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The Oyster Shack

Love of the water lead one couple to rehab a worn-down house on the Barrington River

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First impressions are hard to shake. When a century-old, overpriced shanty in Barrington wasn’t appealing to potential homebuyers, it lingered on the real estate market for years, eventually turning into a cautionary tale. Most of those who went by the place didn’t even get out of the car. The home, a summer shack on the Barrington River, was in the same family from 1947 to 1991. After the last owner passed in 1991, the home remained vacant for more than five years until Margaret and John Parsons bought the place not for what it was, but for what it could be. “We looked at seven houses that day. This was the last one and it was in the worst shape but we just looked through the window and knew,” Margaret says about the waterfront vista. “This was my dream kayaking house.”

The Parsons were no strangers to taking on challenging renovations. The two had spent nearly a decade fine tuning their home in the Edgewood section of Cranston before coming to the conclusion that their shared passion for kayaking was reason enough to live closer to an easily accessible waterway. They decided to put their home on the market, “just to see what happens,” but when they received a fair offer less than a month later, their pie-in-the-sky idea became reality. Soon they were looking at properties on and near differing bodies of water. As kayakers know all too well, ocean kayaking can be dicey; conditions change quickly and a leisurely paddle can easily turn into a heart-pounding adventure. Ponds and marsh areas can be deafeningly quiet, with no discernible challenge for those looking for a little action. So the couple knew the saltwater Barrington River would be just right. “And it’s protected enough so you can get out a lot more [during] the year,” says Margaret. This past winter being the exception (after all, February was the snowiest and secondcoldest month on record), she says they can usually kayak year-round, albeit with a wetsuit.

John and Margaret bought what was historically known as the oyster shack, as it literally was an oyster harvesting station decades ago. “We probably overpaid for it... it was on the river, but it was in such poor shape. We moved in July and all the windows were painted shut,” says Margaret with a laugh.

The Parsons rolled up their sleeves right away simply to make it livable. “There were lots of surprises. We found all kinds of horror stories,” says Margaret. “Surprises” ranged from shoddy, outdated electric to construction nowhere near code to your garden variety critters who had taken up residence there. By the way the rooms were disjointed and the “guts” of the home mismatched, the Parsons determined the previous family added on to the home piece by piece during their summertime stays. Though waterfront building regulations required them to maintain the original footprint of the home, Margaret and John transformed the home, drastically increasing the height of the original 7’ ceilings in the kitchen and living room and adding an entire new second floor addition. As the couple has an affinity for all things outdoors, critical components of the home feature exquisite woods including red cedar shingles outside, and on the inside, mahogany in the bathroom, cherry kitchen cabinets and floors and Brazilian cherry on the second floor. “We both like old houses and we both really like wood,” Margaret says. “I’m a carpenter’s daughter.”

The eco-conscious couple wanted their “new” old house to reflect their commitment to leaving a smaller carbon footprint behind, so they researched solar energy. Their pursuits led them to Rhode Island Wind Power based in Middletown which specializes in wind energy and solar systems for homes, businesses, schools and farms. “We never did solar before. We try to live an environmentally friendly life and it seemed the right thing to do, and there were tax credits; federal and Rhode Island, to do it. We looked into wind power too but Barrington doesn’t have a wind ordinance, but they had nothing restricting solar,” Margaret says. The company installed a high tech active solar tracking system in 2010 which actively traces the path of the sun throughout the day harvesting energy to produce electricity. Soon after, the company installed an array of panels on the roof and on the guest house on the property. Both solar elements (the solar tracker, or mobile panels, and stationary panels located on the guest house roof), produce electricity which is sold back to National Grid and reduces the Parsons’ electric bill. “Everything on our property is electric including hot water, heat, air conditioning, washer, dryer, etc.” says Margaret. “We have no oil or natural gas utilities.” The solar systems have yielded the couple significant savings. In 2014, for example, the property produced 6,878 kwH of the 15,397 kwH they used and their total electric cost for the year was a mere $1,559.90.

Margaret says the solar panel systems are more common in New Hampshire and Maine right now but she would like to see their popularity rise here in the Ocean State. “Who knows? With the substantial electric increase, people might be thinking more about it,” she says, referring to the electric rate increase approved by the Public Utilities Commission in December, which gave National Grid the green light to charge customers starting in the beginning of this year.

John was committed to transforming the outside of the home as well, completing the well-ordered landscaping with an impressive organic vegetable garden and fruit trees. The couple is hopeful the harsh winter won’t have too much of an impact on their hard work.
Would they take on a project of such magnitude again? “We joke that we smart about it now, [and] we would have just leveled it because it would have been cheaper,” Margaret says candidly. But the reward has been sweet, and the couple’s “dream kayaking house” is now their daily reality.