sustainability | Feb 21, 2024 |
How to specify the most sustainable appliances for your projects

From a sustainability standpoint, appliances should be chosen based on efficiency stats alone, but of course, designers must also decide with aesthetics and space planning in mind. The good news is that more energy-efficient appliances are coming to market with each passing year, so there are options to fit almost any style or space. The offerings will also increasingly be inherently more sustainable as the Department of Energy tightens standards for appliances (a topic we reported on last week). We talked to some pros and combed the research to offer advice on how to pick the most sustainable appliances for your next project.

Electrify Everything
You’ve probably heard the buzz that the future of home is all electric. Just like the transition from gas cars to EVs, addressing the climate crisis in our homes means pivoting away from burning fossil fuels. Interior designers and architects can do a lot to help hasten this transition in their realm: By specifying all electric appliances, you’ll help reduce demand for fossil fuels rather than lock your project into the gas infrastructure for years to come. If you want to learn more about going electric, the nonprofit Rewiring America has a helpful guide.

Be Ready to Defend Electric
Marc Jambert, a principal at Maredi Design in Chicago, says that he has had clients “read the topic as a culture-war probe,” especially when it comes to gas stoves. When this has happened, he says he typically redirects the conversation to focus on the advantages of induction technology, which is commonplace in his home country of France. “We discuss the importance of electrification for the future, which also translates to resale value, as well as the cost of usage over time,” he says. “We will sometimes layer in the health benefits and environmental benefits, but the latter can be a bit touchy if they believe that the concern is being overblown.”

But Be Prepared to Compromise
Stephen Pallrand, founder of the Los Angeles design-build firm CarbonShack, says even getting a client’s home a little closer to fully electric is a win. In a recent project, his approach represented a healthy step in the right direction: “We put solar on the roof. We put in heat pumps for heating, cooling and hot-water heaters. And almost everything in the kitchen was electric—except for the gas range,” he says. “We got these clients 90 percent of the way toward sustainability. That’s pretty good.” He suggests that taking steps in the right direction is a better approach than demanding his clients go fully electric, “because if you do, you [risk] turning people off.”

Use (Some) of What You’ve Got
One of the most sustainable choices is to use an appliance until it is worn out (there are exceptions for older appliances, especially those more than 15 years old). However, with most professional remodels, all the old appliances get tossed, regardless of what shape they’re in. When beginning a new project, assess if there is anything that can remain, especially recently purchased Energy Star appliances.

Donate What’s Still Usable
To avoid sending your client’s old appliances to the landfill, try to give away any working ones. Habitat for Humanity is one national nonprofit that accepts gently used appliances. Posting them for free on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist or Buy Nothing groups can also help you find someone who will give them a second life.

Think About Systems
Don’t just look at the kitchen or laundry room—look at the whole systems that surround them. “We’re always thinking about the supply,” says Pallrand. “Bringing the hot-water heater into the conversation about a bathroom or kitchen remodel is smart because that’s part of the system.” He encourages interior designers to ask these questions, too, because it makes sense to do all of the work at once.

Look for Energy Star
You’re likely familiar with the Energy Star label that indicates appliances meet energy efficiency standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, but you may not have realized that you can also shop for Energy Star Most Efficient appliances, which are top ranked for sustainability.

Pay Attention to Amperage
As you start to specify induction ranges, be aware of the amperage the appliance requires. “There are some models that just pull more amps, which are going to be a more costly install,” Pallrand cautions. Ask your vendors about the specifics of the model you are considering, and look for ones that run on a 50-amp circuit, says Jambert.

Double-Check the Refrigerant
In theory, as of 2024, all household refrigerators for sale in the U.S. should no longer run on super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), thanks to to state regulations that have resulted in a voluntary national commitment by manufacturers. However, there may still be some HFC fridges for sale, especially in states that don’t specifically ban them. Ask before you buy to ensure you’re not installing outdated technology.

Avoid Duplicate Appliances
In most cases, installing a second appliance for convenience doesn’t add much to a home’s overall energy use. As Pallrand notes, “You’re only going to use what you need to use.” However, a duplicate appliance, like a second oven, does double the upfront carbon footprint, because of what he calls the “the embodied energy, which is the one-time carbon cost of making something.” Extra refrigerators may be the worst offenders, as they are always on and drawing power. Unless your client needs more appliances for a specific reason, try to avoid adding them to your design.

Reduce the Overall Number
“We like to take inventory of all of the appliances in a client's home to see if there’s an opportunity to reduce this inventory through optimization of choices,” says Jambert. For example, his firm often leaves microwaves out of the mix: “Instead, we try to understand how clients use them in their day-to-day lives and see if there’s an alternative to recommend.” Recently, the designer has begun specifying steam ovens because they can replace several small and large appliances.

Don’t Oversize
Likewise, aim to get the right-size appliance for your client’s lifestyle to reduce the embodied carbon costs and operational energy use over time. If you’re designing a home for a retired couple, they may not need the largest-capacity washer and dryer, or if your client rarely cooks at home, perhaps they don’t need the show-pony La Cornue range.

Invest in Quality
The most important thing you can do is buy a high-quality appliance. “It will be longer lasting, which for one, reduces your repair bill,” says Pallrand. “But it also reduces your [client’s] need to change it out in a few years.” Plus, something that lasts longer amortizes the upfront carbon cost of producing the appliance.

Keep Up to Date
Appliance technology and design are changing at a breakneck pace. Pallrand pointed to AGA’s new ranges as just one example of induction catching on at the high end. Hestan also recently announced their E-levated Kitchen induction appliances. Previously hard-to-find sizes are also emerging: Smeg just introduced one of the first 24-inch induction ranges available in the U.S., and Fisher & Paykel debuted a 48-inch range that runs on 50 amps. Two startups, Impulse Labs and Channing Street Copper, have developed induction stoves with an embedded battery (allowing them to run on a low-voltage circuit and function when the power is out). To give you an idea of how fast things are moving: Fisher & Paykel is in the process of renovating its Costa Mesa showroom, and 95 percent of all of the cooktops and ranges are going to be induction.

Options abound, and keeping tabs on the market is worth the effort. As Pallrand puts it, “Sustainability is a category that all designers need to be intimately informed in—even if you don’t particularly care about climate change—because building codes and clients are all moving in this direction.”


Laura Fenton is a writer with a special interest in the intersection between homes and sustainability, and is the author of the Living Small newsletter and two interior design books, The Little Book of Living Small and The Bunk Bed Book. She has written about home and design for nearly 20 years, and her work has appeared in many outlets, including Better Homes & Gardens, House Beautiful, Real Simple, and The Washington Post, as well as online publications and regional design magazines.

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