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College Students in the GO Kitchen

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Cohousing: the modern equivalent of a “village” excerpted below:

It occurred to me that in the hierarchy of hacks this might be rather large, but one we have adopted and is well-tested is “It takes a village to raise a child”.

Specifically, we live in the modern, hip, non-“hippie” equivalent of that village, called “Cohousing” — ours is Great Oak Cohousing in Ann Arbor.

Attributes that make Cohousing the ideal setting to raise a child include:

  • intergenerational intentional community — in other words, we know and are friends with our neighbors; that is, everyone who lives here, wants to live here knowing all their neighbors — from kids to retirees; it is stimulating, diverse, educational, comfortable and absolutely natural
  • safe, pedestrian and kid-friendly physical layout — we have a non-motorized vehicle path that runs between our homes and kids can roam with their parents’ full confidence. A family who moved in last week wrote that within a day of moving in, their 6 year old already had 3 play dates on one day, 2 of which she arranged herself!
  • shared Common House with a kid’s room and game room, so your child can have a neutral place to play with other kids, and away from home at the same time
  • a natural meeting place on snow days and vacations when a suburban parent would cringe at having to chauffer
  • the physical layout and proximity of units and the Common House lend themselves to shared child-minding and adult interaction without needing to plan way in advance and drive somewhere — it’s convenient, can happen at the spur of the moment and does (we do it over email [broadcast or unicast], phone or just step outside and see who might help out)
  • optional common meals (5 nights a week at Great Oak) where the quality, variety and convenience is staggering (you can see the RSS feed of our upcoming meals at our website) — the meals are cooked and cleaned in rotation and the cost of ingredients is shared. Where else can you eat for the same price and quality as homemade, and only have to work for about 2 hours a month? and be home (if you don’t get caught up talking to your friends/neighbors) within a minute?

So yes, the world is shrinking, and our communication options make virtual presence easier, but when your physical neighborhood is designed to help you interact, take care of the kids and share resources, you can be modern, hip, earth-friendly and relaxed!

Maybe this is too much of a lifestyle-hack to merit a blog-entry, but for any new parents, I feel it is imperative that they at least know such an option exists, especially before they plan on moving to a larger or different home.

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Our neighboring cohousing community, Touchstone, produced two commercials featuring Great Oak members and locations.


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With cohousing, neighborliness comes with the house

Advocate Nick Meima has been instrumental in bringing concept to Ann Arbor area

News Staff Reporter But when he became a homeowner in a nice Ann Arbor neighborhood where he had everything he’d always wanted, something didn’t feel right.

“It was all me, me, me,” said Meima, 52, former director of Glacier Hills Retirement Community. “There was no us-ness. And us-ness was what I really wanted.”

Meima’s life changed the day in 1989 he was invited to jury a student project on senior housing at the University of Michigan College of Architecture. On a coffee table in the library he saw a book titled “Cohousing: A Contemporary Approach to Housing Ourselves,” by Kathryn McCamant and Charles Durrett.

Five minutes later, he knew he’d found what he didn’t even know he was looking for. He found a new way to live.

Eventually, Meima became the driving force behind Sunward, the first cohousing neighborhood in the Ann Arbor area. A second community, Great Oak, was built. And now a third, Touchstone, is under construction, making this the first time in the United States three cohousing units have been built next to each other.

“I’m passionate about the sense of community that cohousing offers that a lot of people really want to have and don’t know how to create it,” said Meima, now a partner in the Cohousing Development Co. in Scio Township.

Software developer Ken Winter was at the first meeting in 1994, and remembers all the subsequent meetings in church basements leading up to the building of Sunward. Without Meima, it would never have happened, he said.

“It really did start in his soul,” said Winter, who became one of the first tenants at Sunward eight years ago. “He was the indispensable person keeping it all together.”

Meima, too, has been living at Sunward since 1998, in a comfortable three-story townhouse overlooking woods and a pond.

On a sunny day last week, Meima gave a reporter a tour of the three cohousing communities. Located in Scio Township, the communities are set back from Jackson Road on rolling land that could be out in the country if they weren’t eight minutes from downtown Ann Arbor.

Cohousing communities are based on a condominium ownership model, but are planned, designed and managed by residents who want a close-knit community. Townhouses are close together, and instead of each building facing a road, units are connected by walkways accented by flowers, ferns and shrubs. No herbicides or pesticides are allowed.

