When Steve Prescott of Fiddlehead Designs in Brunswick, Me., builds a kitchen, no matter what color the finish, it's always "green." He has carved out a niche building environmentally responsible kitchens.

Green is no gimmick to Prescott. His commitment to environmentally sound practices permeates everything he does, from the materials he uses, to the location of his home and business, and even how he markets what he does.

"The health of our environment is critically important to me," he says. "I undertake a number of precautions to ensure the business of Fiddlehead Designs is as environmentally responsible as possible."

What's a "green" kitchen?

Prescott is convinced that considering environmental factors in the construction of his cabinets is just another way of adding quality. His work doesn't look dramatically different from conventional cabinetry. "I encourage traditional classic styles," he says. A quality-built kitchen with timeless design is inherently environmentally more responsible, he says, than typical manufactured kitchens. He expects his cabinets will last much longer, rather than winding up in a landfill after the owners tire of the style and remodel in a few years.

Beyond a quality design, the cabinets feature sustainable wood products. Sheet goods are formaldehyde-free. He even uses an eco-friendly countertop material. Finishes are all water-based. He recycles as much as possible; sawdust from the shop is either composted or sent to a horse yard, and hardwood scraps wind up in his wood stove.

Eco-friendly sourcing

It's not always easy or cheap to keep environmental issues in mind while sourcing his supplies, but Prescott thinks it is crucial to the way he works.

He uses only lumber from certified sustainably grown forests and whenever possible he sources from local New England sawyers, often from Rex Lumber in Acton, Mass. He avoids environmentally threatened exotic species. He uses PureBond formaldehyde-free plywood from Columbia Forest Products. Prescott sprays his cabinets with Oxford Ultima Spray Lacquer, a low-VOC, zero-HAP water-based finish from Target Coatings.

One more unusual feature of his cabinets is the Richlite countertops, which are actually made of paper. (See the sidebar at left.)

It all begins at home

Prescott's environmental commitment goes beyond his business and shop. He lives in the only co-housing community in Maine. Based on a concept first developed two decades ago in Denmark, co-housing features clustered homes designed to create more of an old-fashioned community feeling while putting less strain on the environment. In Prescott's case, both his home and shop are located in the Two Echo CoHousing Community, which operates a bit like a condominium development in which residents agree to various terms and restrictions and share common areas. Two Echo is located on 92 acres but most of that is woods and undeveloped farm land. The 27 houses in the community use just 20 acres, including roads and leachfields.

Under an agreement with the community, Prescott owns his shop building, but it is located on common land. Extra insulation was added not only to save energy, but also to keep shop noise from disturbing the nearby neighborhood. The shop adjoins clustered garages, where residents park their cars and then walk a short distance to their homes. There is no motor vehicle traffic in the residential areas.

Don't get the idea that this is anything like some hippy commune from the 1960s. The houses are like homes you'd find in other neighborhoods, just lots closer together. Prescott's own timberframe home features spectacular hemlock beams throughout. Residents of the community range from senior citizens to families with young children, and residents' occupations are just as wide ranging as any community.

Efficient business, too

Similarly, don't get the idea that Fiddlehead Designs operates with only hand tools. "It's got to be top-notch quality, but it's got to be efficient," says Prescott.

He cuts his material on a Delta Unisaw or a Jet 18-inch bandsaw. He makes his own doors using a Felder F700 shaper with power feeder, and he dimensions stock with a Hammer 16-inch jointer-planer.

One machine acquisition that Prescott says really helps his efficiency is his SpeedSander 36-inch widebelt sander from Timesavers Inc. "It was a great investment," he says. "I can't imagine being in business without it." It's big enough to handle the work, but small enough to be on wheels and roll out of the way when not in use. A 3hp Oneida Air dust collector handles the sander and all the other machinery through a central ducting system.

Still, all of this industrial machinery is kept within environmental limits. The electricity to power it all is purchased through Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) from a wind farm and the R-56 insulated shop is heated with an ultra-efficient propane boiler.

Marketing green

Prescott knows that all of his attention to environmental considerations will be wasted if his business is not successful and customers don't buy what he sells. Consequently, he works hard to explain the value of environmentally sound construction to his customers, and he's convinced it's a strong selling point that sets his work apart from competitors.

"So much of what I do is education," he says. "I have to explain why my cabinets are so much better than the factory stuff." He frequently makes comparisons to other consumer purchases like cars or high-end consumer electronics that may cost as much or more than cabinetry but not have nearly the lifespan.

"My cabinets will last a whole lot longer than that plasma TV," he says.

Recently he's teamed up with a nearby retailer that specializes in environmentally sound products. Prescott gives workshops on environmentally responsible remodeling at F.W. Horch Sustainable Goods & Supplies in Brunswick, Me. That helps spread the word about his cabinets in an arena where people are already interested in environmental issues.

Beyond the environmental appeal, Prescott emphasizes the furniture quality of his cabinetry. He adds special details like shelf pin support sleeves from Rockler.

While he admits the little metal inserts do take extra time to install, he thinks the finished look and durability is worth it, and it helps to set his work apart.

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