at the architectural style of the home and the client. If the home is in search of style, we have an interesting challenge! Lastly, I help the homeowner to consider budgets. Information on what the existing floor is made of, whether the wood frame will need to be reinforced and what the height of existing, surrounding floor that will need to be matched for level will all have an impact on the budget.

I realize that this sounds like a lot to discover, but it all impacts recommendations, and ultimately the choices that are made in stone and tile purchases.

More Choices than Ever, and in More Places

In the last twenty years, natural stone has evolved from exclusive use in mansions, public buildings and office buildings to being available to everyone. Dozens of choices are easily available at Lowe’s and Home Depot. Here are some of my favorite picks.

Travertine tile

Travertine planking is installed like hardwood floors; the standard Versailles pattern, shown here, is now available in an oversized version for large rooms or patios.

Travertine is the most widely used stone and is imported from Turkey and Mexico. Travertine loves to absorb everything that was ever spilled on it. Because it is compressed river sediment, it is filled with tiny holes that water used to flow through. Those holes are filled at the factory and the surface is honed so it is smooth. But because those holes are still there, lurking beneath the surface, travertine is not the best choice for homes with  lots of kids or pets. It’s not a great choice for kitchen floors, back splashes or entry floors, but it works well for bathrooms and matching slabs are available.

From cream to chocolate brown, red, pink and grey the colors, found in travertine are amazing. There are many different finishes available, so pay attention to your home’s architecture. A chipped edge works beautifully in a cottage or a Mediterranean design while a straight edge finish is more appropriate a for modern or ranch homes.

If you already have travertine on your floors, buy a steamer. After you vacuum to get the dirt out of the little holes (always do this first), the steamer will be the best way to clean your floors.

Marble stairs in a church in Florence, Italy, show wear pattern from centuries of foot traffic.

Marble can last forever it comes in every color of the rainbow.  Just think of the churches in Europe; they are filled with marble that has been in place for hundreds of years. But as those churches demonstrate, marble wears and weathers over time. It’s tough to maintain a pristine, polished marble floor or counter top.

If you opt for marble, you should understand that it’s going to develop a patina as you use it. It will become a honed surface, and it will look weathered. Carrara and Calacatta marble are very popular counter tops right now, as are creamy beige tones.  I love them, but I know that marble will stain. Vinegar, lemon juice, tomato juice and other acids can etch the stone as well.  My best advice is to love the evolving patina — or if  you want shiny and perfect, pick something else.

Because marble will stain, maintaining a good seal is important. You should avoid using orange or other citrus based cleaners, and soaps, as well as glass cleaners.  Stick to Ivory soap or stone soaps.

Keep in mind that polished marble on floors can be slippery. It’s better to choose honed, acid washed or brushed finishes for flooring installations.  If you happen to already have a slippery marble floor, you can have honing and acid washing done in place. If you want to change the finish of your existing floors to make them safer, you can call a stone professional to have this done.

The wave-like patterns and colors of a granite slab can provide a handsome palette for a kitchen or bathroom.

Granite is by far the most popular countertop material right now. It comes from all over the world, and offers an amazing range of color and pattern. When remodeling or building a kitchen, I always recommend choosing your granite first and let the rest of the finishes and color choices flow from there.

But please know that some stones that are being called “granite” really are not.  I always recommend that you get a sample piece and conduct a few science experiments. Dump some wine on it and find out if it will stain. Set a hot pan from right off the stove on it and test the results.

Don’t spend thousands of dollars unless you totally love your choice, because it will greet you every morning, and it will be one of the last things you see every night.

Make your choice from a full slab, and remember that your counters are only two feet wide. Also consider the options for finishing. If you don’t like shiny, any granite can be honed by your fabricator, just be sure to get a sample piece honed. I have walked on granite that has been used for outdoor steps — it’s like walking on ice in the rain! To make it surface less slippery outdoors, or to take the gloss off for a kitchen, granite can be sandblasted to create a handsome and practical finish.

The handsome textures and colors of limestone.

Limestone is one of my favorite materials.  Because it’s less porous than travertine, it isn’t full of tiny holes and doesn’t require fills. It’s more expensive than travertine, but it’s definitely worth the money.

Limestone comes in earth tones that range from beige and gold to grey, and even green, giving limestone a more subtle than some of the brightly colored marbles.

Limestone comes in several finishes. One handsome approach is to mix and match finishes in a bathroom or kitchen. You might have a brushed limestone on the floor, honed limestone on the walls and a polished limestone counter. These different textures add richness to the overall design. (Tip: If you use multiple textures, try to get them from a store that buys from the same quarry so the color is consistent.)

Mixing in a wall of glass mosaics to the shower will change the architectural slant to modern, while adding a chipped edge and pattern will create a look that goes well with Mediterranean styles.

Slate tile floor shows the range of color and tonality available with this versatile natural material.

Slate is used both indoor and out, and it offers amazing color choices.  Slate works well if you have indoor rooms that open out onto the patio and want the areas to flow together. Multicolor slates are definitely a personal choice, so if you are selling you home in the near future, you might want to go with something else.

Remember that slate doesn’t like freezing snow so if your patio is white in the winter use something else.  Indoors or outdoors you want to find a gauged slate, a little more expensive than natural but more consistent in height and easier and cheaper to lay so you’ll save the difference in installation costs.  For matching counter top material I’d go with Brazilian slate which is best honed and comes in slabs. Colors are limited to grey, black, green and purple.  There are also honed and brushed tiles to match.  This is my favorite to use in Arts and Crafts homes for both tiles and counters.


The translucence of onyx.

Onyx is found in both Turkey and Mexico, and it can be used to make some beautiful design statements. Because Onyx is translucent, it can be back-lit, making it glow. Underlighting for a bar or under-lighting a countertop creates an amazing focal point. I have seen under-lit floating onyx sinks in powder rooms, kitchen islands that glow in the dark, and plant pedestals that light up outdoor patios.

Onyx is very soft and will scratch easily, so you should not install it in high traffic areas or where it’s apt to get scarred.

If you choose onyx for flooring, you should make sure that it has a tumbled finish or is installed as a mosaic so that it’s not too slippery. Onyx mosaic tiles mixed with glass or limestone make for an especially striking surface combination.

Parting Words of Advice

With all natural stone you want to clean it really well and re-seal about once a year, or call a professional to do it for you.

As a tile and stone designer and salesperson, I have worked on hundreds of floors, both bathrooms and kitchens. I’m always happy to share everything I’ve learned over the years.

My best advice is to have fun with stone and to make choices that will become classics.  Use metal accents or glass and patterns that you can install in unique ways.  Stone tiles can be cut into non-traditional shapes to create a custom look. Travertine planking is installed like hardwood floors; the standard Versailles pattern (shown above) is now available in an over-sized pattern for large rooms or patios.  If you’d like to experiment with them, watch for my upcoming website; it will feature more than 200 layout design patterns that you can play with online. The new website will launch before the end of the year.

Thank you to Nicolette for allowing me to share my love of stone. I have told her that posts on ceramic and porcelain will follow soon.

Backlit Onyx bar in Las Vegas. Image by Wendy Clarke.

Resource Links

On her blog, Wendy writes:

After designing hundreds of floors, backsplashes and bathrooms with clients, I left retail to write “Piece by Piece.”…I love sharing what I know with clients and miss sitting down with a pad and sketching out ideas. So please, pick my brain, share your thoughts and designs because this blog is for everyone who loves tile.

Wendy E. Clarke
Unique Design Resource:


Of Green Lighting and Felonious Filaments

April 1, 2010

Prima Lighting's Titan Collection Mini-Pendant "Sahara." Dimensions Diameter: 5.61" Height: 5.26" 12 volt; light bulb is 50W T5 GY6.35 12v Xelogen. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

I have seen the light! Specifically, I saw quite a few beautiful and energy-efficient lights recently when I happened into Opus Lights, a new, green lighting boutique in San Francisco.

Energy-efficient lighting sure isn’t what it used to be. Fluorescent lights used to be ugly, noisy, harsh, and undimmable while LEDs were dim and homely. But no more!

Perhaps you want a beautiful, artisan-quality energy-efficient pendant light for your newly remodeled kitchen? That’s no problem. Need a dimmable CFL that doesn’t hum? Okey dokey!

Need a bright, white but low-voltage light to showcase diamonds in a store display? Got it! Want a CFL that will cast a rosy glow on customers in your cosmetics studio? Sure thing! Nowadays, low-energy lights come in different shades of white, and the color can vary over a wide range of possibilities.

As you might have guessed, this post will be devoted to beautiful, energy-efficient lighting, and I will be highlighting several suppliers.

Dim Bulbs and Bright Ideas

Prima Lighting's "Sinclair" in blue flake. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Prima Tublix low-energy mini-pendant lamp. Photo credit: Prima Lighting.

Trista Pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Clarity Zenon pendant from Pegasus. This 12-volt halogen quick connect mini pendant light includes glass shade, a quick connect canopy, and the bulb for about $185. Dimmer sold separately. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

Ether halogen pendant from Pegasus. Photo credit: Pegasus Lighting.

I’m prompted to write about this topic not only because of the stunning lighting options I have recently seen, but also to mark two important dates:

  • Saturday, March 27, the third worldwide Earth Hour
  • July 1, 2010 – the day when California’s Title 24 energy legislation goes into effect, significantly changing how we in the Golden State light kitchens in both new and remodeled homes.

I also want to award an official Bronx Cheer to the dim bulbs who created the retro-lighting craze in New York restaurants. It seems that quite a few restaurants have made a point of installing energy-guzzling Edison bulbs as part of a design fad; supposedly they are sending a message about style and the old-fashioned goodness of their food.

According to the federal government’s Energy Star program, if every American home replaced just one Edison incandescent with a standard CFL, in just one year, the nation would:

  • Save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes,
  • Save over $600 million in annual energy costs, and
  • Prevent as much greenhouse gas as would be emitted by 800,000 cars.

What’s in California’s Title 24

The old-fashioned “Edison style” light bulb was banned in the European Union several years ago. The US federal government will mandate more efficient bulbs beginning in 2012. As of that date, all new bulbs will use 25 to 30 percent less energy to produce the same light output as today’s typical incandescent bulbs.

Compared to the EU, California has been slow off the mark when it comes to the push for energy-efficient lighting. Our Title 24, which will become the strictest state-enforced energy code in the US when it goes into effect, was first written in 1978 (!) in response to the energy crisis. California’s current standards went into effect in October, 2005, and the new ones were supposed to take effect last August. They were pushed back and will finally kick in on July 1 of this year (2010).

Here’s what they will require of home owners who are remodeling or buying new property:

  • “Edison bulbs” (incandescent lighting) will be allowed in most rooms, if the lights are controlled by a dimmer switch or a sensor that turns them off when no one is in the room.
  • Outdoor light fixtures will need to use energy efficient bulbs or to be controlled by light and motion sensors.
  • At least half of your kitchen lighting – as measured in Watts – will have to come from energy-efficient light fixtures (generally meaning those using CFL or LED bulbs).

Title 24: Tough in Kitchens?

California has a worksheet for evaluating whether the balance of energy-efficient versus old-fashioned, inefficient Watts in a kitchen meet Title 24 standards. The first time I tried to fill out the form, I found it surprisingly difficult! It’s not that the form is unclear, or that the math is difficult. It’s just that the new forms of lighting are so much more efficient, it’s hard to strike a 50/50 balance. To equal the energy consumption of three small of Edison pendants, you wind up lighting the rest of the room like the Eiffel Tower!

A compact fluorescent is roughly 75% more efficient than a Edison bulb that puts out the same amount of light. It’s a bit confusing to think about, mostly because we are accustomed to mentally weighing the amount of light in watts. I know, for example, that I need at least at 75 watts for reading, and that a 40-Watt bulb is too dim.

But that wattage scale is pretty much history now, because an 11-Watt CFL puts out almost as much light as a 60-Watt incandescent. To make a meaningful comparison, you need to look at the light measured in lumens. (I have included a handy table below that will help you do that.)

Meanwhile, here’s what California’s Title 24 requires for kitchens:

  • Kitchen lighting requirements remain much the same as current codes, with the added provision that internal cabinet lighting cannot exceed 20 watts per linear foot of cabinet space.
  • Your low-energy and incandescent lights must be wired on separate circuits.

These standards, by the way, apply to permanently installed fixtures and not to plug-in lamps.

It’s Easy to Do the Right Thing

The good news about the changing California, US, and European standards is how easy it is to comply. Since energy-efficient bulbs have a longer lifespan than Edison bulbs (if you don’t buy the cheap Chinese versions that sometimes get dumped on the US market), the long-term savings should more than make up for the short-term expense of upgrading your lighting.

Prima low-energy wall sconces

Low-energy wall sconce from Prima Lighting. Photo courtesy of Prima Lighting.

It’s even easy to retrofit those recessed, round, can-style lights in your ceiling without rewiring them. The good folks at Opus Lights showed me screw in adaptors that enable current can-style fixtures to use CFLs that look just like current flood-style light bulbs. In addition, you will find several helpful consumer guides to the best in low-energy light bulb options at the end of this post.

Bright and Beautiful

The best news is how beautifully the options for low-energy lighting have progressed in the past couple years. This is true for track and cable lighting systems, for fixtures, for bulbs, and also for the actual quality of the light they produce.

As mentioned earlier, the new energy-efficient lighting options – both LEDs and CFLs – come in different shades of white. The color of light is expressed in Kelvin units. For example, the warm white Edison bulbs we use have a color temperature of up to 2800K, and they shine with a pinkish light. A halogen bulb, on the other hand, measures  between 2800K to 3500K and creates a clear, white light. A cool white incandescent bulb usually has a color rating of 3600K to 4900K.

Designers draw upon an understanding of the color of different kinds of light, and choose lights that make furnishings, merchandise and people look most attractive.

Prima Lighting

Prima Lighting, which manufactures the great lights I saw at Opus Lights, manufactures  low-voltage lighting systems for commercial, residential, retail and restaurant applications. Their products include bendable monorail and cable lighting systems in sleek chrome and muted silver finishes, as well as chandelier and miniature recessed lighting systems. They also have an extensive collection of pendants, many of which are pictured here.

