When Bob and Connie Dobrowski first looked at land in Wakefield in 1980, they were looking for more than just a buildable lot, ample acreage and bucolic surroundings. The two were in search of elevation; a place where they could build one of the first passive solar homes in Rhode Island. They found the ideal location in Wakefield’s Green Hill area, where a developer had carved out ten lots for building, eight of which were still available. Joined by an architect from Connecticut familiar with passive solar construction, the Dobrowskis secured an ideal piece of land. They held on to the lot until they broke ground in 1988.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, passive solar design takes advantage of a building’s site, climate and materials to minimize energy use. Specifically, “a well-designed passive solar home first reduces heating and cooling loads through energy-efficiency strategies and then meets those reduced loads in whole or part with solar energy.”
In their case, optimal exposure was the Dobrowskis’ chief energy-efficiency strategy. “Some lots had eight and ten acres, but they’re wetland. We chose the highest elevated for the sun... and the lot we chose gave us that exposure,” explains Bob. “The home was to have lots of windows to capture the sun in the winter to heat, and deflect the sun to keep it cool in the summer... It’s not that complicated.” Simply put, the ample windows collect heat as the sun shines through south-facing windows, which allows for maximum solar access. So when creating a floor plan for the three bedroom, two and a half bathroom home with nearly 3,900 sq. ft. of living space, solar access was critical to keep in mind.
“The layout was [based] on the flow of the sun,” says Bob. “The kitchen faces east, so the sun is popping up as you enjoy your breakfast, and our bedroom is on top of that, so you wake up to the sun... In the evening, the sun sets in the living room, at the opposite edge of the house.”
When building the home, Bob adopted the role of general contractor, which was an adventurous undertaking, but one he was ready to embrace. “I’m the kind of person that likes to take on challenges, so I got three bids on every project except the framing.” The home has an open ambiance, due in large part to high ceilings and seemingly surrounding views of nature. “When you go above 16-feet, you have to have special support. We have beams specifically laminated together to support the second floor. We wanted an open house with a lot of windows and glass because we’re on three acres. We’re very fortunate; we see deer and birds and woodchucks, you name it,” he says, adding that all kinds of animals can be seen just about every time you simply glance out the windows. “I think I remember counting 39 windows, three sets of sliding patio doors and a wood front double door with leaded glass.” Many of the windows are open during the warmer months, when at night, Bob says they can hear the ocean, less than a mile away.
With an energy-efficient ethos, the couple had a reuse plan for fieldstone dug up while crews began clearing the land: a fireplace. The Dobrows- kis turned to Sonny Brown of Brown Stone Masonry in nearby Charlestown, a renowned mason and Narragansett Indian whose family has been in the business for generations. The floor-to-ceiling fireplace is the indisputable focal point in the living space; one of three fireplaces throughout the home.
Perhaps the most unconventional space in the home is Connie’s flower room. “It was supposed to be a heat collection room, but my wife saw the opportunity to be a botanist and she turned it into a flower room. There’s a cactus that’s eight-feet tall, a Christmas cactus eight-feet wide; flowers grow extremely well in there.” Connie’s love of growing and the color wheel of nature is reflected in the hues that adorn the walls throughout the home, with warm shades of green, yellow and cream throughout. “Pastels would best describe our colors. We wanted to keep it light and airy; to bring the outside in,” says Bob. “I told Connie I’d be the painter, and she’d be the picker.”
Bob explains that because they chose high-quality components throughout the home, very few things, like the nearly 40 windows, have needed replacing. The only area the Dobrowskis felt the need to upgrade is the kitchen, so two years ago they refaced the space with new flooring, new cabinets, new granite and top of the line appliances including a Wolf induction cook top. With the induction cooking method, no heat is wasted because energy is supplied directly to the cooking vessel, making the process 90-95% energy efficient. “I just pay the bills,” jests Bob. “She picks it out.”
The couple has also taken great care outside of the home. A three car garage, though generous in space, is tucked neatly on the side of the home on the lowest point of the land so that it stays out of view. A sprawling lawn and pristine landscaping, even in the winter months, shows the couple have much pride in their grounds. “Our woods look like a state park, with no leaves and no branches on the ground,” says Bob. “We appreciate the property; we know we have something special.”