Custom-made kitchen cabinetry using natural materials may be more expensive up-front, but it’s healthier, long lasting, and won’t end up clogging our landfills like cheaper products. A chat with West Auckland craftsman cabinetmaker Roland Zander about his business, Natural Kitchens, brought up a number of things to consider in creating more sustainable kitchens.
In 1980s Germany, the Black Forest was dying of acid rain, rubbish was a huge problem, and global warming had already arrived. Then in his twenties, Roland Zander (now 59) became interested in the green movement. He worked with cabinetmakers to pay his way through his studies, and discovered he preferred being creative and building things to becoming a scholar. Changing tack, he offered his services to various master cabinetmakers for over 10 years and trained himself in cabinetmaking.
With the Cold War an ongoing threat, Roland holidayed as far away as he could and landed in New Zealand in 1985. After returning several times, he emigrated in 1995.
In 1987 on one of those return trips, Roland met builder and wood craftsman Sam Southward. They became friends and, appreciating each other’s work ethic and design interests, created Natural Kitchens together.
Roland contributed his tools and machinery and joined Sam in his established woodworking shop in Franklin, Auckland. Design was an important element of the business, which crafted diverse furniture, and they became shareholders in Futon Ya San, designing bed bases for the company.
Ultimately they focused on creating high quality sustainable, timber-matched, kitchens-as-furniture, crafted with an elegant aesthetic and designed to last at least 30 years. After its useful kitchen life, it might be hauled out to the garage to serve as cabinetry and work surfaces, and eventually it would make good firewood.
Roland doesn’t use MDF. “Timber is strong. Shelves don’t sag and hinges hold well over time,” he says. “The MDF typically available in New Zealand tends to deteriorate within 7–10 years, starting in the sink cabinet and around the bins. When they are replaced they end up in landfill. Plywood lasts longer, though most types are problematic because of the inter-layer glue, and when no longer useful, it also ends up in landfill.”
However, timber supply is becoming fraught. Natural Kitchens uses hardwoods except in carcasses (framing). Roland sources these locally but increasingly buys imported timbers, since sustainably grown local hardwoods are becoming a rarity in New Zealand. Prices have increased dramatically since 2018. Pine for carcasses (or Lawson’s cypress if borer-resistance is needed) is also rapidly increasing in price because much locally grown product is exported.
Designed to fit
One-off designs aren’t so easy with factory-built kitchens manufactured by machines set up to produce en masse from sheet materials. Production kitchens have standardised cabinet sizes and are a uniform height (900 mm) and depth (600 mm) right around the kitchen including the sink. Independent cabinetmakers have more options and flexibility because they aren’t confined to sheet sizes.
Optimum utilisation of space is paramount for Roland and includes varying bench heights and depths. The primary work surface is generally between the sink and stove. Baking and cooking areas are best at standard height or lower, while the sink is ideally higher so you can stand upright and have your elbows at 90º for maximum comfort. The standard 900 mm is too low for most people, so they have to bend over.
Roland designs deep cupboards wherever he can to allow more storage and more bench area including space behind the sink. Islands with sink tops are fashionable but, as he says, impractical because everything has to be carried over to the cook-top side. They should be avoided except when the kitchen is too small.
He has fitted many types of in-bench compost solutions and pull-out systems, including bokashi bins on runners. Some are difficult to keep clean over time. In his own kitchen he uses a stainless steel container that can be kept in a second sink or on a shelf inside the sink cabinet.
Best bench tops
While he uses timber for cabinetry, Roland shies away from timber bench tops in the sink area.
“Only people who are really comfortable with wood, know how to look after it, and will do that, should entertain the idea of timber bench tops around the sink. They require oiling and care. I prefer to see granite or stainless steel, which are durable and ensure the troublesome wet area doesn’t become problematic and the kitchen discarded because the bench is rotting.”
He prefers natural granite rather than composite bench tops, which include up to 10% plastic and are difficult to recycle, whereas granite or quartzite can be ground up at their end of life.
Stainless steel is still one of the most durable bench-top materials around, and is often incorporated in Natural Kitchen designs. Linen textured stainless is an elegant alternative to the standard polished stainless.