Prima Lighting Rail System in commercial installation. Photo credit: Prima Lighting

One of the brightest spots in Prima’s line is their vast, handsome collection of low-voltage interchangeable spot light track heads. Prima’s signature FIT system features dual slot openings, horizontal or vertical orientation, and multi-circuit operation. Their wide array of interchangeable pendants and trackheads can be mixed and matched with the various mounting systems.

Pegasus Lighting

Pegasus Associates Lighting, which is based in Pittsburgh, PA, is a nationally recognized e-commerce site that sells unique lighting products to a wide spectrum of customers. Judging from their fan club on Facebook, they’re folksy – a family-run company that prides itself on being friendly, helpful, efficient, and enlightening.

Pegasus’ products are extensive. They include barbecue lights, cabinet lighting, cove lighting, desk lamps, display lights, exit signs, fiber optic lighting, light filters, fluorescent fixtures, light bulbs, LED fixtures, lenses, light boxes, louvers, mini pendant lights, night lights, over cabinet lighting, picture lights, reading lights, recessed downlights, rope lights, shelf lights, showcase lighting, step lights, track lighting, transformers, under cabinet lighting, UV filters, wall sconces, work lights, and xenon light fixtures!

Begun in 1993, Pegasus Associates Lighting is a division of the now-anachronistically-named Edison Lighting Systems, Inc., which has been in business since 1987. On their helpful and information-rich website, Pegasus takes pains to communicate their willingness to help you find and use unique and technologically-superior lighting products. Here’s what they have to say:

We consider a lighting product to be unique or, at least, somewhat unique if it is difficult to find, is contemporary or avant-garde in styling, is unusual in some fashion, uses a state-of-the-art light source or optical design, is custom-made, or is energy-efficient… we prefer to offer our customers lighting products that use LED, fluorescent, halogen, or xenon light bulbs instead of traditional incandescent light bulbs, and we prefer to offer our customers fluorescent lighting products that use quiet, energy-efficient electronic ballasts instead of magnetic ballasts.

Lifespan Hrs.
Energy Cost
5-Year Cost
Incandescent 60W 840 1,000 $8.00 $1,200.00
CFL 11W 770 8,000 $1.45 $217.50
LED 5W 625 50,000 $0.40 $60.00

Getting Creative with LEDs

While researching this post, I found several artistically notable light fixtures built around CFLs or LEDs, and I thought I would close by sharing some of those visual delights.

Behar LED Lamp

The first is Cloud Softlights, which was created by the Molo design studio. Cloud Softlights are made from paper, and they are lit from within by LED lights. They are luminous and abstract, and indeed cloud-like. They can be hung in clusters and shaped to fit the space they are lighting.

The second is a designer-style LED lamp from Yves Behar and EcoCentric. To operate the Leaf Lamp, shown at right, you touch it. It responds to touch to turn on and off, and also to alter the brightness level and color temperature. You can adjust its angle  as well. It’s a low-energy lamp that is made from 95% recycled materials. I found it on a United Kingdom-based website, and I don’t know if it’s available in the US. (But I’m sure if you just have to have it, you can talk them into shipping it to you.)

"Fragile Future" LED installation created by Lonneke Gordijn. Photo credit: Wired Magazine website.

The third is “Fragile Future,” the ethereal LED installation shown at left. Begun as  designer Lonneke Gordijn’s graduation project from the Design Academy Eindhoven in 2005, the sculptural installation pairs the fluff from dandelions with LED lights and wires.

Resource Links

Those who are shopping for stylish, energy-efficient lighting would also do well to visit Gold Notes, the blog written by my friend and fellow designer Jamie Goldberg. I didn’t know that Jamie was writing about lighting, and vice versa, but when her RSS feed popped into my mailbox, I was delighted by the lighting she had found. I’m sure you will be too.

Last Saturday, in the biggest (and possibly most beautiful) demonstration in the world’s history, lights all over the earth were dimmed in honor of Earth Hour – an event designed to raise consciousness about energy consumption and global warming.

Making a Splash: You Can’t Afford Cheap Faucets

March 11, 2010

Asian-accented bathroom from the gallery at (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

When I attended the real estate open house for the flat where I now live, the master bath elicited gasps of appreciation from would-be buyers. The fittings looked strikingly high-end. The wide white sink contrasted handsomely with the modern, expresso-colored vanity and the rubbed bronze fittings. It was almost as pretty as the Kohler-designed bathroom at the right.


As I contemplated the wear patterns on that same rubbed bronze faucet this morning – the faucet shown right below – I realized that it offered both an object lesson and a subject for a blog post about why you can’t afford to buy cheap faucets and plumbing fixtures.

Don’t Mention the Holes in the Ceiling

Three years after buying my house, my bathroom still looks pretty good – if you don’t look too close. (You can see a photo of it at the very bottom of this post.)

Here's my tap: See how the bronze has worn off of the handle?

The (replacement) light in my office. The leak was caused by cheap plumbing fixtures upstairs. The circles show where I lanced the ceiling to let the water out.

The drain looks even worse; the silver chrome underneath the brown finish is showing through. This fitting started to lose its bronzing a week after I moved in!

And you probably wouldn’t even notice the little holes punched around the ceiling medallion in the office if I didn’t mention them.

But if you really looked closely at my bathroom, at my friend Alexei’s bathroom (one floor up), and at the holes in my office ceiling, you would see an illustrated object lesson about cheap, designer-knock-off faucets. One of those cheap knock-offs failed in Alexei’s bathroom, flooding it, dripping down into my ceiling, and creating a swelling water blister that threatened to burst if not quickly lanced.

The cheapest single-hole faucets I can find on the internet now are about $89, and I imagine that’s what Darla (or her contractor) paid for the faucets in my house. But if you add price to that the cost of replacing the tap in a couple years with another one of similar quality, the price becomes $178, plus a plumbers fee, plus fixing and painting the ceiling, it’s going to total more than $500, bringing the cost right in line with buying a decent quality tap in the first place!

By the way, I have never bought cheap faucets willingly.  I have encountered them in the process of buying and renovating whole houses, which come as a package deal.  (Hence,  I often tell prospective clients that one of the best reasons for hiring me to plan and design a remodeling project is that I have “an advanced degree from the school of hard knocks.”  I not only know what to do, I also know what not to do. Like buying that darn tap.)

Darla’s Water Torture

At left is a current photo of the matching drain for my tap. The trim ring was originally manufactured in that popular “rubbed bronze” finish. But as you can see, it’s becoming mostly “rubbed-off bronze” — or perhaps I should call it “ripped off bronze.”

In hindsight, however, this pinto/piebald paint job is one of the least annoying plumbing problems that Darla, the previous owner of my house, bequeathed to its new owners when she “flipped” the property.

Cool Water Bath by Kohler. (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

Detail of Kohler sink from image above. It has the same wide, gracious curves as my sink, but it has been modeled with a side area that gives you a safe place to put your contacts.

Here's a Delta 551-RB Dryden Single Handle Centerset in rubbed bronze that's similar to the style that was chosen for my bathroom. You can get it from on the internet for around $200. (Photo courtesy of Delta.)

More serious were the leaking pipes under the kitchen sink. The plumbing there had only been “staged” – which meant that the pipes were just pushed together without actually being firmly attached.

More seriously annoying was the sump pump that failed and flooded the basement with a pool of poo.

Most serious of all was that drip-drip-drip that I heard on the evening of July 4th of 2007 – a sound that was caused by a tendril of water staking down the chandelier in the office, and then pattering softly onto the hardwood floor.

Don’t Try This at Home

Picture this. I am balancing atop a rickety wooden ladder with a cellphone in one hand and a shish-kebab skewer in the other. I’m using the skewer to lance holes in the ceiling around the chandelier, allowing the water behind it to escape so that the weight of it doesn’t destroy the ceiling.

I’m standing well above the spot that says “don’t stand above this line, you could lose your balance and fall.” But I’m only 5’1″ tall, and I have to stretch up quite a bit to get the skewer close to the ceiling. I’m trying to breathe deeply and remain calm because the ladder is shaky, and now that it’s after dark, booms from the fireworks at Chrissy Field are rattling the windows.

I’m trying not to get rattled, even though my plight seems desperate. The water appears to be coming from Alexei’s upstairs unit, and I’m the only one of the four owners of this building who’s home. My husband is in the hospital having spinal surgery, and Blake and Alexei, having just closed escrow, haven’t moved in yet.

But I can’t leave my post until I relieve the pressure on the ceiling! I know that ceilings do collapse; I have seen it happen elsewhere, when a roof leaked in another building that I remodeled a decade earlier. So my cellphone is a lifeline.

Or is it? It suddenly occurs to me that the growing waterfall might interact badly with the electricity in my cellphone…oh yeah, and that chandelier is attached to live electric wires too!

You Can’t Get a Plumber on the 4th of July!

The author. Nicolette is not afraid of heights or of climbing on ladders.

Alexei has been frantically phoning plumbers – but they are all out watching the fireworks, of course! No matter what you’re prepared to pay, you can’t get a plumber on the night of the 4th of July.

To make a long story short, we coped. After I repeatedly lanced the boil, I went upstairs and discovered that a lake had formed and overflowed in Alexei’s bathtub. It had overflowed onto the floor and through my ceiling. Water was spurting copiously from tap in her shower, and even with help from Alexei’s friend Robin, there was no shutting it off.

We staved off disaster by shutting off the water to the entire building and draining the lines that led to our two flats. Alexei kindly brought me half a dozen juice jars refilled with water to see me through the night.

Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish

This story illustrates why you simply can’t afford to buy cheap faucets. Altogether, cheap plumbing jobs in our two bathrooms have resulted not only in having to repair Alexei’s shower and replace the shower head, but also in having to tear open and repair the marble tile on her bathroom wall, since it turned out that the main leak occurred behind the wall.

The Forté Tall, single-control lavatory faucet from Kohler would be my pick to replace the piebald. It lists for around $370 - less than the old one plus the price of an equally cheap replacement. (Photo courtesy of Kohler.)

Add to that the repair and repainting of my ceiling. Plus the staged kitchen sink. Plus the sump pump. Plus the two clogs from my badly maintained bathtub drains…

Oh, yeah. And then there’s the ugly piebald tap that I can’t afford to replace right now…

You get the picture. My English friends had saying that sums it up nicely: “Penny-wise and pound-foolish.”

The only good thing in all of this was that we did save some money. Our realtor, the late Kari Varland, bought us a one-year home repair insurance policy as a house-warming gift, and that did pay for most of the plumbing problems.

Choosing Bathroom Fixtures

When you choose a bathroom faucet, you should not only think about the finishes, you should also think about what’s inside. There are pros and cons to every choice, of course.

Pros and Cons of Finishes

With regard to finishes, you should consider both the design of your bathroom and your lifestyle. A person who likes a weathered look may not mind the fact that even good-quality rubbed bronze finishes are meant to patina so that they are not even. (But the silver underneath should never show through as it does on my drain.)

Student photo of Nicolette at School of Hard Knocks. This contractor quit the business in the middle of the job - without telling his clients! - and joined the Fire Department. We got the remodel finished and still own the house.

A brass finish may scratch, tarnish or corrode. On the other hand, chrome shows water spots. Enamel-coated finishes can chip and fade. Gold, stainless steel and nickel are durable, but are more expensive.

I would avoid PVC fixtures on grounds of both durability and environmental concerns. The initials stand for Polyvinyl Chloride, a kind of plastic, that is made from petroleum compounds.

Quality on the Inside

For quality inside, look for solid brass construction. It will give you durability and reliability. For safety’s sake, I would also recommend a tap that includes a high-temperature limit stop that will control how hot the water comes out to eliminate scalding.

Taps come with different kinds of valves inside. Compression valves contain washers that can wear out over time, and when they do, the tap will drip. While that’s annoying and wastes water, the washers are cheap and easy to replace.

A ball valve uses a slotted metal ball to control water flow, but they can’t be used in the kind of faucets that have separate taps for hot and cold water. A cartridge valve, on the other hand, is a durable choice that can be used by either a single- or double-handled tap, and it too is easy to repair.

The best solution is a ceramic valve. It’s the most expensive choice, but it needs no maintenance. Ceramic disc valves are extremely durable and can exceed industry longevity standards twice over. They can be used with both single- and double-handled faucets and will come with extended warranties.

Resource Links

Here's the sink and vanity that elicited admiring glances at the realtor's open house. It still looks good from a distance in low light.



Counterculture Chic for your Kitchen

January 15, 2010

If there’s one place you can feel good and green about going glam, it’s in your kitchen. Right now, choosing counter tops for a kitchen remodel makes me feel like a kid in a candy shop! It’s hard to commit to just one, but this post should help you narrow the field.

Alkemi countertop in Koi pattern - this glittering material contains shaved curls of waste aluminum!

These days, it’s hardly counter-cultural to choose a material that contains recycled content. Green building materials have come of age, in part because they are so beautiful, in part because even though they may cost more at the outset, they are more cost effective over the long run. One key to sustainability is choosing good quality materials that will last, instead of repeatedly paying to install and tear out flimsy stuff.

Old Fashioned Values

Seems to me that that’s just good sense! My grandpa Toussaint would never have called himself an environmentalist. He was a welder, a builder, and a patriotic union man with strong values. He believed in craftsmanship, in getting “value for money”, and in building to last.

A couple days ago, friends on Facebook proclaimed "way back week" and put vintage photos on their profiles. Here's mine - I was green when that was counter-cultural.

When I was about 7, I helped him build a staircase. Grandpa was persnickety about his lumber, avoiding anything that was warped or had  knots. He admonished me to measure very, very carefully. He wanted those to stairs fit snug so that they would last a long time. He said that the stairs should still be good when I was older than he was — and he was ancient! I couldn’t imagine how old he was or fathom ever living that long.

Since he had recently retired, I now suspect that Grandpa must have been in his mid-sixties. I bet that whoever owns his house in Denver will indeed be using his stairs in the targeted year — which should be around 2015.

If you choose wisely, your gorgeously green counter tops should be around for your grandchildren.

Here are some of the best choices in sustainable counter tops. At the bottom of this post, under the heading “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us”, you’ll also find a few tips about how to choose something that will work with your lifestyle.

Recycled Glass

If you love color, you’re going to love recycled glass counter tops. They are made from all sorts of cast-off glass: wine bottles, beer bottles, vodka bottles, window glass, even old traffic light lenses.

