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At Home on Harbour Island

When he moved from New York, Joe Volpe built from the ground up - with a little help from his fellow firefighters

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It didn’t take long for Joe Volpe, who moved to Rhode Island from New York more than a decade ago, to adapt to the Ocean State’s coastal environs. Serving on the Narragansett Fire Department, Joe settled into a quaint cottage on the town’s Harbour Island, a quiet, 140-acre peninsula that juts out into the Salt Pond. With panoramic views of the neighborhood’s association beach and one of two dock complexes, Joe quickly knew he had found someplace special. “Coming from Queens, I thought it was Fantasyland!” he jokes. “[I] saw all the social events and sense of community that took place there. I was fortunate enough to have a great landlord, the late Tony Brunetti Sr., who helped me with renting the place. He was also a realtor, so when one of the few build able lots just a few houses away became available, he guided me through the process and I jumped on it.”

Since he wasn’t exactly ready to buy when he did, Joe started paying down the land. With no construction experience, he began to educate himself about the ins and outs of building, first turning to his brothers in the fire department. “I spent the next three years becoming a pest and asking them tons of questions. I’m pretty sure I drove Richard Pariseault, a retired lieutenant, crazy,” he admits. Richard was a wealth of knowledge. As a co-owner of Sitework Inc., an excavating company, Joe credits him as his mentor throughout multiple facets of the engineering and building process. 

When a groundbreaking seemed to be realistic a year out, Joe gave more serious thought to home design. “I knew I wanted a ‘New England shingle style’ home,” he explains. “That vision came from when I was growing up. My friends and I would take a break from Queens and the city life every summer and rent shares – basically a twin bed – in a house in the Hamptons. I guess I wanted a smaller version of one of those beach houses.” Joe’s dream plans included an open floor plan and two-story ceilings designed to give the space a bigger impression. He also hoped to incorporate a great room with a loft overlooking the space.

Joe turned to Kevin Brennan of Home Grown Homes who told him about ICF construction, “a system of formwork for reinforced concrete usually made with a rigid thermal insulation that stays in place as a permanent interior and exterior substrate for walls, floors and roofs.” The forms are interlocking modular units, like Legos, that are dry-stacked and filled with concrete. The units lock together and create a form for a home’s structural walls or floors.

“I showed him a sketch I had on graph paper of what I had in mind for a design, but there was one immediate issue,” says Joe. Hoping to get a water view, he included a third story on his drawing. “I liked his answer when [Brennan] said ‘Why not?’” Brennan also assured Joe he could maintain a traditional New England design. The home would be the first all-IFC construction home in Narragansett. “All of this was daunting since I was single at the time and attempting to design a home for a future family,” he adds.
The construction process, describes Joe, was a challenge that demanded both faith and patience. Each level had to be poured and cured, one by one. “The look on some of the neighbors faces was priceless, seeing what looked like a stack of giant Legos going up,” he says. “I remember yelling from the windows, ‘Don’t worry! Come back in a couple weeks!’”

Joe was a familiar face on the construction site. In addition to getting his hands dirty throughout the building process, it was common for him to cook burgers and bring pizza to the workers. The site was a well-oiled machine, with Joe learning more and more about the building process throughout.

When it came to the interior, which included Joe’s wish list of an open floor plan, vaulted ceilings and the two-story great room, Joe knew right where to head to get the “beachy” aesthetic he desired. “[It] came from one place and one place only. Honestly, many, many Coastal Living magazines,” he says, laughing. “That’s it. I would cut out pictures and ask ‘How can I do this?’” Joe’s mother became his unofficial treasurer hunter for coastal inspired furnishings and décor all about town. “[She’d] help with a few garage sale finds and I’d go to the tile shop or furniture store and say ‘I need this or that in these pictures.’”

Joe says that Kevin’s insight foreseeing what he might need in the home once Joe would trade his bachelorhood for family life was instrumental. “A relationship was even far-fetched at the time,” says Joe, but well considered design elements have proven invaluable. Today, Joe shares his home with his family, which includes girlfriend Kaitlin Spargo and their four-year-old daughter, Gracie. “I think overall the beauty of what [Kevin] did… were little things like this play area off the great room,” explains Joe. Before, the space served as a small sitting area. Now it is home to many of Gracie’s favorite toys. In the same area, Kevin built bench seats that double as beds for he and Kaitlin’s large families. “It’s another design he incorporated for the future. Now, my nephews crash on there when they come up from New York.”

Because of this forward thinking, Joe says today he wouldn’t change a thing. Perhaps the space he, and many visitors, like best is that comfortable great room. “It seems everyone that enters the home gravitates towards the great room, which really isn’t that large but feels like you’re in Yankee Stadium.” You can take the boy out of New York…