Porcelain tops are beautiful, says Roland. Despite the durable surface, the product is still too new to show if the edges are prone to chipping.
High quality hardware
Long-lasting eco-savvy kitchens require high quality hardware that’s not too specific (e.g. corner or garbage systems) to avoid becoming unfashionable and in 20 years irreplaceable, says Roland. Pull-pantries and oil pull-outs will still be around, so when parts wear they can be replaced.
Roland sources hardware such as drawer systems, hinges and base plates from Austrian brand, Blum, which specialises in hardware development. He also uses German kitchen system brands Hafele and Vauth Sagel.
“Timber comes into its own with respect to hardware,” he says, “because much softer and thinner MDF doesn’t hold base plate screws very well. They can pull out, and the door follows. Tiny base plates are fashionable but they have one less attachment screw so the risk of failure is higher. Blum makes three-screw base plates.”
He offers advice on tapware, but generally leaves the choice to his clients because the range is enormous. However he always supplies space-saving sink traps. These sit against the back wall under the sink, leaving room for double rubbish bins and storage.
Timber selection is critical in the creation of a beautiful kitchen. Roland book-matches timbers – splits boards and opens them out like a book – to create pleasing visuals at cabinet ends and on door panels.
He is particularly admiring of the Japanese, European, and American timber aesthetics he studied while training as a cabinetmaker.
“Rustic is warm and comfortable, yet can be somewhat coarse in design,” he says. “I value an aesthetic that incorporates finesse – an elegant, nuanced beauty. Ecologically sustainable does not need to mean rustic. It is perfectly possible to build an eco-house from a design perspective which stands with the most refined of architectural designs.”
“They need to find out what they want to achieve – it’s not my kitchen. I support them in that process and make sure what we’re creating is fully formed – aesthetically, practically, and sustainably. Most people’s design ideas usually need some reworking. Beautiful kitchens in magazines are one thing, but practicality is often another.”
A Natural Kitchen costs approximately 25% more than a designed equivalent, but retrofitting a conventional kitchen to a natural one usually isn’t viable.
“Maybe you can replace the doors, but if the cabinets start to go, then it’s too difficult and best to start again. Replacing Formica tops with solid timber ones can be difficult because they require stronger fixings.”
Working from a sustainable home
Natural Kitchens operates from the same property where Roland and his partner Brigitte live, in Laingholm in the Waitakere Ranges, which means the couple don’t travel to work.
Roland employs locals so they don’t have to travel far either. Business partner Sam eventually spent more time building houses and, while he still works with Roland occasionally, since 2006 Roland has been operating Natural Kitchens with employees, including Saul Tudor, an apprentice he trained who’s now a valuable work partner, plus colleague Pete Britnell.
Sustainability permeates Roland and Brigitte’s life. They have a substantial organic vege garden and orchard, drive an EV and generate only one bin of rubbish every six weeks. They’ve found ways to recycle the polystyrene packaging, plastic films, and metals that the council no longer recycles.
The business van runs about 5000 km a year. The workshop has 40 cm of wool-polyester insulation in the ceiling and thick European double glazing. Warmth generated by machinery means the 100m² workshops don’t require heating.
The property is on mains water but also catches rainwater, which is their primary water source. Woodworking machinery, except for a large sanding machine, is partially run from a grid-tied solar system, as is the car. A separate solar system powers the house and uses battery storage to meet household night power needs.
All household appliances and workshop machinery have the lowest energy rating to keep demand low, and a solar hot water system helps.
Here’s to slow building!
Roland is an advocate for quality that will last, rather than cheap, fast, throw-away products.
“If everything was slowed down and products were better made there’d be more employment, not less,” says Roland.
“That longer production time would make products more costly short term, but eliminate the need for more, and new products. Much of my own furniture is over 30 years old and I love it as much as when I made it.”
Kitchen design considerations
- Number of people in the kitchen at a time
- Are there children – do they need a space so cook can work?
- Where is most of your kitchen work done?
- Bench heights and depths
- Enough space between sink and stove – main work surfaces
- Space for pantry items, crockery, a home for everything
- A mix of storage types
© Theresa Sjoquist 2021
First published in Organic NZ magazine – September/October 2021 Vol. 80 No.5