Malachite countertop from Bioglass; 100% recycled and recyclable.

"Cobalt Ice" from Icestone. contains 100% recycled glass. Icestone operates out of a renovated factory in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, creating green jobs for US workers. When I met the Icestone folks at West Coast Green, I learned that Icestone also employs displaced Tibetan monks!

The glass is mixed into a cement, concrete, or resin base, then baked like a big chocolate chip cookie. Later, it’s cut and polished into a beautiful composite material that has a marble-like quality.

Pros and Cons: On the upside, this composite is stunningly beautiful, very durable, and resistant to stains. Like granite, it’s strong and heat-resistant.

The downside: It does need to be sealed at the factory and sometimes again to maintain it. (Vetrazzo is made with one sealing layer and Icestone comes with two.) Glass counter tops are pricey, running $50 to $55 per square foot at the factory. They run between $100 and $175 a square foot once you pay for shipping and installation. (With all counters, labor, and installation vary by region.)

The Green Story: Although the percentage of glass used to make the counters varies between different manufacturers, all recycled glass counter tops divert glass from landfills. The glass is mixed with cement and concrete – the curing of which does create greenhouse emissions, by the way – but some manufacturers use a kind of concrete that contains fly ash, a waste product from coal-burning. That reduces the greenhouse gases that get produced during cement manufacturing.

Terazzo, Concrete, and Engineered Stone

Concrete counters, some of which look strikingly unlike concrete, have become very popular, and terrazzo surfaces have been popular ever since Venetian artisans invented terrazzo in the middle ages. (Strictly speaking, the glass counters I just discussed would be classed as a terrazzo. Terrazzo is a marble-like surface that contains stone or glass chips held together with a binder of concrete.) Terrazzo is a kind of faux marble, and like concrete, it’s usually opaque. It can contain post-consumer glass, stone chips, and shells other items.

Concrete counter from Cliffe Concrete in Lucknow, Ontario, Canada looks like slate.

Concrete, by contrast, often looks like concrete – and some people want it to look that way. It can also be colored or textured so it looks like marble or stone; the example at left could be mistaken for slate. It can even be inlaid like the counter below at right; at first glance, one might think this is inlaid marble. In contrast to the plain gray, rough material you see on sidewalks, concrete can be quite handsome. (Sadly, the company making Syndecrete, one of the concrete counter tops most favored by designers and architects, has fallen victim to the economy and closed up shop.) But there are still great options, as the photo gallery at Concrete Network and the links below will attest.

I consider concretes and concrete-based terrazzo good substitutes for stone counter tops, which, with few exceptions, aren’t green options. It’s just not energy-efficient to dig up a mountain, blast out chunks of stone, grind them down, and then ship them halfway around the world (usually from China, Italy or Turkey). The one exception would be Caesarstone, which is an “engineered” stone. It’s made of quartz, which is an abundant material. The company is owned by an Israeli kibbutz. Caesarstone does contain a modest amount of recycled material (less than 10%) but the company does take pains to comply with ecological standards and monitoring organizations. Caesarstone is durable, easy to clean, and it resists stains and burning. It’s also pricey. Expect to pay from $50 to $120 per square foot for slabs, then to pay for cutting — and to have to discard the parts of the slab you don’t use.

Pros and Cons: Both terrazzo and concrete can be beautiful, and they offer the same advantages as their recycled glass cousins. They are very durable, resistant to stains, easy to clean, strong and heat-resistant. The disadvantages: They do need to be sealed (and sometimes resealed) and they are very heavy. That means that it requires lots of energy to transport them. Some concretes need to be cast on your site, and they can kick up a lot of dust during installation and finishing. Some are surprisingly expensive, running as much as $80 per foot installed.

Inlaid concrete counter top

The Green Story: These counters don’t “off-gas” toxic substances, which is good for indoor air quality. They are made of readily available materials, which is good. If they contain at least 30% fly ash (as a substitute for cement) they also limit the greenhouse emissions that are created when concrete is made. But buy as close to home as you can since heavy materials do generate a big carbon footprint in shipping.

Ceramic and Porcelain

Ceramic and porcelain are available in a dizzying array of tiles of varying sizes and colors. Prices run about $10 to $20 per square foot for ceramic and $5 to $12 per square foot for porcelain, plus installation costs. (It’s a good idea to have a professional install your tile. If the surface is uneven or if the mastic is not applied correctly, you will soon have cracks in your beautiful tile.)

Counter top made from Fireclay's Debris tile

Pros and Cons: Ceramics are durable and need little maintenance. They resist stains and burning, and retain their color. However, some tile will chip. This is most likely to happen when the colored glaze is applied to the surface only. If you choose a “through body” tile, meaning that the color goes all way through and doesn’t just sit on top, it won’t show chips.

Some ceramics are harder than others, and porcelain is the hardest. It stands up to years of tough wear. Because it’s difficult to clean and easy to soil, the grout needs to be properly sealed. Wide grout lines can be annoying to clean, and all of those little gaps collect dirt, so it also helps choose large tiles. If you choose tiles that are least 18 inches square and keep the grout lines thin, the problem should be minimal.

The Green Story: Ceramic and porcelain are made from naturally occurring and plentiful materials, but it takes a lot of heat, and thus energy, to fire them. In addition, because they are heavy, it takes a lot of energy to transport them. Look for locally manufactured tiles with high recycled content and avoid lead-based and radioactive glazes.

Bamboo Counter Tops

Bamboo counter tops look a lot like butcher block. They are made the same way; the manufacturer glues slender rectangles of end-grain bamboo into panels. These handsome surfaces come in natural shades of brown and gold. Expect to pay around $25 per square foot before installation.

Counter top of bamboo butcher block

Pros and Cons: Bamboo is strong and durable. It can be fastened to your cabinet with hardware, so no glues are needed. It’s stronger than maple, which is commonly used to make butcher block. However, cheap bamboo, which is harvested too soon, can be fail to “lignify” and harden.

Like butcher block, bamboo gains a pleasant patina with use and it can be sanded down to remove scratches. Colors are limited, and the process used to darken natural bamboo to chocolate shades can weaken the material. Bamboo will burn or scorch, and it is somewhat subject to stains. It requires regular care, including sealing or oiling (depending on what coatings are on the surface when you buy it).

The Green Story: Although it’s a great substitute for wood, bamboo is actually a fast-growing grass. That makes it a renewable resource. However, most of it comes from China, and it uses a lot of fossil fuel to get here. In addition, cheap bamboo products can be assembled using toxic glues and coatings. Look for versions that are marked as low formaldehyde and toxic-free.

  • Smith & Fong, South San Francisco, California
  • Teragren, Bainbridge Island, Washington
  • Eco-top Forest Stewardship Council-certified 50/50 blend of bamboo and recycled wood fiber salvaged from demolition sites

Sustainable Wood

Eight reclaimed wood counter top options are available from Craft-Art. The wood came from trees that grew in the 1800s and 1900s.

There’s no getting around the fact that a tree takes four or five times longer to grow than a stalk of bamboo. But butcher-block counters can be made from trees that have been sustainably harvested or made from reclaimed or recycled lumber. Recycled old-growth lumber — wood that can come from old factory floors, beer barrels, or wine vats — often has tighter grain and better quality than contemporary lumber. Sustainable wood has a medium to high cost compared to traditional butcher blocks. Expect to pay $50 to $100 per square foot, plus installation costs.

Pros and Cons. The advantages and disadvantages of butcher block counters are the same for bamboo and wood versions – see above.

The Green Story: Using reclaimed wood reduces need for harvesting new trees. Look for Forest Stewardship Council-certified, salvaged, or reclaimed wood, and ask for a Chain-of-Custody certification when you buy. You should also avoid products with added formaldehyde and look for sealers and cleaners that are environmentally benign.

Compressed Paper Counter Tops

Paperstone counter top

Counter tops made of paper? I couldn’t believe that one when I first heard it. Paper is so soft! How could that possibly work?

Well, it does! Beautifully. When recycled paper is combined with a resin base and industrially compressed, it forms a material that looks a bit like honed stone or tile. But unlike those cold surfaces, this material feels warm and almost suede-like. Compressed paper surfaces come in thicknesses ranging from ¼ inch to 2 inches. The colors available from Paperstone are stunning, but Paperstone’s success has attracted some handsome competitors too. Compressed paper counters are reasonably priced, between $30 and $50 per square foot before installation.

Pros and Cons: A compressed paper counter top can be cut and shaped with standard woodworking tools, and that makes it ideal for the budget-conscious do-it-yourself craftsman. The surface is easy to clean, impact and heat resistant, and quite durable. On the other hand, it can be scratched. The lighter colors may show stains, and darker or brighter colors can fade in direct sunlight.

The Green Story: The greater the percentage of recycled paper the counter contains, the greener it is. These counters can contain nasty glues, and compounds that off-gas “volatile organic compounds.” To preserve your indoor air quality, look for a counter top with low VOCs.

Samples of Alkemi's steel counter top

Recycled Metal Counter Tops

Counter tops can be made from recycled metals, most often stainless steel or aluminum. You can also find the occasional recycled copper counter top. The metal can be recycled in multiple ways: it can be melted and remolded, combined with other materials, or made into tiles. It can also be cut into sheets and used whole.

Eleek aluminum counter and sink

One of the most dazzling examples of recycled metal is Alkemi, a solid-surface material that is made from postindustrial scrap aluminum shavings held in polymeric resin. It’s gorgeous, as the photos in this post show, but it’s expensive. At around $300 per square foot, it costs as much as high-end granite.

Another handsome option is Eleek, which is made of 50 to 90 percent recycled aluminum. Counter tops can be as wide as 3 feet, and because Eleek also makes include sinks and hardware, it’s easy to assemble a sleek, integrated look.

Counter Culture Chick
for Your Kitchen?

Since sustainability is now mainstream, I’m not really a counter-culture chick nowadays. But I am a certified green building professional, and I certainly would like to help you remodel your kitchen.To learn about my services, visit my Comfort and Joy website at

Aluminum counter tops run between $40 to $100 per square foot. Because stainless steel counters and sinks have been used in restaurants for years, you may be able to find a great bargain by looking for an existing counter and/or sink and simply re-using it in its original form.

Pros and Cons: The durability of metal counters, of lack thereof, is directly related to the gauge of the metal. A thin counter, with a gauge under 18, will dent. (A thicker gauge is indicated by a smaller number; a 20 gauge sink is thinner than an 18 gauge sink.) Metal sinks, particularly the thin ones, can also be noisy. Water running in the sink can actually be intrusive enough to make conversation difficult. Aluminum and stainless steel won’t discolor, but copper will first darken and then develop a green patina. If you don’t like that, your choices are to make sure you choose a sink with a very durable surface coating, to spend time polishing the tarnish off your sink, or avoid copper.

The Green Story: To get green benefits from a metal counter, you should use salvaged metal or look for high-recycled content. Because you will attach to substrate with mechanical fasteners, you will be able avoid glues and VOCs, and that’s good news for your indoor air quality. Recycled metals are also recyclable, which means that they can be used again after you’re done with them.

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More from Nicolette

The memorable phrase above comes from the Pogo comic strip. It was written and drawn by the Walt Kelly, who died in 1973.Walt coined the phrase for a poster drawn for the first Earth Day in 1970. It soon  became a rallying cry for all kinds of counter-cultural protests, and was frequently associated with protests against the war in Vietnam.
Your Counter’s Worst Enemy?
Look in the Mirror!
Yes, it’s true. You are public enemy number one where your counter is concerned. (Or maybe public enemy number two if you have children in the house!) That’s why it’s so important to match your counter choice to your lifestyle and cooking habits.A great way to decide on which counter to choose is to get a sample of the counter top material, and then pour some  common staining substances over it. Pay particular attention to the ones you use most often:

  • Balsamic vinegar
  • Coffee
  • Cooking oil
  • Ketchup
  • Lemon juice
  • Red wine
  • Worchestershire sauce

You might also want to try chopping on your sample with a sharp knife to see if it scars. Then place a pan full of hot water on it to see if it discolors.


Obstacles to Overcome: An Accessible Kitchen

December 13, 2009

Your average kitchen is an obstacle course for someone in a wheelchair!

I got a dramatic demonstration of that about a month ago when Dr. Rhoda Olkin, a psychologist, professor, and author, volunteered to give me a tour of the kitchen in the office building where we work. Last week, I showed her the kitchen I designed after that demonstration: my “succulent, sustainable”  kitchen. I went away from that meeting with a lump in my throat, feeling  proud and inspired.

Denim Moss from Icestone. It sparkles with chips of the post-consumer glass used to make it.

The next day, I attended a memorial service for my friend, Kari Varland. Initially, Kari was my real estate agent. Losing her has been a heartbreak for me, and for dozens of others who gathered to remember her. She gave so many of us not only homes, but also wisdom and community.

I have come away from these two experiences renewed in my desire to design beautiful, sustainable, and empowering homes for my fellow boomers and folks who are overcoming disabilities. Although this has been a tough year for me, the obstacles in my path are far less tangible than those that Rhoda encounters, and they should be more surmountable than those that Kari faced.

Encountering Kitchen Obstacles

During my initial meeting with Rhoda, the first surprise came as we left her office. Rhoda invited me to precede her, and then followed in her powered wheelchair. I had always wondered why she had a yellow dog leash hanging on the outside of her office door. Now I learned the answer.

Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

Dr. Rhoda Olkin, Distinguished Professor, California School of Professional Psychology, Alliant International University

To reach the door hardware  – an ADA-compliant level-style door handle – Rhoda’s arm would have to be about a foot and a half longer than it is! To solve this problem, she grabs the dog leash as she wheels by and pulls the door closed behind her.

The kitchen, however, presents far more problems than the office:

  • Counter-productive counters: It’s impossible for Rhoda to reach anything placed at the back of the 24″ deep counters.
  • Out-of-reach shelves: The upper cupboards would be totally beyond her reach except for the fact that Rhoda’s wheelchair is equipped with a lift that will raise her seat about a foot.
  • Fridge door barricade: The refrigerator is placed in a corner on the narrow side of the room, so it’s impossible for her to approach it from the side. She can’t open the fridge from the front either, because the door would have swing through the space occupied by her wheelchair.
  • Cattle chute layout: Once she’s in, she has to laboriously back out of the kitchen because a trash can and recycling bins have been placed along the wall, narrowing the center aisle so much that there isn’t enough room for her to turn around.

