Your eco kitchen makeover

Advice from the experts on turning your kitchen into a healthy, functional and eco-friendly space

The expert’s guide to transforming your home, one room at a time

your kitchen

Styling: Sarah James
Photography: Toaki Okano
Expert advice: Lynn Lacy-Hauck, Bayleys • Nick Collins and Verney Ryan, Beacon Pathway • Jette de Jong, ebode • Christina Mackay, Victoria University School of Architecture • BRANZ • Dan Heyworth, Arhaus

A great kitchen, with well-lit surfaces, and essential tools and ingredients a handy reach away, will simply inspire you to cook. But kitchens are a source of more than comfort food. They provide a warm, welcoming space for people to congregate and connect— while also finding something to munch.

A well-designed kitchen can help you cook and live smarter, but transforming your kitchen doesn’t necessarily mean ripping everything out and starting again. If you have an older-style solid wood kitchen, a better option might be refurbishing and modernising the basic carcass rather than replacing it with a new MDF kitchen that may only last only ten years. (Although if it’s plywood or MDF that you want, there are now healthier options.)

Refitting your existing cabinets in a different configuration can improve flow, and laminated benchtops can be given a new lease of life through recoating. And bigger doesn’t always mean better. “A great kitchen doesn’t necessarily need to be the size of a commercial kitchen,” says green homes marketing specialist Lynn Lacy-Hauck. “It’s about using space to the maximum. Good design is three functions in one space.”

Mixed and matched

Just because it’s a kitchen doesn’t mean all the cabinetry needs to be perfectly matched— or even attached to a wall. One trend is towards kitchen cabinets that look like pieces of furniture—or to actually use bits of furniture. Eclectic but functional storage spaces can be created by repurposing a chest of drawers, bookshelves or other non-kitchen pieces for a quirky design statement that adds personality—and they’ll be easy to take with you if you ever move.

Reclaimed materials can be used all over the kitchen, from cabinets to the benchtop and shelves. “I’ve seen beautiful kitchens made using recycled and repurposed steel, and stylish Manhattan loft kitchen cabinets made out of repurposed packing crates,” says Dan Heyworth of sustainable design and building company Arhaus. Go hunting for antiques, jump online to see what bargains can be had on Trade Me or check out local building demolition yards.

Your kitchen in 2020

Early New Zealand kitchens were simple and made of wood. The bench-top was typically unfinished kauri, scrubbed smooth with sand-soap, says Christina Mackay of the Victoria University School of Architecture. The cupboards often lasted for generations. But in recent decades, kitchens have commonly been constructed of plastic laminate board with an intended life cycle of less than ten years. “This ensures ongoing work for designers, fabricators and installers,” says Christina, “but all this repeated remodelling is wasteful and polluting.”

The latest trends have kitchens becoming softer and more organic, with greater use of sustainable materials such as cork, wood and bamboo, and designs that fully integrate the kitchen, living and outdoor areas.

Tomorrow’s kitchens are likely to take these trends even further. According to the latest research by furniture giant Ikea, dream kitchens of the future will combine advanced energy-efficiency technology with the ability to grow your own organic, natural food. These futuristic green kitchens will incorporate reclaimed and recycled materials, and they’ll increasingly merge the garden and kitchen.

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8 energy saving tips

Cooking and refrigeration account for about 22 percent of your household energy bill, so better performance means big savings. National testing by BRANZ revealed that around 16 percent of our fridges are faulty or marginal. These inefficient appliances might operate at a substandard level for years, without you realising.

1 Test your fridge door seals by turning on a torch and putting it inside your fridge. If you can see the torchlight, your seals need attention.

2 Check the temperatures with a fridge thermometer. Freezers should be between -15°C and -18°C and fridge compartments around 2°C to 4°C.

3 Help your fridge or freezer run at its optimum by defrosting it regularly and leaving a space at the back for air to circulate. If your fridge or freezer compressor motor is running nearly all the time it may be beyond help. Get it fixed or replace it with a more efficient model.

4 Can’t start the day without a cuppa? Try an eco kettle like the Tefal Quick Cup—it heats only the water you need and uses only a third of the energy of an ordinary model.

5 Invest in a slow cooker or pressure cooker and keep small cooking appliances (bench-top oven, electric fry pans or panini makers) handy for efficient small meals.

6 When using the main oven, cook several dishes at once and freeze the surplus for easy meals or work lunches. Use your oven’s fan-forced option. Circulating the oven’s hot air can reduce cooking times and increase efficiency by up to 50 percent.

7 Check your oven door seals and open the oven only when absolutely necessary. Every time you open the door for a sneak peak about 10–15°C of heat is lost.