Children played happily on the playgrounds, while others did crafts on a table in the common house, which includes a dining room and kitchen for optional shared meals, exercise facilities, meeting spaces, a guest room, TV room, rented home offices, and meeting rooms.

Such a house makes life feel larger, said Meima, noting: “It’s a 7,000-square-foot extension on your house.”

The work is shared, with residents signing up for tasks ranging from gardening to bookkeeping, cleaning or cooking.

Communal dinners are optional, with each house given a monthly bill for the number of dinners eaten.

Doug Siewert and his wife moved into Sunward when it opened, and moved into a large house there after the birth of their son.

He calls Meima “the godfather of cohousing.”

“This is the first place I’ve lived that ever felt like home,” said Siewert, who was responsible for cooking dinner that night in the spacious kitchen of the common house. “Especially having a child, it’s a wonderful place to be. … The whole setup of cars on the outside and people on the inside makes sense to me.”

Residents are spiritually, politically, and economically diverse, Meima said. But they have one thing in common: They’re committed to being part of a close-knit neighborhood.

“Neighborhood comes first, house comes second,” he said.

Meima grew up in New Jersey. After earning bachelor’s degrees in psychology and sociology, he went to graduate school at the University of Southern California, where in 1974, he was one of the first 18 people in the country to receive a master’s degree in gerontology. He moved to Ann Arbor in 1977 to become director of Glacier Hills, a job he held until 1991. He then created a home health agency which he sold in 2000, a year before he started the Cohousing Development Co. He also continues to do consulting for various senior housing programs such as assisted-living retirement communities.

While working in an age-segregated environment, Meima realized he preferred an environment that included a mix of ages, so that young people could benefit from their elders’ wisdom.

Cohousing offers a mix of ages, as well as relief from the isolation so many people feel in traditional neighborhoods, he said.

He recalled an elderly woman a couple of years ago slipped on the ice while using her walker, fell down, and broke her hip. When she screamed, a neighbor ran out, then called 911 and got her a blanket. Within a minute, there were several neighbors out. Within a few minutes, someone had taken responsibility for her dog, someone offered to take her to the hospital, and someone else offered to drive that person home from the hospital.

“The flip side is when you have something to celebrate, you have a lot of people to celebrate it with you,” he said.

Despite the many opportunities for contact, privacy is not a problem, said Meima.

“Your house is your house,” he said. “Nobody comes in unless you invite them. If you’re in a hurry to get to work, you don’t have to talk to anybody on the way to your car. You can pick your moments when you want to interact and you can pick your moments when you don’t.”

Meima says he could never go back to a traditional neighborhood.

“The social distance between me and the neighbors was overwhelming,” he said of the old neighborhood. “There, you bought a house. I bought a house. We didn’t buy neighborliness. Here, you do. It’s a healthy way to live. And more interesting.”

Jo Mathis can be reached at or (734) 994-6849.

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click on the image below to watch the piece on Great Oak Cohousing on Google video

Or watch the 2 minutes, 6 seconds (10 mb) clip using our local copy (Quicktime .mov)

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With co-housing, home is a community

October 1, 2002


Not everybody wants the white house with the white picket fence.

But the yard work and maintenance that come with traditional home ownership isn’t the only reason for ruling out that particular, and quintessential, American dream.

Some are seeking a sense of community they contend is missing in many of today’s neighborhoods, as the distance widens between neighbors’ front doors in new subdivisions and front porches give way to backyard decks.

Among the alternatives is co-housing where architecture – housing units are configured in close proximity with perimeter parking – and communal space work to encourage interaction.

“Interaction is inspired,” said Amy Nesbitt, who lives in an Ann Arbor co-housing community called Sunward.

The first such development in Michigan, Sunward has 40 units and more than 95 residents.

The co-housing concept originated in Denmark in the ’60s and took root in North America in the ’80s, according Robert W. Marans, professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

To date, there are about four other co-housing developments in Michigan.


Interestingly, Nesbitt wasn’t seeking to live in a co-housing community when she decided to relocate to Ann Arbor. Friends were living in a three-bedroom townhouse there and an extra room was available.

“I was very skeptical,” said the 32-year-old booking agent. “And I didn’t come for the interaction.”

Today, she plans to join friends in buying a unit in one of two co-housing developments planned next to Sunward.

“I always had the fantasy of doing a modern industrial condo or an old Victorian house,” said Nesbitt. The benefits of co-housing were enough to change her mind.

“It takes a long time in a traditional housing situation to meet your neighbors. You really have to work at it in regular housing. In co-housing, it’s more happenstance. It’s very spontaneous.”