Introducing Rhoda Rails! See the double tracks that lead from the cooktop to the sink? They are strips of metal inscribed into the countertop, and they stand about 1/8" above the counter surface. They would allow Rhoda to scoot a heavy pan of hot pasta off of the cooktop and around the corner to the sink to empty the water. It's very difficult for her to lift a pot like that; it takes two hands. If both of your hands are occupied with holding a pot of scalding water, there's no way to move or steer a wheelchair!

Rhoda gave me the kitchen tour because I had asked her if she would comment upon plans I was drawing for a demonstration kitchen. Although it wasn’t meant for a real client, I planned this kitchen to be accessible for someone who has been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and is slowly losing her mobility. “Carla” can walk now, but she needs to plan her home in a way that will accommodate first a walker, and then later, a wheelchair. (Although I’m not working with them, I actually know two people who are in this situation.)

The process of planning this kitchen was an eye-opener for me, and my presentation to Rhoda was one of the most inspiring design experience I have had — a highlight of what has been a very tough year. (Kari is one of three friends who have died from cancer. Meanwhile, I have had numerous inquiries about my design business, but little paying work. The economy is bad and at times, the obstacles seem insurmountable. In moments of despair, I have thought about pulling the plug on this blog, my business plan, or both.) But for now, I will keep on keepin’ on.

A Tour of the Succulent,
Sustainable Kitchen

Carla’s kitchen was designed for two-cooks: Carla and her husband Sam. (See bottom of this post for an overhead view of the kitchen.) The south portion is designed for Sam, the chief chef. It features two ovens and a state-of-the-art induction cooktop. These features are laid out so that they are just steps from the refrigerator, pantry, and sink, a layout that makes for very convenient “kitchen triangle” that meets the requirements I talked about in my earlier blog, “One Rump or Two and Other Kitchen Conundrums.”

Carla's kitchen features multiple height counters: 33", 36" and 42" from the floor for the comfort of cooks who are sitting, standing and for both children and adults. A 42" coffee-bar height cupboard holds a chef's convection oven, while to the right, a 36" high counter holds a Fagor oven, which features a door that opens to the side.

The north part of the kitchen is designed for Carla, who is  Sam’s helper, a “sous chef” who prepares salads and vegetables, mixes drinks, and entertains while the haute cuisine comes together a few steps away. With its 33″ high counters and 9″ high toekicks, this area meets the standards of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The south kitchen, by contrast, is meant to be “visitable”. It has regular height counters and toekicks. It’s designed for Sam, but has special features that enable a person in a wheelchair to easily use it.

In addition, I opened walls and windows to draw in plenty of sunlight, to save energy, and meet California’s new Title 24 energy codes. The succulent, sustainable kitchen uses some gorgeous, green materials, including Icestone counters, Plyboo bamboo cabinets, Hakatai glass tile, and Marmoleum linoleum floors (I have written about most of these in previous blogs).

I drew the color palette from a handsome plant called a sedum, a plant that is often used on vegetated roofs. Because I was thinking about both plants and people, I called the design “succulent sustainability.” (It turned out that Rhoda loves sedum.) My plans wound up including a host of features that were intended to be at once beautiful, beautifully invisible in function, and liberating in their use.

Rhoda’s Reaction

Storage trundle

Storage here is provided by a wheeled, trundle cart. It can be moved in another area to provide legroom to enable someone in a wheelchair to use the cooktop. In addition, it provides an easy way for everyone to get at heavy pots and pans.

I think I must have succeeded, because when I showed Rhoda the completed plans, she said, “It’s beautiful! I love the colors!”

When I started to explain the accessibility features, her voice cracked a little and she said, “You took every single thing I showed you and found a solution for it!”

“It’s rare to find a designer who really understands the barriers and is able to see creatively how to erase them,” said Rhoda. “To do it with the beauty of the design that Nicolette has created is amazing.  The Rhoda Rail impressed me as an example of really thinking from the perspective of the user in a wheelchair, and mixing design with function to achieve an elegant solution.”

Given that my demonstration project seems to have been such a success, I thought I would share some of the accessibility ideas from Carla’s kitchen with my blog readers.

Access Features in the Visitable Kitchen

The visitable, south kitchen includes:

  • Rhoda Rails – sleek silver tracks that protect the counter and enable a seated cook to safely scoot a heavy pan off of the low-profile induction cooktop and across the counter without scratching the surface (see drawing).
  • A wheeled, pot trundle cart under the cooktop that is completely removable to provide leg room for a wheelchair user (see drawing).
  • A remote-control hood over the cooktop.
  • A side-opening Fagor oven that allows an easy approach for a wheelchair user who can get in close to lift hot, heavy pans.
  • Removable shelving under the sink to allow the cabinet to be easily converted for a wheelchair user.
  • Removable, wheeled storage carts that form the front sides of the pantry, but roll out and provide access on both sides to stored items.

Features of the ADA Accessible Kitchen

The north kitchen is fully wheelchair accessible, with ADA-height toekicks and 33″ high counters throughout. Other accessibility features include:

  • Accessible dish washer drawers – it’s much easier to reach into a drawer than a recessed cave, and the drawers can be run individually to save water.
  • A Hafele insert that enables one to pull down the upper cabinets.
  • Sliding cabinet doors that are easily approached from the side by a wheelchair user; these are inset with a translucent panel of resin that encapsulates natural reeds (Varia Thatch).
  • A grab bar that is also useful as a towel rack.
  • Swinging doors into the dining room – easy to open for servers who have their hands full as well as a person in a wheelchair. An insert of translucent 3-Form Varia Thatch here enables a server or wheelchair user to know if someone is on the other side.
  • Removable storage under the sink that allows for easy conversion when Carla needs to trade the storage space on the shelves for knee space when seated in a wheelchair.
  • Taps on the sink mounted at the side for easy reach from seated position (this is also true in the south kitchen).


In Memoriam: Kari Varland

In memory of Kari Varland, who was not only a good friend and a great real estate agent, but also a role model and an inspiration.

When my friend Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer last April, I wrote about my grief in a post called “Object Lessons”. (I referred to  her as “Katie” rather than Kari, to protect her privacy.) At the time, I said:

While I know that none of us gets out of this life alive – it’s a question of when, rather than if we’re leaving – it’s especially hard to cope with the idea of someone dying in their mid-forties, let alone a bright, energetic former gymnast…

If there’s a lesson in this tragedy, I think it’s this: Be here now. Live fully now, because we don’t know how many days we have left to us. Ironically, the only way to be fully present in the here and now is to fully let go of what we have lost; you simply can’t be fully present if you’re living in the past.

Kari always lived in the present; she was chatty, energetic and, in business, she knew how to cut to the chase. She will remain vibrantly alive for many years to come in the memories of the many people who gathered to remember her yesterday. We remembered Kari as “a pushy broad” and someone who could eat, talk and drive all at the same time. We also remembered her as someone who gave parcels of food to street people, who would give back chunks of her commission to set things right for her clients, and who had a magic touch for bringing people together.

That’s why, in April, when she was diagnosed, her friends came together to create a silent auction to raise money to support her in her final months. As one vowed, “It seems that there’s no safety net for a self-employed person with a fatal disease. But if there’s no safety net, we’ll just have to weave one.”

Kari’s friends wanted to do that, because of the way she had supported them – us – through the difficult times in our lives. In both her life, and in the way she ended her life, she had the magic of bringing people together, creating friendships and community. As one friend said, “She left us with homes and with community — what a legacy!”

Kari had a magic for solving problems and creating connections — it’s something I aspire to, though I doubt that I will ever approach her energy and effervescence. I can only hope that I can be as much of a guide to my own clients, and that half as many people will show up for my memorial when the time comes. The following words come from an obituary written to Kari in the San Francisco Chronicle:

“Far more than an agent who helped with a transaction, Kari’s role was that of a guide and confidante, who used her wisdom and sensitivity to help her clients navigate through one of the most important decisions of their lives. Many of her clients became lifelong friends. In February of 2009, Kari was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Kari lived with her illness over the past year just as she lived her entire life — with dignity, courage, passion, grace, warmth and an endless concern for others.”

Rest in peace, Kari. I will try to follow your example and your star, and I will miss you always.


1 Rump or 2 and Other Kitchen Conundrums

October 28, 2009

“Please take our guests to the living room. This is strictly a one-rump kitchen!”  I used to often hear that memorable phrase when my husband and I lived in a small apartment. Mason and I now have a two-cook kitchen, but the practice of asking “one rump or two” is one that’s very useful to anyone considering the redesign of a kitchen.

Remodeled kitchen from Keane Kitchen showrooms.

A well-designed, two-rump kitchen offers separate counter spaces for two cooks: one area should be adjacent to the range and another for salad and drink preparation. A kitchen designed for two cooks usually has two sinks, and often more than one oven, as is the case with the beautifully designed kitchen here, the work of my friend and fellow designer, Jamie Goldberg.

But with kitchens, bigger does not necessarily mean better!

A few years ago, a relative – I will call her Antoinette – excitedly invited me over to see her new multimillion dollar home. My immediate  reaction to her “dream kitchen” — it’s a nightmare!

I immediately saw that it was the kind of kitchen that David L. Brooks skewered in his book Bobos in Paradise as “an airplane hangar with plumbing”. Antoinette’s kitchen island looked about the size of Maui!

In reality, the island was around 10 feet square. If the surface had been a bit higher, the outer edge could have been used as a stand-up bar  – if you happened to be serving ors d’oeuvres for 30 or so people! But its depth and circumference were bad news when it came to food preparation. It was so wide no one could reach the center, and to use the appliances, one would need track shoes. Since the appliances were scattered in a ring facing the island, reaching them would be like training for a track meet.

Kitchen at Monticello Monticello’s kitchen was among the best equipped in Virginia. While serving as U.S. Minister to France, Jefferson purchased a large number of cooking utensils for his residence in Paris. In the early 1790s, as part of an 86-crate shipment of goods, he had them shipped back to America and eventually to Monticello. While the cellar of the South Pavilion housed Monticello’s first, relatively small kitchen, a second kitchen was constructed during the expansion of the house. Completed by 1809, the newer, much larger work space featured a bake oven, a fireplace, and an eight-opening stew stove with integrated set kettle. A tall case clock also stood in the kitchen: Isaac Jefferson, one of Monticello’s former slaves, recalled that the only time Jefferson went into the kitchen was to wind the clock.  The kitchen's brick floor, bake oven, fireplace, stew stove, and the tall case clock seen at Monticello today are part of a restoration and re-interpretation effort that culminated in the summer of 2004 with the opening of the space to visitors.

Thomas Jefferson's kitchen at Monticello’s was among the best equipped in Virginia, thanks to all the utensils he picked up while serving as US Minister to France. This is Monticello's second kitchen, an 1809 upgrade that featured a larger work space with bake oven, fireplace, and 8-opening stew stove with integrated set kettle. The restored kitchen is open to visitors.

Although I was kind enough to keep my thoughts to myself, mumbling something about the kitchen being “impressive”, I knew that Antoinette was going to come to loathe the kitchen. It had been designed to impress, and the design was about conspicuous consumption more than about food consumption. (The message in the design, I believe, was “let them eat cake.”)

Over the centuries, our kitchens have come full circle from being the center of family life, to being galleys intended for food preparation to again becoming a gathering place for family and friends. Since the 1950’s, multiple trends have bulked up our kitchens, tripling its size. June Cleaver’s kitchen, seen on the 1957-63 TV show “Leave It to Beaver,”  was less than 100  square feet. The average American kitchen is now around 225 square feet!

This increase does not reflect bigger families. During the same time, the size of the American family has shrunk. While some of the changes are driven by technology, the big drivers for kitchen remodeling have been social, related to both to changes in how we really live and how we want to live.

Reasons to Remodel Your Kitchen

While there’s always a bit of “keeping up with Joneses” that figures into remodeling plans, there are also some green and family-affirming reasons to remodel.  The schedules of two-career families demand that we be able to cook quickly, and they may also prompt us to do more business entertaining at home. Couples often want to be able to invite friends to have a drink in the kitchen or help with salad prep while a convivial meal is being prepared.

Parents need a convenient place to feed the kids, to keep an eye on them while cooking, and also to enable the kids to make their own snacks. Safety can also be an issue.

Dish drawers are an energy saving alternative to the standard dishwasher.

"Dish drawers" are an energy-saving alternative to the standard dishwasher. They can handle as much as a traditional 24-inch dishwasher, but because each drawer runs independently, you can wash small loads as economically as large ones. The model pictured is from Fisher-Paykel.

In addition, some people also want to reduce their energy bills and lower emissions that drive climate change. In addition to replacing old, inefficient appliances with new “Energy Star” models, eco-conscious homeowners can offset the use of artificial lighting by increasing “daylighting”. Improved window placement, insulated frames, and low-emissions glass can improve the color and quality of interior light while significantly cutting drafts, winter heat loss, and summer overheating.

A remodel also provides an opportunity to replace old incandescent light fixtures with energy-efficient compact fluorescent, LED, and halogen lighting. (Incandescent light bulbs have actually been banned in Ireland, and Title 24, the California energy bill that goes into effect in January 2010, will require that half of kitchen light in newly built homes comes from energy efficient light fixtures.)

All in all, the kitchen is one the two most-often remodeled rooms in the house. (The bathroom is the other.) In this first post, I will look at changes in how we configure and use our kitchens, and I will also include some tips and tool for thinking about ways to improve your kitchen. In later posts, I will return to the topic of kitchens, exploring small kitchens, wheelchair accessible kitchens and other kitchen topics.

It’s best to start with a plan. That seems obvious to me, but apparently not to everyone. I recently heard a story about a woman who simply went out and bought all new appliances without having a plan in place. Because most of them wouldn’t fit, they wound up sitting in her garage for over a year while she backtracked, trying to decide whether to sell the appliances or to ask a contractor to enlarge her kitchen. Who knows, those appliances might still be in the garage had she not met a designer in a tennis class!

I suggest that you start planning for a kitchen remodel not by looking at new appliances – you will get to that – but by first looking at how you use your kitchen now and how the changes you can anticipate over the next ten years will change your needs.

