Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Our front yard and why we moved here

Ok, still trying to alternate word entries with photo entries. I went around the yard this weekend and took some pictures. I also have some of inside, so you can compare Ana’s bathroom with mine, but don’t have those up yet.

We moved from San Diego to Vegas about two and a half years ago. For Tess- I’ll find the photos, but – we lived in our house in SD for seventeen years. It was built in 1929, which makes it pretty old for the west coast. I know, don’t even look at Europe. When our exchange student (still calling him that after twenty years) was out once we talked about seeing Paul Revere’s house in Boston, which was a hundred years old when he lived in it. Ulf laughed, as the dorm he was living in while in college was over four hundred years old. Can’t top that around here.

But 1929 was Ok for San Diego. When built it was at the end of the trolley line from downtown, in a development called Kensington. It’s on the cliffs just south of the football stadium. We couldn’t see the stadium from our house, but could see the fireworks between the trees. And the big planes when they did fly-overs for the Superbowl and big games. The house was on a half acre – pretty big lot for being so close to downtown. Lots in that area were usually small, not quite as bad as the new ones here in Vegas, but not that big.

San Diego is built on land that used to be sea bottom, and raised up very long ago. The soil is relatively soft, and washed away so what is left is a series of large flat mesas cut into different areas by canyons. Because of this it is not easy to get around the area, just because you can see a house doesn’t mean you go straight there, you have to work around the bridges and roads around the canyons. They aren’t deep – but too much to drive over. Our lot was big because it was on a canyon – one to the side and a bigger one in back. Most of our lot was flat, but in the back it dropped off down about fifty feet to the canyon bottom there. The one on the side was not as deep, but still 35 feet or so. Most lots in the area were fifty feet wide, as was ours. But because of the canyons our lot was four hundred feet deep. Nice size.

The slope into the canyon along side was about forty five degrees – a good slope. Every time it rained a little more of our yard would wash down, and in case of a big rain I was concerned that we would lose a big chunk. Looking back along the yard you could see three or four areas where big sections had washed down in the past. One area near the house had been reinforced, with telephone poles vertically and railroad ties horizontally. This was probably done in the fifty’s when there were some big rains. But since this was over forty years old the wood was rotting and starting to give away. I started replacing this with a series of concrete walls.

Because the canyons are declared ‘open space’ they are protected by the city from construction. Not as neat as a park, but still to keep some of the native country around. I could not get a permit to put up a big wall, but could do short retaining walls without permits. I had to start the walls down near the bottom and work up. The walls were about three feet (one meter) high and three feet apart. I ended up building ten walls, so it looked like a series of giant steps going up the canyon side. Ten steps; thirty feet high total and about thirty five feet deep.

The walls were about sixty feet long (20 meteres). The first one poured concrete, the rest of concrete block filled with more concrete. Then gravel filled in behind each one to make the flat step part, and the next wall set back three feet on this flat step. It took from 20 to 50 tons of gravel for each step, depending on irregularities in the slope. So building these things was a major effort, getting the blocks and steel rebar and concrete down the slope, building forms, mixing concrete, setting blocks, and then getting the pile of gravel from the front yard to the back and down the hillside. Because it was a narrow yard there was not enough room to drive stuff to the back, it all was dumped in the driveway up front then a wheelbarrow at a time moved the hundred feet or so to the back, and down the slope.

At first I moved along, but after a while nobody would come over to help any more and it ended up just B and I doing the work. So we averaged a wall a year. Yes, the ten year plan. But at the end we had the top wall level with the flat area of the yard, and it made our flat area about eight feet wider. Just in time to sell the house.

While there we added on a second story. The house was one story high, three bedrooms and two baths, about 1800 square feet. Fair size, but all the rooms were rather small and cut up, a popular style back in the 20’s. And to have two bathrooms was rather unusual. The story we heard was that this area was the first development in the country where you purchased a lot, and were provided with sidewalks and paved streets, with water, sewer, gas and power right up to the lot. You then arranged for a contractor to build a house. But to keep it a little nicer there were restrictions on how much you had to spend. Because of the requirements most homes had full hardwood floors and two fully tiled baths. We joked about the ‘mad tiler of Kensington’ – every bathroom we saw had different colors and styles of tile. One of ours was black and white, with little hex tiles on the floor. The other was pinks and turquoise, funny to say but it was rather nicely done.

We had a contractor put up a second floor, and extend one of the bedrooms downstairs. Upstairs was just a master suite – one big bedroom and a bath and walk in closet, with decks front and rear. It didn’t cover the whole house, just the back part. We had nice views, and lots of windows. The contractor did the heavy work; framing, stucco, footings, roof and so on. We did all the interior; hanging drywall, plumbing, electrical, heating hookup, and such. Lots of work, but we ended up spending less than half of what a full contract would have taken, and made it into what we wanted. We had a good architect do the design, so it matched the rest of the house and the neighborhood.

After the house we redid the back yard. Created a nice courtyard, with tropical plants and a fountain. I was president of the computer society, and other clubs in SD. Entertained a lot. One of the guys in the PC group (thanks, Cy) did barbeque – he had a huge grill. Every summer we had about a hundred people over, and Cy spent the day working on a hundred pounds of ribs (really really good stuff). So we made the yard from the skinny parallel stripes it was into a nice big courtyard and large grassy area. At one point we even had 250 rose bushes scattered around. B was busy with those.