Other benefits include the convenience of laundry facilities, a gym, a media center and a multi-purpose room in Sunward’s common house.

Group meals are prepared for and by residents four times a week; participation is optional, and every housing unit is equipped with its own full kitchen. But many residents, including Nesbitt, appreciate not having to cook every night and the luxury of more free time.

“It’s awesome for me,” said Nesbitt. “I tool in from work and there’s dinner.”

Adjacent to the common house dining area is a sitting room with fireplace and two-room play area for children with tables for arts and crafts, beds for naps and storage for toys and books.

Even mailboxes are in the common house as a way to bring together neighbors in conversation and camaraderie.

“That’s the key with co-housing – making it easy for people to connect,” said Nick Meima, chief founder of Sunward and president of the Co-housing Development Company, which is currently building Sunward’s two adjacent co-housing communities.

Already under construction is Great Oak, with 37 units ranging in price from $150,000 for a two-bedroom to $350,000 for a four-bedroom.

Construction on Honey Creek, which will have up to 46 units ranging from $97,000 for a one-bedroom to $350,000 for a four-bedroom, is scheduled to begin in 2003.


Sunward was developed jointly by Meima, seven core founders and the rest of the community’s original residents. Resident participation in the planning and building process is often a stated goal of co-housing communities.

Overall development layout also plays a key role in achieving the aims of co-housing.

At Sunward, for instance, some townhouses form parallel rows and face one another, creating what Meima calls a “lane.”

The setup might be best described as a miniature Main Street, and the idea is to reduce physical distance between neighbors.

“The more physical distance there is between people, the less likely it is that people will interact,” said Meima.

Indeed, avoiding one’s neighbors would be hard to do, especially if you’re sitting on the front porch.

However, Sunward residents seem to view lost privacy and a greater sense of community as a fair trade, said Marans, who led a 1999 University of Michigan study of development.

“What they lost in privacy, they gained in this feeling of community,” said Marans.

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Condo owners share a lot

Cohousing development brings together families who want a strong sense of community

December 30, 2001


For the 19 years that he lived in his Ann Arbor condo, Ed Herstein drove to work, drove home, parked his car in his attached garage and rarely saw his neighbors.

“There were few opportunities to meet other people,” Herstein says.

That changed when he moved to a new condo with an association that puts an emphasis on community and participation. These days, Herstein volunteers on several condo committees, eats in a communal dining room four times a week and is greeted by name as he takes a neighbor’s dog for a noontime stroll.

“Here, I know everybody,” says Herstein, 58, a retired technology consultant for a regional educational service agency. “It’s extremely pleasing to know that if I ever need to borrow a cup of milk, I can go to one of 40 households and never get turned down.”

Herstein’s one-bedroom condo is among the 40 units at Sunward CoHousing in Scio Township, just west of Ann Arbor. The neo-colonial townhouses, covered in clapboard-like siding in yellow, pale gray or blue with white trim, are clustered along walking lanes and back up to common areas. Each has a small front yard and porch to promote easy visiting.

The one-, two- and three-bedroom units are 750 to 1,600 square feet and sell for $125,000 to nearly $300,000, with monthly association fees of $75 to $135. About six units have been resold since the development opened in 1998 and prices have kept pace with or risen a bit higher than the local market, according to Nick Meima, 49, a Sunward founder and resident.

Cohousing originated in Denmark about 35 years ago and arrived in the United States in the 1980s. There are now more than 60 cohousing developments and another 100 planned, says Meima, a partner in the Cohousing Development Co., which assists others who want to start similar projects.

Sunward, Meima says, is Michigan’s first cohousing community. Great Oak and Honey Creek, both scheduled to begin construction in 2002, will be built on adjacent land, sharing access to a natural area and connected with walking trails. Another cohousing community, Meadowood, is planned for Lansing.

In cohousing, the residents collaborate to plan a pedestrian-friendly, neighborly community. Although each unit is complete and separate, members have access to a common building, where optional communal meals and other facilities like meeting rooms are available. Members manage the development once it is built.

One aspect that attracts considerable interest is the prospect of living among people of diverse ages who have chosen to be part of a close-knit community.

“As a parent, it’s an extraordinary place,” says George Albercook, 36, who lives at Sunward with his wife, Caren, and their 3-year-old son, Zander.

At Sunward, condos are clustered, so much of the site remains undeveloped. There is a prairie with native plants, a walking trail through 10 acres of woods, and a wetland and pond that help filter and manage storm water.