What’s the Best Size for My Kitchen?

Do you need to enlarge your kitchen, adding on or borrowing space from another room? Maybe, maybe not. The optimum size is based first and foremost on how many people will be cooking, and how many will be visiting the kitchen. Here are some questions to answer:

  • Is a one-cook kitchen sufficient?
  • Does your family have a main cook and a sous-chef who does the chopping and prep work?
  • Do you want a kitchen where multiple family members or friends can join in, helping with salad making, table setting and other dinnertime activities?
  • Does your kitchen need a family activity area where children can do homework or color near mom while she’s cooking?
  • Do you pay bills or use a computer in the kitchen? If so, you might want to add a small desk or a convertible work area.

The National Kitchen and Bath Association (NKBA), a respected trade industry group, offers some great guidelines for figuring out the best size for your kitchen. Here are a few:

Kitchen layout

There's a sequence to kitchen work - first the cooking and serving, and later, the dishes! In this floor plan, the orange triangle connecting the sink, stove and refrigerator shows the work area for the main cook while the yellow triangle demarcates her helper. If these triangles cross, traffic problems ensue. The yellow triangle does cross the green clean-up triangle, this probably won't cause a problem since prep and clean up don't happen at the same time.

Countertops – You need at least 158 linear inches of counter. The surface  should be 24″ deep with at least 15″ of clearance between the counter and the upper cabinets. (But a wheelchair user needs 18″ deep counters because she cannot reach the back of a 24″ counter.)

Loading and prep areas - You need about 2 feet of space next to your fridge, sink, and stove to load, unload, and prepare food.

Opening doors and appliances - All doors should swing freely; your dishwasher door should not catch on the pull for the adjacent cabinet, and your stove door should open without causing a trip hazard. (Having enough room for door swings is partly a function of space planning, and partly a function of room size. Small rooms may require different types of doors and some other ingenious solutions.)

Aisles – A working aisle should be at least 42″ for one cook and at least 48″ for multiple cooks. (But one cook doesn’t need more than 60″ either!)

Measuring Kitchen Efficiency

In a kitchen, the “primary work triangle” is formed by lines drawn from the kitchen sink to the refrigerator and stove. For efficiency’s sake, each side of that triangle should be no less than 4 feet long and no more than 9 feet long. The total of the lengths of the three legs should be no more than 26 feet long.

Galley kitchen

Be it ever so humble, the galley kitchen layout is among the most efficient kitchen arrangements.

It can be a challenge to keep within that limit in today’s large kitchens. For example, the kitchen shown above is 13.5 feet wide and 22 feet long; the sides of the sous chef’s triangle add up to nearly 26 feet. That makes for a lot of walking back and forth!

The most efficient kitchen is probably the galley kitchen; it’s basically two counters with a working aisle in the center. The galley’s small size limits walking distances, and if there’s enough counter space, it can be a delight. Indeed, a caterer we hired to put together a buffet in our  “one-rump” kitchen told me that it was the most efficient kitchen in which she had ever worked.

I was very pleased, having laid it out myself. Although I knew nothing about kitchen triangles at that point, I had argued with our contractor about the kitchen layout. He wanted at 6-foot wide center aisle. That convinced me that he didn’t cook much! If he had, he would have known that an aisle that wide would force the cook to take 2 or 3 extra steps every time s/he went from the stove to the sink.

Kitchen layout by Nicolette Toussaint

Better! I revised the kitchen above so that the two cook's triangles and the clean-up triangle don't cross. This involved downsizing the main refrigerator slightly and adding a set of refrigerator drawers in the sous chef's salad prep area. Because this kitchen is designed to also be wheelchair accessible, the aisles are fairly wide (all doorways are 36") and the counters in one area are set at 33" above the floor - easier to reach from seated position that the standard 36" counter height. These lower counters also enable kids to make their own snacks more easily.

All of those extra steps add up to what’s called a “travel penalty.” In the two-cook layout above, both chefs – or rather their feet – are going to be paying that penalty.

The goal in kitchen planning is to have the triangles as compact as possible, but to also ensure that work triangles  don’t cross so that kitchen workers don’t bump into one another.

There are multiple types of travel patterns in a kitchen: movements of the main and sous-chefs, of table setting and serving, of clean-up, of unpacking groceries and unloading the dishwasher, to name a few. The simplified kitchen layouts here show just three of the most-used patterns: the chef, the sous chef, and clean-up. Because the main chef will be preparing the entree at the same time the sous chef is making the salad, it’s important that the two cooking triangles (red and yellow in the big layouts) don’t cross.

In practice, and in smaller kitchens, it’s likely that some of the triangles will cross, so while minimizing them, it’s also important to consider the sequence of traffic patterns. Some of us do clean up while cooking, but most of the clean-up traffic (indicated by the green triangles) will occur after the cooking is done. In most cases, our kitchens involve some trade offs, and it’s best to make them consciously – and before the appliances are purchased.

Other Kitchen Conundrums

Here, in no particular order, are a few useful planning tips to keep in mind if you’re thinking of remodeling your kitchen:

  • Consider the next buyer. Unless you and your house have a until-death-do-us-part arrangement, you should consider the next owner’s likely needs as well as your own desires. You may love that Wolf professional-style range, but the person who buys your house might consider it a problem that detracts from the value of the house.
  • Don’t get too trendy. Similarly, it’s a good idea to consider how the durable parts of your design – such as tile, flooring and appliances – are going to look in 5 or 10 years. For example, right now a retro-1960’s palette is very much au courant. It seems like every interior design magazine I see features several interiors in the same baby blue and brown combo, as well as lime green and orange. If you paint your walls in trendy colors like those, they can be easily changed, but counter tops will cost thousands, not hundreds, to replace. And I can guarantee you, that in 10 years, we will be looking at brown-and-blue rooms and yawning “that’s just so 2009.”
  • Don’t overspend. Once you get to looking at high-end appliances, counter tops and flooring, it’s really easy to drop $150,000 on a kitchen.  The cost of the design shouldn’t exceed 20 percent of your home’s value. You can typically recover up to 8 percent of that cost when you sell your place.
  • Watch for “bad adjacency“. If you live in an old house or apartment, you have probably inherited some old-fashioned design trends. One of the worst is having a bathroom that opens from the kitchen, something considered very undesirable, even tasteless, by modern buyers. It’s well worth correcting this during a kitchen remodel, as well as finding ways to enclose or otherwise hide laundry appliances. Among other bad, but common adjacency problems are noisy kitchens that neighbor sleeping or study rooms.
  • Fix the lighting. You’ve probably had the annoying experience of having your own shadow fall across the vegetables you’re chopping, making it hard to see. This happens when kitchens are designed with just one or two central ceiling lights; those fixtures may create adequate “ambient” light, but don’t do a good job of lighting counters.  When your central lighting is supplemented with proper task lighting – for example, fluorescent panels tucked away under the skirts of your upper cabinets – it  can greatly decrease your chance of injury while preparing a meal. In addition, you will want to ensure that your light does not produce glare on work surfaces.
  • Cork is a great choice for the kitchen floor. Naturally resilient and forgiving to both the cook's back and dropped dishes, it also quiets the room by absorbing noise. This handsome floor is from WoodFloors Online.

  • Reduce the noise level. Today’s dishwashers are much better insulated, and thus quieter, than those of a decade past, but they’re still noisy enough to interfere with conversation. Ditto for range hood fans and washers and dryers. If you add to that the noise produced by your refrigerator, plus the echos of footfalls on stone or tile flooring, the kitchen can be a noisy place. Pay attention not only to the energy ratings of your appliances, but also to the specifications on how much noise they produce. You might also want to consider putting some sound-absorbing surfaces, such as fabric or wood, somewhere in the kitchen, and perhaps even adding some sound proofing to the walls if sleeping or study rooms are next to your kitchen.
  • Consider what’s underfoot. Marble is beautiful, but it can be slippery, as can other kinds of polished stone. If you choose a slip-resistant flooring –  a matte-finished wood, bamboo or laminate; cork, or textured or a soft-glazed ceramic tile – you may prevent a fall. (If you’re holding a hot casserole or a knife when you fall, you could be in for a trip to the ER.)  If you select tile, you should also place a throw rug with a non-skid backing in areas that get wet.
  • Think safety. Your kitchen layout should enable you to locate the range and cook top away from doorways and passages, and it’s also a good idea for parents to opt for rounded corners on counter tops. In addition, consider the heights of the adults: the NKBA’s Kitchen Planning Guidelines say that microwaves should be installed 3″ below the principal user’s shoulder but no more than 54″ above the floor to avoid accidents.

Resource Links


Tea“One Lump or Two, Dear?”

The work triangles I discussed in this post were developed back in 1944 after the University of Illinois conducted a number of studies of kitchen design, and they gained wide adherence in the US in the 1950’s.

I was tickled to learn that our British cousins have quite a different tool for measuring kitchen efficiency. They count the number of steps the cook has to take to prepare a cuppa tea, English style.  That’s not just a matter of dunking a tea bag in hot water, the way the Yanks do it.

Instead, it requires taking down and pre-heating the cup with tap water, filling the kettle, heating the tea water, gathering the tea, fetching the milk from the refrigerator and the sugar from the cupboard, replacing the tap water with boiling water, steeping the tea, and finally serving it. Those tasks take the cook to each end of the triangle, and possibly then some.

Because one the nicest rituals in my life is awakening to a cup of British-style tea with milk, served in bed by my loving husband, I was delighted to share this piece of design trivia with him. Mason is retired, and he wakes up hours before I do. He says he finds the tea-making process pleasant, and we both enjoy our pre-dawn tea and conversation. While writing this post, I asked him to count the number of steps he walked while making our tea in our current two-rump kitchen.

The total came out to 25.  I was asleep so I don’t know whether they were sleepy, mincing steps, or big, bold strides.


Linoleum: It’s Not Old School Anymore

June 6, 2009
Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

Stunning floor of Forbo Marmoleum uses patterns and inlays to give the effect of a tribal rug. Marmoleum Click is the first flooring product to be certified asthma and allergy friendly™ by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America

If the word “linoleum” conjures up stodgy images of granny’s old gray kitchen, think again! Linoleum has been rediscovered as an earth-friendly flooring that comes in a pleasing range of colors and also can be used to create custom patterns that match the colors of your room. With linoleum what’s old – nearly 150 years old – has become new again as we have become more conscious about the impact our interior choices have on our finite resources and our health.

This post, another in my occasional series on flooring, shows some of the beautiful things you can do with linoleum. I will also review lino’s history and the environmental advantages of this venerable, yet vibrant floor covering.

Today’s linoleum comes in both rolls and easy-to-install click-together tiles. As you will see below, there are also borders that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. Want a floor to set off a collection of African masks? No problem! You can choose an ochre red body mottled with earth tones, and set it off with a primitive patterned border like the one in the Farbo Marmoleum floor shown in the photo at left.

If you want the logo of your business styled into the floor of your home office, you can do that too. Linoleum can be custom-cut with water jets and inlaid to achieve curvilinear patterns like those shown in the Armstrong Marmorette floor below. Then again, maybe you just want a kitchen floor that’s easy to clean, comfortable under foot, and coordinates with that glass tile you got enthused about after reading last week’s blog. Because linoleum can be purchased in sheets, you can avoid the clean-up problems that come with maintaining tile and grout.

The design and color choices for linoleum are vast. The two manufacturers with the widest selection are Forbo, a Scandinavian company, and Armstrong. Forbo offers a palette of more than 100 colors and an impressive selection of 18 patterned borders and corners, which are shown below. Armstrong offers multiple lines of linoleum: Marmorette, a collection of 67 marbled surfaces; Colorette, a collection of 20 lively solid colors; Granette, 18 colors that have a granite-like coloration; Linorette, 18 deeply mottled patterns; and Uni Walton, a commercial collection of 9 strong, modern solid colors.

While linoleum costs more initially than its usual rival, vinyl flooring, it’s far more durable and cost-effective in the long run. A good quality vinyl floor will last around 15 years, but a linoleum floor can easily last 40 years! Plus, linoleum delivers health and environmental advantages that vinyl flooring can’t touch. More about those later. First, I will briefly look at the origins and history of linoleum – an interior material that was invented as the result of a fortunate industrial accident.

History of Linoleum

Marmoleum borders

Marmoleum borders

Linoleum was invented in 1860 when an Englishman named Frederick Walton failed to seal the linseed oil he was using to thin his paint. Walter was a manufacturer of a rubber flooring called Kamptulicon – a covering that was a cheaper alternative to the wood, tile, and stone floors of the time. Walton was interested in finding something cheaper and more attractive than Kamptulicon. When his linseed oil was exposed to the air overnight, a skin developed on top of it, and he wondered if that film might be useful as a flooring material. He began tinkering.

Walton invented a new floor covering and named it “linoleum” by combining to two Latin words: “linum” which means linseed and “oleum” which means oil. He received patents in 1890 and 1894 for it. Walton’s “floor cloths” were made from oxidized linseed oil, pine resin, and granulated cork on a hessian (hemp) backing. In 1868, Walton established a factory in Staines, England and was soon exporting to Europe and the US. By 1877, Kirkcaldy, Scotland was the linoleum capital of the world, with six manufacturers in that one town.

The first US company opened on Staten Island in 1877. In 1887, Scotsman Sir Michael Nairn founded another company that in time became Congoleum.

The popularity of linoleum floors continued to grow for decades. It was widely used in homes, and also in schools and hospitals. The lino floors installed in the thousands of schools built for the post-World-War-II Baby Boom crowd definitely stood up to traffic. Having visited many aging primary schools, I can testify that many of them still remain serviceable.

By the 1960’s, vinyl flooring became widely available, and linoleum faded from vogue. Armstrong, which had produced enough linoleum to pave a six-foot path to the moon and circle it four times, stopped manufacturing linoleum for a period of 25 years.

Some US companies even allowed their patents to lapse, an oversight that they came to regret decades later when ecological concerns prompted renewed interest in linoleum not only for flooring, but also for wainscoting, counters, and tabletops.

