We just moved into a new place.
We are in the process of learning how to live in a new home, a new city. My wife wanted to move back to her hometown in Southern California to live near her family. She proposed that we leave the Bay Area for a year or so and live in the house she grew up in. I would finally have a house to fix up, something I've wanted for a while. So I agreed and now, about a year after making that agreement, here we are.
We knew from the outset that moving to the LA area would be challenging. We are both passionate about "environmental" issues, particularly climate change (An explanation of my purpose for putting “environmental” in quotation marks is something I'll spare you from now and will save for another post.). A lot of the challenges that we've encountered are related to our environmental values.
Transportation was the most immediate and glaring challenge that we anticipated. Back in Oakland, we chose to live in a dense area that had easy access to everything we needed. We got everywhere by foot, bike, or mass transit. On the rare occasion that we needed a car, we rented the best-suited type of vehicle through a local car-sharing nonprofit. I realize this may sound to some like some kind of low-carbon, car-commute-free transit utopia that only exists for the rich or not at all. But I assure you, it exists. It was our life for five years, a way of life for many that came as a result of deliberate choices and values. But I digress. Needless to say, now that we're living in the suburbs east of Los Angeles, that transit utopia seems very far away indeed.
Here in LA, as in much of the United States, when it comes to transportation, cars rule. The general assumption here seems to be that the only people who get around by bicycle or mass transit are those who, for whatever reason — usually poverty, physical limitation, and/or age — are unable to drive their own car. People who get around by bike or mass transit are pitied.
But indications that the everyone-drives-their-own-car-everywhere model is not working are obvious and ubiquitous if you're paying even a little bit of attention. The LA traffic is legendary, as is the smog. The planet is warming; asthma rates are high, especially in poor areas; our communities are increasingly segregated on both ethnic and socioeconomic lines; many of us lead unhealthily, sedentary lives; on and on and on. All of this is largely due to cars and car-centric development. Cars were supposed to offer freedom, but here in LA they now largely serve as inefficient fossil fuel-powered waiting rooms on wheels, wherein Angelenos sit around in traffic, whiling away a substantial portion of their waking lives.
So if that's why it's good to move away from a car-based lifestyle, what's the how? That is, how can we stop using the car so much, especially in a place like the LA suburbs where car ownership is presumed and everything is so spread out? That's our challenge here — to figure out how to establish a viable low- or no-car lifestyle while living in suburbia. This how question is less depressing, less finger-waggy — and frankly, more interesting — than the why question of car-light living. We've got some ideas and have already made some first steps, but I'll save those for a later post.
Fixing up the house
The other big component of our project here is the house itself. We live in a 3-bedroom, 2-bathroom 1400 square foot house in a small city east of Pasadena. We would like to fix up the house to make it more comfortable, efficient, and pleasant. These upgrades would be not just for us, but also for the family that moves into the house after us. There has been deferred maintenance on a lot of the systems of the house, so it's a good time to do some major upgrades since the equipment is due for replacement anyway.
Both to keep costs low and to seize a huge learning opportunity, I intend to in-source as much of work as possible (that is, do it myself or along with some help), all while not sacrificing quality or safety. Inevitably, some things will need to be sacrificed: likely money and (especially) time. I'm trained as an architect and have been working as a building science researcher for the last five years, so I do have a fair amount of technical knowledge and skills, but even so, this project is by far the largest and most extensive one I've undertaken. It's intimidating and, frankly, scary. But that's how we learn and grow, I guess, by undertaking ambitious projects that make us uncomfortable...right?