But then the government stepped in. The freeway Interstate 15 runs from Canada down to Mexico. It was planned to go down the canyon behind our house, but from the original plans it was supposed to be cut down, and so be about sixty feet below us. Well, due to a number of lawsuits that delayed construction for several years (the three miles in Kensington was the only I-15 section from Canada to Mexico that wasn’t completed, three miles out of over 1500, not bad for the lawsuits). As part of the settlement the highway department agreed to cover some areas of the freeway and create some large parks, particularly near a school about two miles away. Because of this (so we were told) there was a lot more dirt to move. And rather than haul it away it was used to fill part of the canyon. So rather than have a road 60 feet below us it now was 20 feet below us and filled the canyon width. So it was not hidden, but visible from our upstairs windows. Ended up being eight lanes (all US freeways are getting big, especially in California) and sloped up from Mission Valley where the stadium was to a higher level.

So right behind our house was a big road on a hill. Ended up being filled with trucks, that make a LOT of noise straining up the hill, and lots of cars. During rush hours it was four lanes bumper to bumper for several hours. Right behind our house. It ended up being so noisy that we couldn’t open our windows, there was always a heavy layer of dust thrown up, and our nice courtyard was no longer pleasant to sit in because of the dirt and noise. We expected something, but not this much.

So we decided to move. For those of you not aware of house prices, San Diego is one of the top areas of the country for desirability. Home prices really are high. We were able to sell ours for a lot – after all we put in a lot of work while there, and the increase in prices also bumped things up. But because of the freeway it was difficult to find somebody that would ignore the noise. It took almost six months to find a buyer, and then because of the freeway we sold for less than other homes not on the road. Which meant that in order to buy a similar house not on the freeway we would probably have to stick in an additional $200,000 or so. Hard to justify spending so much money.

We liked San Diego, but it is rather cold there. So we looked around for someplace else to move to. We wanted to stay out West, so looked in northern California, Portland, Phoenix, and other big cities. B wanted a big city, with a large airport so we could travel (as if we had the money to) and other things you find in big cities. But San Francisco was even more expensive than SD. LA likewise, and just too big. Portland was nice, but too much rain, and because of California people selling out high and moving up house prices were about the same as SD, with really small lots. We still wanted a big lot, we liked gardening and being outside.

We were coming to Vegas to visit our daughter, and figured we might as well look here. During the six months it took to sell we came up quite a few times, and kept a real estate agent busy. It’s only a five hour drive from SD to LV, an easy weekend thing to do. Yes, Americans live in our cars, so five hours sitting is not considered excessive for a weekend trip. Over 50,000 cars come here from LA every weekend, and it’s about the same drive time. After looking all over the valley we picked an area we liked, and concentrated there. The houses in our section were built in the 70’s, and the minimum lot size by zoning is a half acre. So we had an older house (well, thirty years is OLD by Las Vegas standards) and a big lot. Most people coming here want a brand new house, so we were able to get a bigger one, with a bigger yard, for less money than buying a new house. And the new houses are cheaply built with a yard that’s less than fifteen feet deep behind the house and six fee between houses. That’s not a yard.

We looked at over fifty houses, and when ours finally sold made an offer on one of the first ones we saw – still on the market here for six months. After all the work we did on our house in SD we could see the potential, and the seller came down in price to something more reasonable. We didn’t want a pool, but with lots this big over the years almost everybody put in one. The lots were sold bare, so all of the houses were custom built, and all different. There were a few similar floor plans, but we wanted a one story (stairs not too good on our older knees). Most lots had the pool right dead center, out behind the family room. This house has the pool over on the side, so it is not consuming the yard. And we’ve been working on things ever since we moved in.

One of the most visible things has been our yard modification. When we moved in the entire yard was grass. We moved in April, and our May water bill to keep the stuff green was $400. And this was not even up to the summer heat level yet. In order to conserve water the LV water district was paying people to take out grass, so we signed up for the program and removed about 12,000 square feet of lawn. Part of the requirements of the rebate program was to put in low water trees and shrubs that would cover at least 50% of the removed grass area with shade. The water department had charts of what plants are low water and approved, and how much shade each would give when full grown. (see the water department links to the right, they still have the offer and charts up). We over planted, and put in 23 trees and several dozen bushes. We couldn’t leave bare earth, the water district suggested rock as a ground cover. B picked a color called Mojave Gold – there are about thirty distinct colors of rocks, from pinks to browns and golds to white rocks. Drive around and you can see all the variety that people picked. Ours is more like the natural desert in the area. Most people picked one inch rocks to use, we wanted something more natural and went for a mix of ‘fines’ (like sand and dirt) and quarter inch gravel. It took about 150 tons (300,000 pounds) of the stuff in order to give us a two inch layer over all the area we converted.

We did it all ourselves – some help from the neighbors. Pulled out most of the bushes that were high water dependent. We left in the two big olive trees out front, and most of the palm trees, a big one right in front and four around the pool. Left a half circle of grass out front and a big strip out back that was still more grass than we had in SD. And after two years the trees and bushes are getting big, and different ones bloom at different times of the year. The lantana is in flower almost all the time. The sage has purple flowers several times a year, whenever the rains come. Small amount last week, and they are blooming again.

So here is our yard.

Several shots of the front. You can see how nice it looks. Instead of fields of green grass we now have the brown underlayment, and lots of bushes in various shades of green. the red and yellow blooms at the front corner are Mexican Bird of Paradise. The tree over them is a Desert Museum Palo Verde, which is just a big ball of yellow in the spring. The big one behind is one of the olives.

All of them bloom – from the purple sage to several shades of yellow, and a few reds.
The other trees are mostly Chilean Mesquites, which also bloom yellow in the spring.

This one is taken from under the olive pictured above. I like it a lot. Looking forward to when the trees get high, and I can walk in the shade underneath. This is just the one side of our front from a few angles.

So that’s our front yard in the fall. No fall colors, most plants are desert plants that stay green all year. With the big dominating olive trees on both sides setting it all off. All this, and even with the trees and bushes our water bill is under $150 in the hot summer months. Lot better than grass.

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