Rockport family lives off the grid harnessing the power of love and the sun – Boston.com

By Marni Elyse Katz – Globe Correspondent

It was love at first sight for Leyea and Jonathan Zuker: As soon as they traipsed across this Rockport property, they were sold. Never mind that in order to build on it, their family would have to live off the grid.

“When we walked by the horses and cows — there’s a working farm next door — we knew this would be our home,” Leyea said. “We didn’t know how it would happen, but we knew it would.”

The sale required any home built on the property to exist off the grid. The couple, who have three teens between them, two cats, and two dogs, were up for the challenge. Leyea, a polarity therapist and aesthetician whose practice, The Off Grid Spa, is on the property, too, was familiar with the lifestyle through friends. Jonathan, the executive director of the Conquer Cancer Coalition, is also an artist and an architectural designer certified in sustainable building practices.

Knowing they could accelerate the building process by going with a prefabricated structure, the pair approached Yankee Barn Homes, Jonathan’s rough design in hand, about its energy-efficient, custom post-and-beam homes. After the design is finalized, the company fabricates the components of the tightly insulated shell in its Grantham, N.H., factory, then works with the client’s builder to erect it once the foundation, floor joists, and subfloor are ready. The client’s builder takes it from there.

“We provide fully-insulated wall panels with energy-efficient windows installed, an insulated roof, and a Douglas fir timber-frame structure,” Chris Sevigny, the director of design and production for the company, said.

The couple went with standard wall panels with 4 inches of polyisocyanurate rigid-board insulation, but upgraded the roof panels to ones that have 11 inches of insulation. “Since heat rises and escapes through the roof, increasing the insulation in the roof is a cost-effective technique for increasing the home’s energy-efficiency,” Sevigny said.

The Zukers’ home is very efficient. It has a Home Energy Rating System (HERS) score of 10; the lower the score, the more efficient the dwelling. By comparison, homes built in Massachusetts in 2022 required a HERS rating of 55 or less to meet code; this year it’s 52.

More on New Designs/Ways of Life

On delivery day, a dozen 18-wheelers rolled down from New Hampshire, ready to unload. Unfortunately, the trucks weren’t able to execute the sharp turn onto the building site. “We rented flatbeds and a forklift and spent four days methodically unloading the meticulously labeled boxes,” Jonathan said. “Then the Yankee Barn Homes put the house together in 17 days; it was very satisfying.”

Yankee Barn Homes can accommodate any aesthetic. This is a 2,434-square-foot modern farmhouse. The property is farmland, after all, the couple reasoned, why not lean into it? Plus, the Douglas fir beams complement the modern farmhouse sensibility.

“We love the authenticity of the exposed structure; there’s a real artistry to it,” Jonathan said.

Early on, Jonathan happened across Douglas fir beams salvaged from the Hingham Shipyard, which he quickly purchased and had milled into variable-width tongue-and-groove floorboards. Not only do they enhance the overall style of the home, they have meaning. “I used to pass the shipyard all the time when I went fishing with my dad as a kid,” Jonathan said.

The wood-burning stove’s granite backdrop nods to the rocky locale and anchors the open-concept living space. The stove also heats the house. “We have mini-splits [a ductless heating and cooling system], but we don’t use them much in winter because they use a lot of power,” Jonathan said. “The heat from the wood stove emanates well and keeps the common spaces and the kids’ bedrooms upstairs warm.”

The first-floor primary bedroom can be chilly, but no matter, the couple just grabs an extra blanket. Last winter, the family used seven cords of wood. “We all collect the wood from the property, and Jonathan cuts it,” Leyea said. “We have a tractor named Clementine who helps us.”

The power comes from the sun. There is a 12-killowatt solar array on the charming solar barn not far from the house. Inside the barn is a Tesla Powerwall battery system that stores the solar energy and a generator to recharge the batteries when needed.

Unfortunately, there have been a fair number of glitches thus far. The Zukers engaged the Electrified Garage in Amesbury to convert a 1947 Dodge pickup truck into an electric vehicle with the hope that it will function more efficiently as a generator than the actual generator they have.

“Living off the grid last winter was tough,” Leyea said. It took the family some time to understand how much power different things use. They produce 14 hours of power in the summer, but only six or seven in the winter. If they’re running low, they flip the breaker that shuts off the television, kitchen appliances, and such in order to preserve precious kilowatts.

They also adjust their behavior to live off the grid. Breakfast might be power bars instead of toast, and nighttime entertainment might be board games over movies before it’s lights out at 10 p.m. The hot tub, needless to say, is a summer splurge.

“We learned a lot last winter, but we did it,” Leyea said. Both parents commend the kids for being all-in on this adventure.

“We feel more connected to the land, our home, and each other,” Jonathan said.

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