Emily and Steve Solarazza are really committed to solar power.
When I walk up to Steve and Emily Solarazza’s 600-square foot Vineyard Haven home on a sunny June afternoon, they greet me on their front deck, where they are roasting two sweet potatoes in a solar oven. They tell me it takes several hours for the potatoes to cook in a solar oven versus the one hour it takes in a conventional oven. As we say our initial hellos, I think to myself, “Wow, that’s a super strong commitment to using solar energy.”
I have been on a “How are you? How are the kids?” social basis for years when I run into Steve or Emily at the market and in town but I have never been to their house. And until I began chatting with them in more depth, I had no sense of just how much solar power (and the sun) means to them: They tell me when they got married, they changed their names to Solarazza, which means “sun people.”
Steve, who is 68, and grew up in Hyde Park, Mass., is a fine carpenter. Emily, 48, is from Westchester, New York, and is a massage therapist and yoga teacher. They met on the Island and have been together for 17 years. “We were best friends first,” Steve says, smiling.
As they show me around the house, Steve points out his favorite details. The curve of the walls by the windows to let more light in. “He loves curves,” Emily says. Steve flips a switch, moving his “coat elevator” into vertical action. The coat elevator lifts a rack of coats up toward the ceiling, increasing storage. They tell me that because of their use of solar power — panels, passive solar, other heat trapping and cooling technologies, and the way the house itself is built — they only spend about $200 dollars a year on utilities. A family of four living year round, doing laundry, bathing, cooking, heating, living, and only spending $200? Amazing.
Steve explains that while the home’s solar panels help them harvest and use solar energy, because the house itself is insulated with straw bales, it increases the home’s ability to hold heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer. “The walls are two feet deep.” He laughs, “We have an R-value of 60.” For those not familiar with R-values, this is the term used to measure a home’s insulation performance. For comparison, a typical newer home on the Island might have walls with an R-value of 23 and a roof R-value rated from 38 to 49. So an R-value of 60 is astounding. Unlike many insulations, straw is also non-toxic, an agricultural byproduct and completely compostable.
Steve explains that he had been fascinated by straw bale homes when he discovered that Paul Lacinski, author of Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates, and an expert on building straw bale homes in colder climates, lives in Ashfield, Mass. In 2005, Steve reached out and Paul said he would be happy to help Steve build one. While some straw bale homes use the straw to bear the load as well as insulate, Steve and Emily opted to put in a foundation, build a “super structure” or stick frame with wood and then fit the straw bales into the frame. “We tried to use straw from Chappy to keep the supplies even more local, but it was too damp. We ended up using straw from Newburyport,” Steve says. “You do not want any moisture in the straw that leads to mold and a host of problems,” Emily adds.
On Memorial Day weekend in 2006, “A couple hundred bales of straw were delivered. And we went to work,” Steve laughs. The event had a barn raising feel. “So many people showed up to help us,” Emily adds. “Jennifer Johnnson, Oceana Rames, Ozzy Martins, Donald Cronig, Steve’s brother Fred Ruzanski, and Debbie Hart. We’d fit the straw into the frame and then stake it and tie it right to the frame.” Had I not seen the video of this that my husband, Thomas Bena, shot while making his film One Big Home, I would not have believed that this was truly a viable way to insulate and build a home. It’s really cool to see.
Once the straw was in place, Steve and Emily had to apply “a kind of stucco or adobe” to the outside and inside surfaces, sealing in the straw. Emily explains, “Traditional stucco is generally made with lime, sand, and water. We added straw and clay to the mixture, using clay, straw, lime, sand, and water. This is where Paul’s expertise really came into play. He brought special machines to mix, showing us how to spray it and trowel it onto the hay.” Steve adds, “ We applied a 1 ½-inch layer and then let it cure and dry for 30 days.” They draped the house in tarps so that it would stay dry and cure properly. The home also has deep eaves, which keeps bad weather at bay. “There’s a saying with straw bale homes: big hats and boots. This is why we have such big overhangs,” Emily tells me. “I also put moisture sensors in the straw so I could be alerted to any mold problems. But we have never had a problem,” Steve says. Emily continues, “Steve also made the smart choice not to put all the plumbing and electrical inside the straw, which some people do. This way, if there is a plumbing problem or electrical issue, we can address it without disrupting the home’s impermeable membrane.”
Once the first layer of the stucco-like mixture was dry, Paul returned to the Island and their team applied another ½-inch layer of the mixture. Another month passed and they waited for the second layer to dry. Once that was finished, they used a lime wash with some pigment in it to finish the interior and exterior surfaces.
Steve and Emily moved into the rough structure in August 2005. “We were essentially camping,” Emily says. By October, they had done enough work to be pretty warm inside. But, because they had put solar panels on the roof as one of their first acts, they were able to use solar panels to heat their water and power the actual build-out of their home.
Every aspect of their home is personal and comes with a story. The walls bear art by their children Siana, who is 13, and Bowen, who is 10. The bathroom sink has Sassafras leaves along with shells and seeds — given to them by friends — sealed in epoxy. And so much of their home incorporates reused and repurposed objects. The pedestal for their bathroom sink is an old iron Singer Sewing Machine stand. They found their farmer’s kitchen sink on the side of the road in West Chop. “It’s Italian,” Steve says. Their huge bathtub was sitting on County Road. “I found it and called Steve who came to sit in it,” Emily says, laughing.
While we are in the bathroom, Emily explains how they use solar hot water. She shows me a meter and reads the temperature — about 90 or so degrees. Hot enough for a shower. “We do have backup for our solar hot water heater,” she says. “Sometimes it is not [hot enough] and then I hit the switch to use electricity to heat the water,” Emily says, showing me the switch. “But usually, I’ll look at the weather and if it is going to be sunny a bit later, I’ll shower then.” She laughs, “I mean, if I have to shower, of course I will, but if there is room to wait, I’ll do that. I mean, why not use the sun when you can?”
I asked if they’d always been this committed to preserving the environment. “We like participating,” Steve says. “It feels good.”
Emily nods. “As you can see, Steve is a bit of an inventor,” Emily says, as they show me yet another ingenious way they bring in and circulate warm air using a fraction of energy that a heater would use. Essentially, it is a box outside a window that traps warm air and moves it through a vent into the house. “He likes to figure things out.”
“I also like the fact that because we do not have huge living expenses, we both can work a bit less and can spend more time with each other and our children. I mean, for me, that’s what it is all about.”