Linoleum Versus Vinyl

Linoleum and vinyl floors share some common characteristics and are considered as alternatives in similar installations. Along with cork, vinyl and linoleum are classed as “resilient floors.” This means that they are somewhat springy, will absorb impact and can “bounce back” to their original shape. (Within limits, however. High heels are the enemy of all floors, and because of the extreme pressure they exert in a small area, they can permanently dent any flooring material other than ceramic tile or stone.)

While these two types of flooring look and feel similar, I think that in terms of environmental impact and personal health, there’s not much of a contest between them. Both are available in a wide range of colors and patterns, and both are produced in sheet and tile forms. Both are good choices for people with dust allergies because smooth flooring, in contrast to carpeting, does not provide a good habitat for dust mites. But each has advantages and drawbacks. Here’s a summary of the pros and cons for linoleum and vinyl:

  • Linoleum is the green choice. Its ingredients make it recyclable and biodegradable.
  • Linoleum is far more durable. A linoleum floor will last two to three times as long as a vinyl floor. The pattern on a vinyl floor is printed on the surface and then covered with a clear “wear” layer. But both the outer wear and the pattern layers are relatively thin and can wear through, showing obvious abrasion in high-traffic areas. By contrast, the color in linoleum flooring goes all the way through. This means that the pattern on a linoleum floor cannot wear away.
  • Linoleum initially costs more, but is cheaper over the long run. Linoleum flooring squares run $6-$8 each while sheet vinyl runs $1-$5 per square foot and sheet-style linoleum costs about the same as high-end vinyl sheet flooring. Installation for linoleum may also be a bit higher. But when you’re figuring the lifetime cost of your flooring, double the price of that vinyl floor, because you’re going to have buy and install two of them during the lifetime of the linoleum floor.
  • There’s a lot of waste with vinyl flooring, and that runs up the cost. To get a seamless installation, you must often buy far more than you need. This is because the width of the sheet often will cause seams to fall in the wrong places.


    Forbo Marmoleum: pattern “Donkey Island”

  • With linoleum squares, you can avoid waste by just buying what you need. The most popular size of linoleum tiles are 12″ squares, packaged 9 to a box. You can buy boxes of several colors and mix them to coordinate with your color scheme.
  • Vinyl is easier to install. Because it’s synthetic, vinyl is less vulnerable to moisture and water damage than linoleum – even though it too will curl and warp at the edges if they are not well sealed. You have probably seen this in old kitchens or bathrooms.
  • Vinyl is also somewhat more resilient in the face of sloppy maintenance. Linoleum should be cleaned using little water, whereas the face of vinyl sheet is impervious. (The seams, however, can leak.)
  • Some linoleum floors should be waxed; others don’t need it. Armstrong’s Marmorette, for example, is finished with NaturCote, a high-performance coating that protects against dirt, scratches, and scuffs, and provides resistance to chemicals and discoloration. With this choice, the need for polishing and buffing is virtually eliminated.
  • Linoleum is a healthier alternative, both in terms of indoor air quality and germs. While linoleum does emit linseed oil fumes for a brief period – a week to a month – while it’s new, and while some people dislike that smell, it is harmless. Lino does not emit volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) and vinyl does. VOCs are real culprits in indoor air pollution. In addition, linseed oil has natural anti-bacterial properties.
  • Your installation method can add to indoor air pollution. Sheet flooring is glued down, and the glue usually contains VOCs unless you make sure to buy an adhesive that is free of them. A good alternative to a glued floor is Forbo’s snap-together Marmoleum Click tiles; they can be installed as a “floating floor” that doesn’t require any glue.

What’s in Today’s Linoleum?

Since Frederick Walton’s time, the recipe for making linoleum has improved, but the ingredients haven’t changed much.

Armstrong Marmorette with Naturecoat

Armstrong Marmorette with NaturCote

Contemporary linoleum contains cork powder for bounce and resilience, resins (which come from pine sap), wood flour, and limestone dust for hardness. Various pigments – which may or may not qualify as being green, depending on the manufacturer – are added to create pattern and color.

The basic ingredient is still linseed oil, which comes from the flax plant, 80 percent of which comes from Canada, the world’s leading flax grower. To create flooring, linseed oil is oxidized. Other ingredients are then added, making a thick paste called linoleum cement. This is heated until it becomes spongy. Then it’s ground up, mixed with wood flour and other ingredients, applied to a foundation and rolled smooth. It is seasoned in drying rooms, then cured and hardened under ultraviolet light.

After you get it and expose it to light, linoleum will “amber”, subtly changing its color and yellowing slightly. This is most noticeable with white, off-white and light-colored floors. You can preview the effect of ambering, and see how your floor will look permanently, by placing a sample of the flooring in a window in the sun for an hour or so before installation.

Here, as always, are some links that will help you learn more about linoleum and see what’s available.

Links for Linoleum


school28A couple years ago, I took a trip down memory lane and visited Montview Elementary School in Aurora, Colorado. This was the school I attended during the Eisenhower years – which seemed to last forever! Although Montview has been extensively remodeled, some of the original linoleum floors are still in place and still serviceable.

I remember the floor pattern well because I spent the better part of the third grade on crutches due to a ski injury. During the four months I waited for my broken leg to heal, I had to pay particular attention to where I placed my crutches, avoiding slippery puddles from melding snow. I can close my eyes and visualize many of the floor surfaces to this day!

Those floors didn’t look a bit like the fun and fanciful Forbo Marmoleum flooring shown here, but I bet the kids who play on this floor will remember it – and it may still be there when they come back to visit with their grandchildren in tow.


Glass Tile for Sustainable Style

May 20, 2009

Glass tile is a classy, eco-friendly material. In this post, I’m going to review three tile manufacturers not just to aid and entertain you, but also to give myself a chance to gorge on some delicious eye candy.

Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay

Stairway featuring Debris Tile from Fireclay. Half of that content comes from recycled glass bottles.

Regular readers won’t be surprised to learn that I have a passion for glass: art glass, doorknobs, drawer pulls, jewelry – and of course, glass tile! I find the color caught inside glass even more satisfying than my watercolors. (My paintings are not soft and watery like a Turner landscape; the colors are vivid and I love definitive line and form.) I experience a physical thrill of pleasure when I gaze into glass, observing the way it concentrates color – so pure, so transparent and intense! Then too, I love the bubbles, gradients, layers and textures that form in glass.

You can get glorious color, transparency, and texture in glass tile, and you can feel good about choosing it. Glass is an earth-friendly material.

What’s more, glass is completely recyclable, a substance that can be designed into a cradle-to-cradle manufacturing process. Old glass can easily be ground up, melted, and then recast into dishes, counter tops, tile or what-have-you.

Glass is made from three common substances  – silica, lime, and soda ash – that occur the world around, so it seems that plants making tile from recycled glass should be located all across the country.  My searches turned up numerous companies recycling glass into tile on the west coast, but I found almost none in the center of the country or on the east coast! Ecologically speaking, it’s far better to buy regionally – within 500 miles –  and avoid generating a big carbon footprint by shipping your glass tile a long distance.

Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile

Calliope Garden glass tile from Hakatai Tile

Whether you want to bring elegance to an entry, add color to a kitchen, beautify a bathroom, or put sparkle into a stairway, glass tile offers ways to do it. Glass tile is durable, easy to clean, and comes in an amazing range of styles and colors. Because I’m writing a blog rather than a book, I will cover only a few color and style options here. But the links at this post’s end will help you find choices galore as well as eco-conscious suppliers around the country.

Glass: Handle with Care

As with most materials, glass has its weak points: Because it’s usually slippery, it’s usually not a good choice for floors, except as a small accent. Because glass will shatter when subjected to extreme heat or cold, and because it can chip or crack if you accidentally whack it with a skillet, it’s not recommended for counter tops. (There are special forms of tile that combine glass with other materials and provide a very durable counter top while incorporating glass.) Glass tile works well for back splashes, for shower surrounds, on fireplaces, in swimming pools, around fountains, on the sides of steps, and on walls.

Choosing Your Colors

Glass can be glitzy, and the color can be intense. That’s one of its wonders, of course, but it’s easy to get carried away. If you want to choose vibrant or metallic colors, it’s probably best to make that glass tile an accent, rather than the main body of a wall. Designers often use a 60/30/10 rule for balancing color; they allocate a base color to 60% of a room, 30% to a related color, and 10% to a contrasting, accent color. Colors that “work” together usually form geometric patterns when laid out around a color wheel. Designers actually have names that describe those relationships; for example, there are jazzy complimentary palettes, subdued monochromatics with tints or shades, and colorful triadic palettes.

I would avoid trendy color combinations. There’s nothing wrong with powder blue or brown, but if you choose a tile that mixes those two colors for your kitchen, they will be together for the life of the tile. Right now that combo is in. But in a few years, someone will walk into your kitchen and think, “Oh yes! That was done in 2009, when those late 1960’s shades came back.” If you want to be au courant, you can paint the room powder blue and accent it with brown tile. When that palette starts to look “so 2009″, you can replace the powder blue paint with another color, changing the color scheme with far less labor and expense than would be involved in tearing out part or all of the tile.

Brick Mirror tile from Glass Tile Oasis

Here’s how I might go about creating a palette around the Glass Tile Oasis brick mirror glass shown at left. I would first choose the room’s base color; it might be an amber or the ivory in the tile. If you’re not working with a color consultant, I would advise you not to choose a dark or unusual color as a base for your palette. (An expert can make a purple room look great, but it’s hard to do, and getting it right takes skill and practice.)

This tile includes some shades of burnt orange or magenta that might work as an accent for an amber room, and the tile’s pink and purple shades would certainly work as accents in an ivory room.  But the reverse – say a purple room with amber and pink accents – will probably prove darkly unsettling.

Fireclay Tile, California

Fireclay Tile was founded by Paul Burns, who first started making tile with his uncle when he was 10 years old. Since founding Fireclay with three partners, Paul has devoted his efforts to finding more sustainable ways to make tile, using the most energy efficient manufacturing processes, and incorporating recycled content into his materials. This has resulted not only in beautiful products like the tile pictured on the stairs at the top of this post, it has also made Fireclay an environmental leader. Fireclay Tile’s innovations include:

  • Leadless Glazes – Fireclay converted to 100% leadless glazes in 1989.
  • Vulcanite – In 1997, Fireclay created tile that was glazed and fired from pieces of volcanic lava, a naturally occurring form of glass.
  • Debris Tile – Fireclay began putting 25% post-industrial recycled content (granite dust) into Debris Tile in 2,000. This tile, shown on the stairs, also includes recycled glass.
  • Jellybean Rocks – Firetile has created 20 styles of tile made from recycled materials, including glass bottles, sea shells, or natural stone colors (sometimes mixed together).

Firetile’s website states, “We are a triple-bottom line company and ensure we take the environment into account in every decision we make and pay all of our employees a fair wage and benefits.”

Hakatai Glass Tile, Oregon

Hakatai Enterprises has been importing and distributing glass tile since 1997,  working with architects, contractors and builders, interior designers and dealers, as well as homeowners.  The company was named by its president, Marshall Malden, who has enjoyed backpacking in the Grand Canyon for years. Hakatai, which is pronounced ha-keh-tie, is the Havasupai Indian tribe’s name for the Colorado River, and Hakatai shale is a geologic layer in the Grand Canyon.

Hakatai Tile Mural

Hakatai Tile Mural

Hakatai says that it is “committed to environmental conservation and sustainability.”  Recycled glass is a key ingredient in Hakatai ‘s Ashland-eCobblestone,  Tivoli and Calliope series of tile. The stunning mosaic tile at the top of this post is from the Calliope series. All of the tiles in these four collections are comprised of between 30 and 70% glass from bottles and/or other waste glass that would otherwise wind up in a trash heap. This waste glass is approximately 90% post-and 10% pre-consumer material.

Hakatai’s designers and artists also can turn any drawing or design into a hand-cut,  mosaic mural, like the one at left. This link to their website will lead you to a stunning collection of custom murals.

Sandhill Tile, Idaho

Founded in 1998 in Fairbanks, Alaska, Sandhill is now located in Boise, Idaho. The company’s products, including the elegant grey and sage “field tile” glass shown just below, are made from 100% recycled materials. Each tile takes less than one-half of the energy to produce than ceramic tile, and less than one-fourth of the energy it takes to produce a cast-glass tile.”

Tile manufactured by Sandhill

Sandhill’s manufacturing process came out of a a two-year research project. The project was initially funded by an Alaska Science and Technology Foundation grant that was awarded to develop an innovative glass-fusing technology that utilizes 100% recycled glass.

Sandhill produces tile for both commercial and residential projects. It comes in 36 colors and matte or gloss finish. Their line includes field tile, border designs, mosaic blends, and deco pieces. Hakatai recently received the EPA Evergreen award for environmental excellence and leadership.

Glass tile from Sandhill Industries. This is a "field concept" that incorporates two kinds of tile: Riverblend field tile and a 4x4 inch Cypress deco piece.

Installation Tips

Because it’s transparent, glass showcases the skill of the installer – or lack of it – more readily than other sorts of tile. For that reason, I urge you to resist any latent impulse you feel to install it yourself.  Hire a professional instead.

You should demand to see a prospective installer’s previous jobs before you hire him or her, and it’s also good to know what to look for in an installation. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure the grout color is right before the installer begins work. You can preview the look of the finished grouting job by sprinkling a teaspoon of dry grout in between some tiles.
  • Don’t let the installer mark on the wall. Contractors customarily pencil notes and write measurements on the wall when laying tile, but with glass tile, those marks will show through.
  • Before the adhesive sets, all the grout must be thoroughly cleaned from tile’s surface.  Once the grout has set, it can’t be removed – ever! You must remove and replace the tile to fix this problem.

Bronze Pearl 1" x 4" Black Kitchen Matte and Iridescent Glass Tile from Glass Tile Oasis

  • Glass tile usually comes covered with a paper “backing” that is actually attached to the face of the glass to protect it from scratches. Problems can occur when a person gets confused about which side of the tile should be placed up or attempts to take the paper off too soon, before the tile has set into the adhesive. (Given the need to also clean grout off the face before it sets, timing can be very tricky; this is why your contractor’s experience is so important.)
  • Never throw any grout, or anything with grout on it, down a sink, drain, or toilet. The grout will bond to the pipes and ruin your plumbing. Your contractor should use containers and materials that can be placed into the trash at the job’s completion – and you should also insist that the contractor cleans up the work area and disposes of the leftovers.
  • Reserve some tile in case you later need to replace a few tiles.

