Polly Bart wants me to take a whiff.
I'm sitting in a kitchen, and no, there's no stew simmering on the stove or tray of cookies in the oven. In fact, I don't smell much of anything. And that's a good thing, I'm told.
It's a smallish kitchen with freshly painted yellow walls in a 1940s Colonial in Catonsville. Bart's contracting company, Greenbuilders, has just completed renovations—a project that included tearing down a wall separating the dining room from a small galley kitchen to create a convivial open space. "If you breathe, you can tell the difference" between this and more typical renovation projects, Bart insists. "If you sat in a typical kitchen that had just been redone, you'd smell paint, the floor, formaldehyde."
This modest kitchen represents, for Bart, and for owners Joan and Marc Plisko, a triumph in things unseen—and unsmelled. The cabinets don't give off formaldehyde gas (called "off-gassing" for those in the business), the paint doesn't emit volatile compounds. There is no PVC lining in the sink faucet, and the Energy-Star-rated appliances use less electricity. The counters and backsplash are made from recycled materials, and the wood used to construct the cabinets came from sustainably harvested forests.
In many ways, says Bart, the Pliskos "are perfect clients." She and Joan had worked together on the Baltimore County Commission of Environmental Quality, which Joan chaired for two years, overlapping with Bart's work as chair of the subcommittee for green building. "I came into the project knowing Joan and Marc and understanding their priorities," says Bart.
"Our children are at a critical stage in their development," points out Joan. "If we have a choice, we want products that don't contain pollutants."
The Pliskos bought their house in 1999, and almost from the day they moved in, talked about knocking down the wall that separated a small square dining room from the dark, 8-foot-wide kitchen.
Cooking is a central part of their lives, says Joan: "We're very particular about what we eat. In line with our environmental awareness, we're into local, organic, and sustainable foods." They are shareholders in a community-supported agriculture group, two natural-food buying co-ops, and a local egg-buying collective, as well as having a series of raised vegetable and herb gardens in their backyard. "Preparing food is a family activity," says Joan.
It made sense to turn the two rooms into one, so the children can sit at the dining table and do their homework while a parent cooks, or presses a cookie cutter into dough at the new butcher-block island in the center of the room. Says 9-year-old Teddy, "It used to feel like we were cavemen."
While there are still plenty of cabinets in the new design, most now stretch along a side wall creating an uncluttered look that ends at a desk with cubbyholes for bills above and file drawers below. The solid maple cabinets are formaldehyde-free, says Joan, and bear the logo of the Forestry Stewardship Council, an organization that certifies products harvested from sustainable forests.
New products include speckled, forest-green Jade Snow countertops made by the Brooklyn, N.Y., company IceStone from recycled glass and concrete and buffed as shiny as polished granite, and a tile backsplash manufactured in Idaho by Sandhill from recycled glass. The brown, green, and beige tiles are arranged in a deceptively simple pattern that the family worked out together. "We spent weeks figuring out the design," says Marc. And while the couple considered bamboo, a sustainable material, for the butcher-block island, Joan points out that it would have traveled far—from China—and that chemicals are used in its processing. "We felt hardwood from Michigan was a better choice," she says. The sunny yellow paint on the walls is from Benjamin Moore's Natura line with no VOC (volatile organic compound) emissions.
While the Pliskos are not saying how much they spent on the project, Bart insists that green construction can be done within a budget. "The clients were selective about where they put their money," she says. "They kept it simple." The biggest expense, Bart says, was the 30 linear feet of cabinets, a number "appropriate for a much larger kitchen, in fact a much larger house." But the project came at a good time, as the popularity of environmentally friendly products is starting to bring prices down.
"A lot of people assume that doing things for the environment is about planting trees or having a beautiful view to look at," says Joan. "We think it's about having clean air to breathe, clean water to drink, and a safe environment for our children."