Valcucine's Sustainable Kitchen in Milan's Vertical Forest Raises Questions

Once again, we wonder about the meaning of sustainability.

Trees on the Bosco Verticale


Sustainability is a funny word. A common definition based on the Brundtland report, "Our Common Future," is "meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs." Investopedia says "in the broadest sense, sustainability refers to the ability to maintain or support a process continuously over time."

I always found it hilarious that Stefano Boeri's Bosco Vegetale in Milan is on the cover of just about every sustainable building brochure, including those discussing affordable housing. It took tons of extra concrete for the planters to hold up all those trees, and they have "flying gardeners" rappelling over the side of the building to maintain the trees.

Flying Gardiners

Boeri Studio

That is an expensive proposition to support continuously over time. I also didn't think the trees would last, but the recent photo I start this post with looks quite lovely. After hearing Boeri describe the building as an "anti-sprawl device" that is an "alternative urban environment that allows to live close to trees, shrubs and plants within the city; such a condition can be generally found only in the suburban houses with gardens," I reconsidered my previous objections to it, but I still don't know if it can be defined as "sustainable."

Valcucine kitchen
A domestic oasis with a sustainable kitchen.

Egidio Panzera 

Architect Egidio Panzera recently installed what he calls "a domestic oasis with a sustainable kitchen in a “vertical forest” inside Milan." He uses a Valcucine kitchen, which I have always thought was one of the most beautiful and sensible designs I have seen.

When I first saw it at a design show in New York City, I asked what made it sustainable and was told: "It's made of glass, it will last forever, your grandchildren will be using this kitchen." This one has a marble counter. Valcucine explained the relationship to the building:

"As the trees characterize the shell of the skyscraper designed by Stefano Boeri Architetti, with Gianandrea Barreca and Giovanni La Varra, so also the fossil branches and leaves trapped in the Forest marble become the protagonists of the interior project. The exterior-interior connection is also created through reflection, used to break down corners and create continuous cross-references between inside and outside."

OK, perhaps that lost something in the translation. And perhaps there is a question of whether making a kitchen out of solid glass, a product with high embodied carbon, is more sustainable than making it out of wood or some form of composite board, which most kitchens are. Perhaps, with our modern thinking about the importance of upfront carbon emissions, it is hard to call either the building or the kitchen in it sustainable. But they both can certainly be called innovative and beautiful.

New Logica system
The Valcucine New Logica system finally solves the small appliance problem by bringing the cupboard down to the countertop.


One aspect of sustainability that we talk about on Treehugger is occupying less space, and this is an important design feature that I have long admired in this kitchen. These days, the rich are all installing "back kitchens" or "messy kitchens." The New York Times reported:

"The back kitchen, in essence a pantry on overdrive, has become increasingly popular in recent years, according to architects, designers and homebuilders... With the dirty work happening offstage, the main kitchen can shine, an immaculate centerpiece to be marveled, not sullied by spaghetti sauce and sheet pans."

I complained about this years ago when I first saw it.

"They actually have another room that's designed for all the stuff you actually use: the toaster, the coffee machine, the messy stuff you use every day. The big expensive kitchen is a charade; you do the real work in the back room.  This is insane. There is a 6-burner range and a double oven in the kitchen and another big range and exhaust hood in the outdoor kitchen—but they know full well that everyone is hiding in the messy kitchen, nuking their dinner, pumping their Kuerig and toasting their Eggos."
Valcucine kitchen open


The Valcucine New Logica system finally solves the small appliance problem by bringing the cupboard down to the countertop. You flip up the magical floating doors, and everything is there, all plugged in and ready to use, so you don't need a separate room to hide the Kuerig. It takes up a bit of space for the extra depth—but a lot less than a separate room—and there is a place for everything.

Valcucine sketch of kitchen


But in the end, the question still remains: Can either a glass kitchen or a concrete building be called sustainable? Given the Brundtland definition of "meeting our own needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" and a tight carbon budget to keep the world from heating more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, and given that glass has upfront carbon emissions of 0.9 kilograms per kilogram of glass, each of which is compromising future generations, I would conclude the answer is no. But they sure are pretty.