8 Change your light bulbs to energy-savers or LEDs; some models use only 3W.

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Heart of the healthy home

It’s hard enough to get up most mornings—worse when you’re heading to a cold, damp or dark kitchen. Adding thermal mass in the form of slate tiles or a concrete slab is a way to capture the sun’s free warmth as it shines onto your floor during the day. Underfloor and ceiling insulation will help retain this warmth and keep rooms cosy. Bigger windows will let in more light, but fit them with thermal blinds or drapes to maximise the benefits. An efficient heater with the timer set to come on half an hour before your kids get up will take the chill off.

There’s strong evidence linking our indoor environments and our health, say the sustainable building experts from Beacon Pathway. Modern kitchen building materials often contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, linked to asthma and irritable skin conditions. Benzene, used in polyurethane, can be carcinogenic. Reduce the VOC levels in your kitchen by using natural materials such as solid wood, finished with natural oils and waxes or low-VOC paints. Carter Holt Harvey’s ecoplywood is an example of a composite wood product made with sustainable plantation timber and lowemission phenol-formaldehyde.

Ventilation is vital. A good kitchen extractor fan will remove excess moisture, lower humidity and slow the build-up of mould throughout your house. Open windows to air your kitchen regularly, and reduce moisture in the air by covering pots when they’re boiling and ensuring that extractor fans are clean. BRANZ recommends checking that fans are not vented into the roof space or filtered back into the kitchen.

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Which materials?

Shopping for new kitchen appliances and fittings can make your head spin. But thinking about an item’s life cycle can help you weigh up the pros and cons. Durability and longevity are crucial, along with the impact of the manufacturing process.

Sustainably sourced timber is an excellent choice for floors, cabinets and kitchen furniture. Ask for “kiln-dried untreated certified New Zealand plantation timber”, or find a specialty carpenter or sawmill in your region to source local wood. Macrocarpa is a great choice—use it for wall panelling, flooring and solid wood bench and table tops.

Bamboo is fast growing and re-sprouts after harvesting. It’s a popular choice because it’s lightweight, strong and versatile. Bamboo flooring typically comes as a finished product so there is none of the mess and fumes involved in sanding and polishing.

Cork is durable and ecofriendly. It adds a soundproof and insulating layer to your floor, and its softness is kind to tired feet. Cork is stripped from Portuguese oak trees every nine years, and tiles are made from wine cork manufacturing leftovers. Cork tiles and planks can be coloured to match your paint, and sealed with natural oils or a solvent-free polyurethane such as Cork Concept’s Bonakemi Traffic.

Recycled concrete is a good alternative to concrete, which has a bad rap because of the dirtiness of its manufacture and disposal (around 163,000 tonnes of concrete are dumped in New Zealand landfills each year). Cemix Envirocrete is a new blended concrete mix containing 50 percent recycled materials, including recycled concrete, cement and fly ash.

Kirei Board is used for wall coverings, ceilings, cabinetry and flooring. It’s made from the waste stalks of sorghum, a cereal crop grown around the world for food and animal feed. Using Kirei Board means sorghum stalks aren’t dumped in landfills or burned, and rural farmers get a new source of revenue.

Paint. Painting your kitchen is an excellent way to get a fresh look. But paints and wood stains that are high in VOCs can fill your kitchen with unhealthy fumes. Look for low odour and low VOC paints that have been approved by Environmental Choice New Zealand.

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How to:

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Revamp an old cabinet

Cut out the middle section of your wooden cabinet doors and replace with a sheet of fine chicken wire. Re-paint with a whitewash or distressed effect using low-VOC paints. Finish off your newly rusticated cabinet by replacing boring handles with quirky or vintage alternatives. Sand and rub drawer edges with candle wax for a smoother slide. See Instant Vintage for more painting tips.

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Sort your waste

What with food scraps and packaging, the kitchen generates the most rubbish of any room in the house. If under-bench bins are not an option try using small bins to separate your paper, recyclables, food waste and landfill rubbish.

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Go to jar heaven

Glass jars come in all manner of gorgeous shapes and have mutiple uses in the kitchen. Save your empties for jam making or arrange them along narrow open shelves for an easy-access pantry.

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Be less plastic

Go hunting in unexpected places for your kitchen accessories. Basic pine crates are ideal for keeping recipe books and magazines neat and square. Trade Aid baskets provide handy storage for napkins, cutlery or infrequently used items. Group like items together to make a feature of their repeating patterns.

Get a little herbal

Save your cooking and veggie washing water and, when cool, use it to water your garden or herb pots. As well as the water, your plants will get a small nutrient boost.


Industrial shelving rack, French metal archive boxes, antique French metal garden chairs, vintage French chocolate moulds, antique Kugelhopf bread moulds, zinc wine bottle holder and vintage wine flagons, all from European Antiques.

Hyacinth and African storage baskets, tin-covered wooden drawer cabinet, wooden serving trays and cutlery tray, notebooks, tin rubbish bin, Fairtrade sugar and Fairtrade coffee, all from Trade Aid.

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