About half of the 92 residents are between the ages of 26 and 59, with a quarter younger and the rest older than 60. Most have college degrees. Owners include married couples, some with children; single people; same-sex and unmarried heterosexual couples. Residents include whites, Asians and African Americans.

While they represent many professions, religions and political views and interests, “a hard-core conservative is not someone I typically find in cohousing,” Meima says.

The community building is between the parking lot and the condos. Inside, members pick up their mail and newspapers and can watch television, eat dinner, do laundry and use exercise machines or woodworking tools. They may also reserve the guest bedroom for occasional visitors.

The association requires adult members to work about four hours a month on projects that benefit the whole, such as shoveling snow, doing yard work, serving on committees, cooking the group meals or cleaning up afterward.

“If you eat, you cook or you clean,” says Meima. The cost of the food is divided among those who share it, usually $3 to $4 per dinner. Vegetarian options are always on the menu. Careful planning

Cohousing projects promote the use of sustainable materials. According to J.D. Lindeberg, a partner in Cohousing Development Co. who lives with his family at Sunward, linoleum is the choice for the community building floor because it is made of natural materials. The exterior siding is a concrete-wood fiber composite, and each unit is equipped for solar panels. Walls are extra thick to improve insulation.

The landscape is maintained without herbicides or pesticides and Sunward has its own recycling program. It limits cars to the parking lot near the entrance, and residents use pushcarts to carry their groceries to their homes, about the equivalent of half a city block.

Although it remains a niche housing market, cohousing is likely to become more popular in the next decade as more people seek alternatives to traditional housing, predicts Robert Marans, professor of architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan.

“People are looking for places that offer a strong sense of community, concern about the environment, some shared responsibilities, and are willing to give up a bit of privacy in order to have this,” Marans says.

Advocates say cohousing attracts people with lifestyles other than the traditional two-parent-family-with-children that comprised the target market for single-family, detached houses built after World War II.

Meima says that’s how he felt when, in the late 1980s, he read a book about cohousing and “instantly recognized that’s what I wanted. . . . I had the sense that life could be better if I had a more connected lifestyle.” He started talking to people about cohousing and found others in Ann Arbor who thought it would be worth a try.

The group held meetings at a bookstore and eventually signed on as codevelopers. They found the 20-acre parcel with an old gravel and sand pit, a small farm and woods. Members made down payments to buy the property on land contract, got a construction loan from a bank and found a builder. The last unit was sold a month after building began.

Because members manage cohousing developments, there are plenty of committees and frequent — sometimes tedious — meetings. “People who don’t like meetings would get frustrated” in a cohousing development, Herstein says. But residents say this way of making decisions is fair: “When you include everybody, you invariably make better decisions than if they’re not involved,” Albercook says. A close-knit group

Albercook and his family moved to Sunward from a duplex where they knew few neighbors. Here, son Zander is free to venture outside on the traffic-free walkways, finding playmates among the other members’ children.

“The world is a safe, interesting place to him,” says Albercook, a consulting research scientist. Caren Albercook is a doctor in family practice.

In addition to communal meals, Sunward residents meet at social functions. One resident recently posted a notice inviting everyone to an open house to see her newly decorated living room. There are community events like the May Day festivities, featuring “schlepping cart” races, where residents push the wagons they use to transport goods from cars to condos.

When people go out of town, neighbors volunteer to feed their pets. When residents return from hospital stays, neighbors bring in their meals. In some ways, it’s like an idealized version of life in a small town — except that all these residents have elected to be part of it. And can it be too close, like some small towns?

“It’s hard to live here and not have people have a pretty good idea of what’s going on in your life,” Herstein admits. But, he says, the level of support and respect for individual lifestyle choices shared by residents are far more important.

When it comes time to sell, Sunward residents select their own buyers and negotiate their own prices. Prospective buyers receive a copy of the binding cohouse bylaws as well as a book of agreements so they know what kind of community they’re buying into.

With that kind of preparation, it is rare — though not unheard of — that someone moves into cohousing with unrealistic expectations and subsequently decides to leave. More frequently, people lean about cohousing from friends who are already residents, so they’re familiar with the concept before joining. In that way, condos have sold to like-minded people without being advertised.

“When someone moves out of cohousing, the next household moving in agrees” to the community commitments, Meima says. “That’s one of the critical aspects to sustaining a community.”

Contact MARTY HAIR at 313-222-2005 or