Hats Off to the Glass Artists!

Ancient Roman glass and mosaic floor

I have always wanted to learn to blow glass, so I signed up for a one-day class at Public Glass in San Franciso.
I came away from that day with an increased admiration for the gaffers who practice the strenuous-yet-delicate art of glass blowing. I’m grateful for the crews of artisans who brave the rigors of the hot shop so that the rest of us can admire the beauty of glass in total thermal comfort.

The temperature outside was in the eighties, and that made the hot shop a virtual Sahara. I needed a much-more buffed upper body to hold the heavy pontil and keep it spinning. My glass kept dribbling away like melted taffy, and it had to be repeatedly rescued by kindly instructors.

At their urging, I spent the day alternately chugging bottles of water, then dousing my hair and clothes with an outdoor garden hose. Inside, they dried almost instantly.

Glass vase by Noah Salzman, one of the fine artists represented in Public Glass' gallery.

By the day’s end,  my insides felt like a bag of broken glass. I suffered muscle aches, shakes, shivers, and a shattering headache – mostly the result of dehydration. It was a chore to muster enough energy to rehydrate before falling into bed, freezing and heaped over with blankets.

 I treasure the lumpy, transparent clear glass holiday ornament I made that day – despite the fact that it’s so thick and heavy, it could never be hung on a tree.

To top it off, I was playing with fire. I could feel the glass kiln scorching the hair on my arms, even when I stood as far back as possible. (Given the physics involved, that made the pontil even more difficult to hold.)


Get a Grip: Eco and Ergo Handles

May 1, 2009

This post is devoted to handles, knobs and pulls – those humble fittings that scarcely merit a thought until they cause trouble. They command our attention only when they break – or when we do, losing strength and digital dexterity due to aging, injury, or arthritis.

Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass.  Size: 4 1/4 Wide X 1 1/2 Projection

Eco and Ergo: Blue sky glass drawer pull from All That Glass. Size: 4 1/4" wide with 1 1/2" outward projection.

Pulls and handles can be ergonomically designed to make it easier to get a grip. Both the choice of materials and the shape of the handle play a role in ease of use. But what’s easy to use can differ quite a bit for differently-abled people.

Ecologically speaking, knobs and pulls, like every other product that we use, should be designed and chosen with an eye not only to how we will use them, but also to what will happen to them after we’re done using them. (I have been reading the book Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things and becoming keenly aware that the notion of throwing or giving things “away” is wrong-headed. Realistically speaking, there is no “away.” Everything we throw away remains somewhere on earth, piling up in someone else’s back yard or buried in the product graves that we call landfills.)

This post will cover both “eco” handles  – those made from recycled and earth-friendly materials – and “ergo” handles that are designed for comfortable use. In some cases, I have found handles and pulls that meet both eco and ergo requirements and are beautiful as well. They meet my definition of elegant design.

Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Natures Hardware. Theres also a C shaped stone cabinet pull if grasping is a problem.

Eco and Ergo: Skipping stone cabinet pulls from Nature's Hardware. Because the stone is flat, you can hook your fingers underneath and pull with the whole hand. There's also a "C" shaped stone cabinet pull available from the same supplier.

I hope that you will find the discussion that goes along with these finds interesting. If instead, you find yourself amazed that anyone could make choosing a simple drawer pull so complicated, I invite you to simply enjoy the beauty of the fittings I have found.

At the bottom of this post, you will find learning and shopping links that will lead you to suppliers for everything that is pictured here – and more.

Ergonomics and Aging

Ergonomically speaking, drawer pulls that are shaped like the letters “C” or “D” and doorknobs that are levers are far easier to use as we age. The reason? We can exert pressure on them using our large arm muscles rather than having to pinch or grasp with our fingers.

Older people tend to lose strength and/or fine motor control in their hands, making twisting and pinching motions difficult. That’s the case with our friend Joe, whose arthritis has advanced to the point where he can no longer make a fist.  Both “universal design” and “accessible design” propose approaches that attempt to help folks like Joe. Both approaches work, but both have downsides.

This brass lever interior door handle, available from, comes in either a left-hand or right hand model.

Eco: This interior door handle, from, comes in a left- or right-hand model. Lever-style handles are the best choice for those with arthritis, and are also helpful for those whose hands are busy holding onto packages or small children.

Over the past couple decades, interior designers have been researching, debating and getting seriously hepped-up over the competing merits of universal and accessible design. (Who but an interior designer could devote a whole blog post to knobs and handles, for goodness sake?!)

Universal design aims to create products and environments that work for everyone - the young, the old, the tall, the short – instead of just creating things with an “average” user in mind. A universal design kitchen, for example, usually has counters of varying heights, so there’s one area that’s the right height for grandma in her wheelchair,  another for a school-aged child making a peanut butter sandwich, and yet another for dad, who is very tall. Universal design is concerned first and foremost with form, and it eschews frills. Accordingly, the International Style that is associated with universal design has been faulted for monotony and homogeneity. In Cradle to Cradle, authors William McDonough and Michael Braungart write that the International Style has evolved into “a bland uniform structure isolated from the particulars of place – from local culture, nature, energy and material flows…[and] reflect little if any of a region’s distinctness or style.”

DuVerre Kuba Recycled Metal pull from Natures Hardware

Eco and Ergo: DuVerre Kuba Recycled metal D-shaped pull from Nature's Hardware.

Accessible design is generally focused on creating products that work for people with disabilities such as low vision, impaired mobility or limited reach – a continual problem for people who use wheelchairs. Whereas universal design aims for a sleek, modern look, accessible design tends to look sturdy, utilitarian and even institutional. Another drawback is that changes made to accommodate one sort of problem can wind up making life difficult for people with a problem of another sort.

For example, after drinking fountains were lowered to make them accessible for people in wheelchairs, people with bad backs were unhappy about having to stoop down to drink. The universal design compromise mandated by the Americans with Disabilities Act has been to install fountains called “high/lows” – a pair of fountains at different heights. This has meant ripping out a lot of metal and rebuilding big chunks of the core plumbing area in many high-rises, an expensive undertaking that has contributed tons of metal and stone to landfill sites.

While universal and accessible design approaches overlap somewhat, both seek to create products that anticipate the physical needs of various groups of people, leading to compromises such as the high/low. If you know that specific individuals are going to use a room, fewer compromises are needed.

So what constitutes sound, elegant design? To my way of thinking, it’s a design that works to enhance the comfort and joy of an interior for you and yours, and one that simultaneously enhances the health and beauty of the earth, now and later. The offerings in this post don’t meet all those requirements in every instance, but they move in the right direction.

Opening the Door with Style and Ease

If functionality were the sole requirement, the fastest and easiest way to enable someone like our friend Joe to cope with a round doorknob would be to put a plastic sheath over it. For $5-$20, you can buy slip-over products that cushion the doorknob and provide greater traction or sheaths that will change the door knob’s shape from round to an oval or a lever.

Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware

Ergo: Victorian styled ornate oval doorknob from House of Antique Hardware.

I’m afraid that I find these remarkably homely, and I feel bad knowing that since they’re plastic, they are fated to wind up in a landfill where they will wait centuries for archeologists of the future to dig them up. Instead spending $10 to $30 for one of these aids (and being reminded of my disability every time I opened the door!)  I would rather spend $20 to $100 to replace (and recycle) the round door handle. It’s actually easy to replace interior door hardware using nothing more than a screwdriver. Assemblies that hold oval and lever-shaped doorknobs will fit usually fit right into the holes that were drilled for the old hardware assembly.

When it comes to doorknobs that aren’t round, you have a myriad of choices. Your minimalist, modern home might  look great with brass lever door hardware shown above or with  a sleeker version of the same design in brushed chrome.

But what if you live in a Victorian style house? No problem! The Victorians favored ornate oval doorknobs, and the House of Antique Hardware sells oval doorknobs made of many materials. You might choose the brass knobs shown above. Or you might opt for a plain white, black, or brown porcelain, in which case, you could feel good about choosing an environmentally friendly material.

Hand blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine

Eco: Hand-blown doorknobs from Light Impressions in Maine

If you’re looking for a dazzlingly colorful, earth-friendly choice and have no problem gripping a round doorknob, you might want to visit the website of All That Glass. This Portland, Oregon studio creates hand-blown glass doorknobs, as well as a variety of pulls, knobs, and even sinks.

Another supplier of fine art glass doorknobs is Light Impressions. Their work is shown at left. These blown glass creations are so beautiful that they could be considered art or jewelry. Moreover, glass is a green material. Glass is made from silica, a commonplace natural substance that requires no complicated extraction; it’s found in beach sand. Better yet, old glass can be ground up and made into new glass, making it very eco-friendly indeed.

Ocean-Friendly Knobs and Pulls

Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells

Eco and Ergo: Turban Shell pull from Pacific Shells. Because each shell is unique in size and shape, when they are used as pulls, blind people can use them to differentiate between one drawer and another.

A colorful collection of pulls made from natural sea shells can be found at Pacific Shells. Most of their pulls are made from empty shells that would have otherwise have been thrown out after people have eaten the shellfish that lived in them.

Pacific Shells uses a patented system to strengthen the shells to allow them to resist tension and torsion. Here’s how the hardened shell handles are made:

  • 10% to 30% of the handle is a shell of a shell-fish rejected from the food chain (such as fish bones).
  • 25% to 80% is the handle is filled with sand that  has been mixed with 11% hardening synthetic resin.
  • the resin makes up 3%  to 9% of the shell handle.
  • A metal base makes up 2% to 10% of the item.

Pacific Shells says its “handles are among the most earth-friendliest or ecological products on the market”. The shellfish that produced the shells would been consumed anyway, and their shells would have become trash. Instead of becoming waste, the shells are processed into handsome crafted items.


Woven bamboo knob from Natures Hardware

Eco: Woven bamboo knob from Nature's Hardware. Their offerings include pulls made from bone, antler, shells, wood, recycled metal, stone and bamboo.

  • All That Glass -art glass fittings
  • Aurora Glass - a wonderful organization in Portland, Oregon that recycles glass and upcycles people! Aurora Glass is part of St. Vincent de Paul’s strategic recycling initiative for a healthier community.  All profits from the Aurora Glass Foundry are returned to the community in the form of assistance for homeless and low-income people through emergency services, housing, jobs, training, and other charitable endeavors.
  • Comfort and Joy Interior Design
  • Cradle to cradle overview in Wikipedia
  • Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking Sustainability – article and book review in Alternative Energy News with video and commentary
  • Drawer Pulls, Drawer Handles - the end-all, be-all collection of links to collections of pulls
  • Hafele fittings – source for a vast selection of ergonomically designed pulls, handles, fittings and hard-to-find items such as pull-down shelves and organizers
  • Green Mountain Ranch- Created by interior designer Cynthia Liebrock, this “aging beautifully” ranch house in Livermore, Colorado showcases more than 180 ideas that demonstrate how universal design ideas complement green design. (She is also a wonderful person. After I wrote about Cynthia Leibrock in this blog, she contacted me and spent almost an hour mentoring me on the phone!)
  • Intersel - a very handsome collection of lever-shaped door knobs
  • Light Impressions – art glass fittings
  • – every sort of doorknob and pull you can imagine
  • Nature’s Hardware – knobs and pulls made from a variety of natural and recycled materials
  • Pacific Shells - knobs and pulls made from real seashells
  • Susan Goldstick – handcrafted resin pulls and knobs


Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out

Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout
Would not take the garbage out!
She’d scour the pots and scrape the pans,
Candy the yams and spice the hams,
And though her daddy would scream and shout,
She simply would not take the garbage out.
And so it piled up to the ceilings:
Coffee grounds, potato peelings,
Brown bananas, rotten peas,
Chunks of sour cottage cheese.
It filled the can, it covered the floor,
It cracked the window and blocked the door
With bacon rinds and chicken bones,
Drippy ends of ice cream cones,
Prune pits, peach pits, orange peel,
Gloopy glumps of cold oatmeal,
Pizza crusts and withered greens,
Soggy beans and tangerines,
Crusts of black burned buttered toast,
Gristly bits of beefy roasts…
The garbage rolled on down the hall,
It raised the roof, it broke the wall…
Greasy napkins, cookie crumbs,
Globs of gooey bubble gum,
Cellophane from green baloney,
Rubbery blubbery macaroni,
Peanut butter, caked and dry,
Curdled milk and crusts of pie,
Moldy melons, dried-up mustard,
Eggshells mixed with lemon custard,
Cold French fries and rancid meat,
Yellow lumps of Cream of Wheat.

Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick

Ornamental drawer pulls from artisan Susan Goldstick

At last the garbage reached so high
That finally it touched the sky.
And all the neighbors moved away,
And none of her friends would come to play.
And finally Sarah Cynthia Stout said,
“OK, I’ll take the garbage out!”
But then, of course, it was too late…
The garbage reached across the state,
From New York to the Golden Gate.
And there, in the garbage she did hate,
Poor Sarah met an awful fate,
That I cannot right now relate
Because the hour is much too late.
But children, remember Sarah Stout
And always take the garbage out!

– Shel Silverstein


Another Green Flooring Option: Put a Cork in It!

February 28, 2009

53a_cork_bigwickThis post is another installment in my series about flooring choices. Cork is a great “green” choice for those interested in a picking a sustainable and beautiful material that avoids the health and environmental problems I wrote about in “Killing Me Softly with Carpeting.”

Why Cork is Sustainable

No trees were killed in the process of making the beautiful floor shown at right! That’s because cork is actually the bark of a cork oak tree, genus Quercus suber. It can be stripped off of the tree every nine years or so without damaging the tree.

Cork oaks live up to 200 years, and their forests — “Montados” — are treasured and have been passed down through families in the Mediterranean areas where the trees grow. Most of those forests are concentrated in Portugal, which is home to 30% of the world’s cork trees and 70% of world cork production. (The trees have been grown in California, but they haven’t produced bark with the same qualities as the European trees, which come from Spain, Algeria, Tunisia, Italy, Morocco and France, as well as Portugal.)

In fact, you can feel good about choosing a cork floor, because in recent years, a flagging demand for cork — much of which was used to stopper wine bottles — has devalued the forests. As wine corks have been replaced with metal screw tops or plastic stoppers made from petroleum products, families have sold or abandoned cork forests and land, shrinking the trees’ available habitat.

