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Project One-Eleven is our non-toxic home renovation project. We’re taking an old row house that’s been serving as an office and converting it back into a residence where you’ll be able to come test mattresses and other Good Stuff.
Because we’re all about the Good Stuff, we’re using non-toxic and sustainable products, materials, and processes as much as possible. We’re blogging about the process to share the joys and challenges of taking a non-toxic approach to home renovation.
The Non-Toxic Kitchen Cabinet Conundrum
Next up for Project One-Eleven was installing the cabinetry (as we’ve noted, the existing “kitchen” (more like kitchenette) was on the third floor—and we turned that one into a bathroom).
Kitchen cabinets can be a major source of VOCs, thanks to the fact that most of them are made from engineered wood products like plywood, particleboard, and medium density fiberboard (MDF). Each of these materials is made using resins called urea formaldehyde, which is classified as a carcinogen. And the resins in engineered wood products can continue to release VOCs into your home for months or even years after manufacturing in a process called “off-gassing.”
Custom Kitchen Cabinets
So what can you use instead? Well, to get truly non-toxic kitchen cabinets, you’d hire a carpenter and have them custom built of solid wood that was finished with natural oils (like linseed) or beeswax. And ideally the glue used in your cabinetry would be PureBond, as it’s the least toxic.
As you can imagine, those cabinets would be pretty expensive. The other problem you’d encounter is that the kitchen gets hot and has a lot more moisture in the air than other parts of the home. So over time, the wood would warp as a result of prolonged exposure to moisture and heat—this is another reason most companies use engineered wood.
Our Goal for Non-Toxic Kitchen Cabinets
When it came to deciding on cabinets for Project One-Eleven, we wanted to find a good balance between several factors:
- We wanted the cabinets to have an aesthetic we liked.
- We also wanted our kitchen cabinets to be functional and durable.
- Then, of course, there was the toxicity and sustainability factor.
- Finally, we wanted to keep the cost down—it’s not hard to spend $30K on cabinets, and our budget for this project wasn’t going to allow that.
Here’s what we found:
If money were no object, I’d have gone with Crystal Cabinets for our new kitchen. Unlike some other brands, the Crystal boxes don’t have added formaldehyde and are GREENGUARD certified. The finishes are also GREENGAURD certified. In addition, Crystal Cabinets are great from an environmental standpoint, because you can get a FSC-certified version. However, these are the top of the line when it comes to non-toxic kitchen cabinets and are priced as such.
If you choose these cabinets, make sure you get one of their wood options, rather than a laminate or veneer. And note that they do use plywood boxes, which it seems all brands do. So you’d have to order custom-made solid wood boxes from a carpenter if you didn’t want any plywood at all in your kitchen cabinets. (Again, because Crystal boxes don’t contain formaldehyde, I wouldn’t worry about this.)
On the other end of the cost spectrum are IKEA cabinets. At first, I was dead set against this brand because I know they’re made of particleboard and assumed they were toxic. After several phone calls, I learned that IKEA cabinets are CARB 2 compliant. That means they meet the California Air Resources Board’s (CARB) standards for formaldehyde emissions from engineered wood. You may also see CARB 2 compliant products labeled as “California 93120 compliant for formaldehyde” or “California Phase 2 compliant.”
While CARB 2 standards are pretty strict, GREENGUARD-compliant cabinetry (like Crystal) are still better. However, IKEA products aren’t as toxic as many other conventional brands, and all things considered, I felt like they were a reasonable option for this space. I still just didn’t love their look, though, so I thought about using IKEA cabinet boxes and adding higher-end doors (which has become a popular hack).
I loved the idea of doors with a reclaimed look and we almost went with the ones from Semihandmade, a company devoted to making custom door fronts that fit on affordable IKEA boxes. The reason we ended up not getting these is because the door fronts alone were going to cost almost $10,000. That was without any sort of handles, and we still had to buy the IKEA boxes.
Moreover, using Semihandmade door fronts wouldn’t reduce the toxicity in the kitchen at all. When I first reached out to the company, they said: “While our products exceed the highest state emission standards in the country, we do still use formaldehydes in our MDF substrate as well as some solvent in our finishes. These are industry-standard practices.”
So in the end, Semihandmade doors filled the aesthetic and durability criteria, but not the cost or toxicity criteria.
Final Answer: What Cabinets Did We Choose?
In the end, we went with plain white IKEA slab cabinets. We chose VEDDINGE because they were sealed around the edges. Theoretically, this means whichever toxins are used in the resin that holds together the particleboard’s interior will be trapped inside and release fewer VOCs than cabinets with unfinished edges (like the less expensive HAGGEBY).
All told, the IKEA cabinets and boxes ran us under $4,000.
Cabinet & Drawer Pulls
Now for the hardware. I really hated all of the IKEA options and wanted something more high end to make the cheaper cabinets look better. I thought about leather handles, but my dad pointed out how gross the leather would get in a kitchen. My husband fries food a lot (in avocado oil, ‘natch), so leather pulls would be disgusting and greasy within a week. Also, leather is actually really toxic.
Here are the handles we ended up going with. Gold cabinet hardware is really trendy right now, so our choice is going to date the kitchen firmly in 2016. But we can always change the hardware when we get tired of it.
I’m hoping the IKEA cabinets aren’t emitting too much in the way of VOCs. We were really pleased that they had no smell when we took them out their boxes. But we’re also taking the following steps to reduce any VOCs from off-gassing from these cabinets, as well as other inevitable emissions:
- Placing Moso bags throughout the kitchen and all of Project One-Eleven.
- Airing out the kitchen by opening windows as much as possible.
- Investing in this Austin Air Filter.
- Testing the indoor air quality. I’m exploring ways to actually measure the contaminants in our indoor air, both in New York and Lancaster. I’ll report on this soon!
P.S. If you’re wondering about the stone on top of the island, we will be blogging about that next!
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