It wasn’t until her first child was born five years ago that Veronica Schreibeis Smith began to understand just how poorly her kitchen was working. And not just her own kitchen — nearly all kitchens. “I was an entrepreneur, a working mom, and I was having trouble feeding myself healthily, let alone my family,” she says.
Schreibeis Smith had already been working as an architect for more than a decade, working for firms based in Peru and South Korea before founding her own practice, Vera Iconica Architecture. After her kitchen revelation, she began looking at her own kitchen through a design lens, a process that revealed countless small problems that led to much bigger ones.
“I was buying organic produce, but so much of it would go bad because it was stored deep in my refrigerator somewhere and I would forget about it,” she says. She began to understand why so many Americans rely on processed food. “I got frustrated with the fact that the unhealthiest decision is often the easiest one.” She says, “I thought, ‘I’m a designer, is there anything I can do about it? Is there a solution I can be a part of?’”
She found her answer in the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit organization founded in 2014 with the aim of promoting preventative health and wellbeing. Schreibeis Smith reached out to the group and ended up establishing the Wellness Architecture Initiative in 2015. Since then, she’s oriented her practice around wellness, providing her clients with bespoke design solutions that are good for the individual and the planet alike.
A big part of this is the Wellness Kitchen, a concept that addresses the shortcomings of the modern kitchen. “There’s a poetry to the way Veronica is approaching it,” says Kohler Co.’s Erin Lilly, Design Studio Manager. “A lot of it draws on aspects of how our great-grandparents used to live, when they had root cellars. She’s bringing things we forgot back into a new lexicon.”
Despite the rise in smart appliances, the fundamental design of the home kitchen hasn’t changed since the 1950s when refrigeration became universal and processed, microwaveable food was increasingly popular. Looking around her own home, Schreibeis Smith asked herself, “How would we redesign this if we were redesigning it around healthy, nutrient-rich food that we’re trying to keep fresh for longer?”
She identified four key issues that needed to be addressed: storage, freshness, waste, and social interaction. These are all interrelated yet also present their own unique challenges. Rethinking each of them offered her the opportunity to design a kitchen that pushed its users to eat healthier while reducing their carbon footprint.
Storage can be a problem because it’s limited to two options: dark, stuffy cabinets or massive refrigerators, neither of which are conducive to having a healthy supply of fresh vegetables. The Wellness Kitchen includes a special cabinet that keeps root vegetables dark, cool, and well-ventilated; as well as another set of temperature- and humidity-controlled cabinets that are supplied with a constant stream of water in order to keep herbs and green vegetables fresh for as long as possible. There’s also a “grow cabinet” — a specially lit garden for growing microgreens right inside the kitchen.
All of this is meant to reduce the amount of packaging waste in a family’s food supply and reduce the amount of food that gets thrown away. Cabinets with transparent doors show the available food so there’s less waste, while a composting receptacle occupies a central position on the countertop to help with discarding organic waste. Schreibeis Smith says she’s working on a system that freezes the compost into cubes so it can be stored without any odor. In one project, she installed a biogas digester that used methane from her client’s compost to fuel their backyard grill and tiki torches.
There’s a social aspect to the kitchen, too. The Wellness Kitchen includes a large, uncluttered island where everyone in the family can take part in food preparation. Schreibeis Smith encourages her clients to think about the needs of each person in the household, including children, so the kitchen is accessible to each of them. “If you have kids, you need to think about heights and levels that empower them to take part or to grab a healthy snack on their own,” she explains. “It helps with independence and making good choices.”
Her own kitchen, meanwhile, is awaiting a full renovation. “I still have a traditional kitchen,” she says. “I didn’t want to remodel my kitchen right off the bat; I wanted to learn what’s going to work in my life.” But she’s already made changes, like improving the way she stores her vegetables and starting a garden that her children help maintain. “My son goes straight to the garden, picks kale, and eats it,” she says with a laugh. “He eats more kale running around the yard than he does sitting at the table.”