Harvesting of a cork tree

Harvesting of a cork tree

That’s a shame, because the business of growing cork has been around for centuries. The first Portuguese regulations protecting cork trees were written by Portugal’s King Dinis in 1320, and cork floors have been used in churches and libraries since 1898, long before they were used in private homes.

Cork’s Natural Advantages

Cork contains a natural, waxy substance called suberin, which is not only waterproof, but also resists insects, mold and mildew. That’s great if you or you loved ones suffer from allergies. Suberin is fire resistant, and cork doesn’t release any toxics when it burns.

Cork is pleasantly springy under foot — much kinder to your back than a cement or tile floor — and because it’s filled with little air pockets, it insulates and absorbs noise. It’s also naturally flame-resistant. Structurally, cork bark is a cellular honeycomb structure of 14-sided polyhedrons; inside they are 90% air. Those qualities make it a nice choice for a kitchen.

Because cork is rather elastic, it can take foot traffic or heavy furnishings and still recover. The cork honeycomb contains about 40 million of cells per cubic centimeter, and they allow cork to be compressed up to 40% and still spring back to its original shape. That elasticity also makes cork forgiving enough to install over rather uneven surfaces. You can mount cork on top of a wood or linoleum floor, or you could also use it as an underlayment for ceramic, wood or stone.

Cork wall tile in Pumpkin color from AmCork

Cork wall tile in "Pumpkin" color from AmCork

Cork can be purchased in rolls or in tiles, and it can be mounted on walls, as well as floors. (I’m currently eyeing some beautifully colored cork tiles for a bedroom wall. The wall is cold because it’s poorly insulated and it’s on the outside perimeter of the house. That particular wall is also showing some cracks and has old, uneven plaster, so cork tile might be just the answer.)

Cork also comes in an astonishing range of colors and patterns, so it can enhance not only the tactile and audial qualities, but also play a starring role in a room’s design.

Care, Feeding and Lifespan

Cork floors, like cork trees, can be remarkably long-lived. With fairly straightforward care, your cork floor should last for a very long time. Your cork floor will be dressed with a wax, acryllic or ceramic coating, and it’s primarily this coating that you will be maintaining. (Ceramic is the most durable of these choices and UV-cured wax is the greenest.) Here’s all you need to do:

  • Vaccuum or sweep weekly
  • Damp mop monthly, but don’t use a lot of water
  • Use a mild soap that is PH-balanced, and make sure the surface is free of grit and sand
  • Avoid abrasive cleaners and oil or ammonia-based cleaning products
Inlaid cork flooring from Globus Flooring

Inlaid cork flooring from Globus Flooring

Downsides to Cork

You will note that the cautions above mention both grit and abrasives, and there’s good reason for that: Cork flooring scratches! The scratches usually marr the coating on top of the cork rather than the cork itself, but it’s still a problem.

Cork is soft – its Janka hardness rating is 200, harder than balsa but softer than pine. But cork is so different in character that it’s not entirely comparable. For example, cork actually has the ability to spring back and “heal” a cut so that you later can’t find it!

For this reason, you should pay attention to the durability of the coating on top of the cork. The wear finish on a cork floor may either be applied at the factory or in your home, and it’s usually varnish, oil or sealer that is hardened with ultraviolet light.

Cork is not a good choice for bathrooms because it will buckle when exposed to too much water. In addition, the darker shades can be prone to fading, particularly in sunny areas.

The Fine Green Print

The question of sustainability is always complex, and although I have extolled many of cork’s green virtues above, there is one notable drawback. The cork we buy must be shipped across the ocean, making for a large carbon footprint.

Brainworks creates inlaid flooring from cork, and also combines cork with other materials such as linoleum, which is also a green material. The image above is cork. The one below is cork combined with other materials. Click the image above to visit Brainworks gallery.

Brainworks creates inlaid flooring from cork, and also combines cork with other materials such as linoleum, which is also green. The image above is cork and the one below is a combination. Click the image to visit Brainworks' gallery.

The processing of cork is fairly simple. Cork sheets or pieces are cured, boiled and pressed. Scraps are collected for reuse, so almost nothing is wasted.

But toxics can definitely come in to the equation! Some cork flooring is made with binders, finishes or substrates that contain carcinogens. I would avoid cork composition floors because cork is sometimes combined with Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) to make a resilient flooring that looks like linoleum. But while linoleum is a green material, vinyl is not! The vinyl manufacturing process may hazardous byproducts and the disposal may leach toxins into the environment. (The U.S. Green Building Council has acknowledged “strong environmental and human health concerns” with vinyl.)

The cheapest cork comes from China, and because it is subject to very little environmental regulation, it is likely to contain toxic glues.

Installation of Cork Floors

Like pre-finished wood floors, cork floors can either be installed as “floating” floors from panels that snap together with a tongue-and-groove system, or they can be glued down. Having your floor glued down will save you on material costs, but you will pay more for labor, and it can be harder to repair a glued-down floor should you later need to do that.

Some floating floors can be installed over hard surfaces — vinyl, wood or tile — but cork needs more stability that you would get from a carpet or soft floor. If you don’t have such a surface, you will need to have a contractor install a stable subfloor.

Cost and Suppliers

The cost of having a cork floor installed in your home runs from $5 to $10 a square foot, with the flooring itself priced about $2.50 a square foot (2009 costs). The best quality, non-toxic versions are within that range. The European Union’s standards for toxics are 100 times stronger than those here, so one good, non-technical way to find a cork floor that doesn’t contain harmfull chemicals is to search out European flooring.

An inlaid floor from Brainworks that combines cork with other eco-materials.

An inlaid floor from Brainworks that combines cork with other eco-materials.

Here are some manufacturers and suppliers whose websites you might wish to browse:


A Drunkard cannot meet a Cork
Without a Revery –
And so encountering a Fly
This January Day
Jamaicas of Remembrance stir
That send me reeling in –
The moderate drinker of Delight
Does not deserve the spring –
Of juleps, part are the Jug
And more are in the joy –
Your connoisseur in Liquours

- Emily Dickinson


Vibrant Vetrazzo: Countertops Made Gorgeous from Garbage!

February 14, 2009
Wave-worn beach glass at Glass Cove.

Wave-worn beach glass at Glass Beach. It looks like the "party mix" glass Vetrazzo uses to make its Millefiori countertops.

“All of this stuff was in your trash last night: mayonnaise jars, wine bottles and Coke bottles, all mixed in with batteries and Barbie doll heads,” John Sabol tells the kids. “And in a couple weeks, it just might come back to your house as a beautiful countertop.”

Several youngsters stick their heads into an immense fabric bag filled with nearly two tons of shattered glass to check it out. “Kind of smells like peanut butter or chocolate,” one exclaims.

“It just might be!” Sabol replies.

John Sabol, who is Vice President of Manufacturing at Vetrazzo, is pitching in with two of his colleagues to give a factory tour to students from Manzanita Middle School, a charter school in the West Contra Costa Unified School District. Sabol is teaching these teens not just about recycling – plenty of which goes on in this re-purposed automobile factory – but also about “upcycling”. He explains,”Upcycling is the process of taking really humble things and reworking them so that they can serve a higher purpose.”

Alehouse Amber

Alehouse Amber

Cobalt Skyy

Cobalt Skyy

Bistro Green

Bistro Green

Glass House

Glass House

As mentioned in my initial “Hello World” post, I have wanted to tour Vetrazzo since I first saw their gorgeous, multi-faceted countertops in a Berkeley showroom. I was drawn from 20 feet away by the clarity and depth of a cobalt blue and white countertop, and then gaped in wonder as I admired half a dozen other wonderful color palettes composed by Vetrazzo.

As I admired the play of light and dimensionality of the samples, I was powerfully reminded of one of my favorite beach coves, the Glass Beach in Fort Bragg. That particular beach was once the town dump. Over the years, the rush and pull of the waves has ground the glass into smooth pellets that sparkle with the sage of soda bottles, the winter green of wine bottles and the amber of ale flasks. Marrying art and science, Vetrazzo has done much the same thing, creating designer countertops composed of 85% recycled waste glass and 15% cement products. I have been curious about the process – chiefly where they got all the colored glass – and recently got an opportunity to tour the plant, tagging along with a group of 13- and 14-year old students and their teachers. (That was also fun for me, since I have a lot of professional background in education.)

Vetrazzo turns glass from different sources into counter tops with different color palettes, giving them names that hint at their origins: Alehouse Amber is made from beer bottles while Bistro Green comes from beer and wine bottles. Glass House comes from curbside clear recycled glass. Cobalt Skyy gets its color from Skyy® Vodka bottles. Millefiori, named after the famous Venetian glass, is purchased from a company that supplies stained glass window artists. A new red palette comes from light lenses recycled from warning towers and airplane landing strips.

“Everything in our counter tops comes from the United States,” Sabol notes. Up to 1,000 old bottles can go into a counter top. Old window glass and chunky, squared shards of automotive glass are again made new and useful.

Darn near everything else used in the Vetrazzo plant is recycled or gets recycled. The building itself has been reborn. It was originally built as a factory to produce Model A Fords, then converted to building Jeeps and tanks during World War II. Postwar, the plant switched back to making autos again until the early 1950’s. Originally built with a saw-toothed roof punctuated with skylights, the building’s roof now also holds south-facing photovoltaic cells that produce the plant’s electricity. The water used for cooling the diamond-headed files that polish the Vetrazzo slabs is also 100% recycled.

Model A Ford - the tin Lizzie

Model A Ford - the "tin Lizzie"

Even the bags used to hold the broken glass received by the factory are recycled. (It could be that the peanut/chocolate scent noticed by my fellow tour guest really did come from food. Just inside the factory door sit enormous white nylon bags bearing stamps on the side that read “peanuts” and “soybeans.” ) The food industry can’t reuse these bags without extensive – and expensive – laundering, but Vetrazzo can, and does — one bag neatly holds up to two tons of glass.

Moving from the bags of glass at the front door into the factory, the students learned that the production process is a lot like making chocolate chip cookies – 700 pound chocolate chip cookies! Curbside glass, of course, forms the “chips” which are indiscriminately crushed together and then sorted for color by a machine. (I don’t begin to understand how a machine can do that, but perhaps that’s why I’m an interior designer rather than an engineer.) The “flour” in the process is cement products. Once the glass and cement have been mixed together for 10 minutes to form a batter, they are poured into a mold that looks somewhat like a 9- by 5-foot cookie sheet, and shaken for about 5 minutes to burp the bubbles out of the mixture. The 800-pound cookie then gets cured overnight, losing 100 pounds of water in the process.

Considerable skill and experience is needed to get the slab to come out right – without bubbles or cracks – because as Sabol told the students, “cement and glass don’t like each other. They are kind of like oil and water. It takes lots of science to make a product that compares to granite in its heat tolerance, its durability and scratch resistance.”

While I have been tagging along with Sabol, Vetrazzo Director of Marketing Karen Righthand has been shepherding a separate group of students. I catch up to them near the end of the tour, just as Righthand is challenging them with some ecological questions. “Is granite a green material?” she asks. “What do you think?”

“Well, it’s rock. Nature made it,” one of the students ventures.

“That’s true,” Righthand says. “But it’s not renewable. Once you cut down a mountaintop to get it, the mountain can’t grow back. It might also surprise you to learn that much of the granite we use in the US comes from third-world countries, where it is mined by people about your age. They dig it out of the ground in Brazil or India, send it to China for processing, then put it on another ship to send it to the United States.”

“Kids our age dig it up?” asks a girl named Daisy. “Isn’t that like child labor or something? I thought that was against the law.”

“It is illegal here in the US,” Righthand replies. “But not in a lot of places. And getting granite here from those places requires lots of fuel, and that produces greenhouse gas.”

Hollywood Sage was just named Sage until actor Ed Begley Jr. chose it for his kitchen.

"Hollywood Sage" was simply "Sage" until actor Ed Begley Jr. chose it for his kitchen.

Vetrazzo, by contrast, is wholly a domestic product. Invented in 1996 in Berkeley by Don McPhearson, an artist who happened to be a scientist working toward a PhD in glass science, it is now produced in Richmond, California. You can see samples of Vetrazzo in affiliated showrooms, at the Visitor’s Center in Point Reyes National Park, and in the countertops at Whole Foods. You can see it on the Hornblower Cruises hybrid fuel ferry running between San Francisco and Alcatraz, and it will also soon be seen in new luxury boxes at Shea Stadium and at the City of Richmond’s refurbished civic center.

“It’s really beautiful, even though it starts out ugly!” You can take that on good authority from Daisy, who is a watercolor artist as well as a Manzanita Charter School student. “I liked the red and orange ones best,” she said. “Black and white work can look really great with a splash of red. I used that combination in a painting I did of a geisha.” (She’s right – I used the same combination in a kitchen with similar success.)

“Some parts of this tour were really cool,” Daisy said. “I didn’t know that a mountaintop couldn’t grow back, and I was kind of surprised about the child labor part too.”

I would second Daisy’s opinions in these ecological and human rights matters.

I would also like to close by telling my readers that while Vetrazzo is a good substitute for granite both functionally and aesthetically, it’s priced at about what you would pay for better-quality granite. (It costs a bit more than the commodity granite you find in big-box home stores.)

Glass Beach in Ft. Bragg, California

Glass Beach in Ft. Bragg, California

Vetrazzo would be a good choice not only for kitchen or office counter tops, but also for a shower surround or a fireplace hearth. And one more thing: Did I mention that Vetrazzo is dazzlingly dimensioned and drop-dead gorgeous!?


Visit Nicolette’s Comfort and Joy Interior Design website


Beach Glass
(excerpt – full poem here)

…For the ocean, nothing
is beneath consideration.
The houses
of so many mussels and periwinkles
have been abandoned here, it’s hopeless
to know which to salvage. Instead
I keep a lookout for beach glass—
amber of Budweiser, chrysoprase
of Almadén and Gallo, lapis
by way of (no getting around it,
I’m afraid) Phillips’
Milk of Magnesia, with now and then a rare
translucent turquoise or blurred amethyst
of no known origin.
The process
goes on forever: they came from sand,
they go back to gravel…

–Amy Clampitt


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