Members of Great Oak were asked to share the highlights of the past year that they remember best.

From children:

*  Playing on the tire swing
*  Watching bees
*  Playing in the splash pool with Toby
*  Doing mother’s helper for Emily (Bo & Toby) and Katie (Ellie)
*  Playing with/watching the kids at the common house
*  Getting the tire for the tire swing and putting it up
*  Giving the meeting on bees and showing off our bee suits; putting the bees in their hive; removing first bee sting (Talia)
*  Meeting newcomers, especially Mailis
*  Helping on the workday
*  The tree house meeting; serving drinks at that meeting
*  Doing the play with Talia & Anya
*  Inviting my cello teacher to Thanksgiving
*  Seeing/inviting Uma for Thanksgiving dinner
*  Seeing Seth & Kaelin at Halloween

From adults:

*  Jan. 31 dinner and movie night
*  lots of work to finish workshop
*  Andrew’s scone sales
*  goodbye to the GO chickens (Fall)
*  building of the gluten-free power movement
*  Eric’s board game days in the CH
*  New Year’s Eve moon bounce party
*  eating dinner on the front porch; eating lunch at the play structure picnic table
*  watching my daughter make great friends and making more friends ourselves
*  great parties and social gatherings
*  finishing the shade structure and having a wonderful dinner party under it
*  getting the concrete floor in the CH foyer refinished
*  planting 3 beautiful trees, a number of lilacs, rose of sharon, and forsythia
*  kids jumping in sprinklers, helping to weed, chalk drawings on asphalt, four square
*  working on the Grounds master plan
*  watching the beautiful gardens bloom in the Spring
*  sledding on the sledding hill
*  decoratin gingerbread men
*  carving pumpkins together
*  the beautiful Diwali party Heather and Adi threw, with Bollywood dance lessons
*  the art exhibits of the art from that month and the response from the people who enjoyed the art
*  moving into GO in August and Diwali party
*  “gold” paint repainted
*  shade structure completed
*  the Dresslars moved away :(, Laura and John moved away :(, Cher and Greg moved in :), Vincent, Sari, and Mailis moved in:)
*  Becky started an orchard
*  the workshop is done!
*  the Skills & Thrills weekend.  It was great to hear how people got involved in Great Oak and to be able to share my experiences - all while sitting outside in the warm sun on 11/14.  Also as part of that weekend, the conversation cafe.  I could share my feelings with a small group with a feeling of safety.
*  Work days in May and October.  There is a real sense of community in working with thers to get the work done.
*  Helen’s baked beans, which sustained us during the first several days of cleaning, moving in furniture, and adjusting to a new place
*  special parties such as:  Laura’s party, Catherine’s party, the Diwali party, Wine Club and Wine Club dinners
*  impromptu gatherings in the Summer under the pergola
*  Summer cook-outs, potlucks, and especially on the 4th of July with fireworks.  This also includes the 4th of July parade and getting to ride in the Smart Car with Jillian
*  the New Year’s Eve parties at the CH and at Jillian and Elph’s
*  beautiful new concrete finish in the CH entryway
*  building the East End pergola
*  gravel in steps between units 24 & 25
*  having our 1000th common meal
*  new projector mounted in game room
*  picnic under the shade structure
*  Divya learning to bicycle 2 wheels in 20 minutes in April
*  Tampopo food party
*  Diwali party
*  July 4th fun!
*  chatting in the community garden with neighbors
*  the swan strolling down the center of the community and the ducklins at Aaron and Alicia’s
*  Diwali dance lesson from Jane.
*  adding a garden plot, being in the sun, and harvesting many new vegetables
*  Malcolm and Langston helping raise 4 ducklings.  We got them in May, at the age of about 2-3 weeks, and had them through July, when we took them to Domino’s Farms, where they now live with other domesticated ducks
*  In April, a huge swan waddled into the community and hung out in front of the sandbox, pooping almost constantly, for about 20 minutes.  It then slowly waddled east through the community on the pedway, and then out of the community, across the parking lot, toward Touchstone


Members of Great Oak were asked to share the highlights of the past year that they remember best.

From children:

*  Playing on the tire swing
*  Watching bees
*  Playing in the splash pool with Toby
*  Doing mother’s helper for Emily (Bo & Toby) and Katie (Ellie)
*  Playing with/watching the kids at the common house
*  Getting the tire for the tire swing and putting it up
*  Giving the meeting on bees and showing off our bee suits; putting the bees in their hive; removing first bee sting (Talia)
*  Meeting newcomers, especially Mailis
*  Helping on the workday
*  The tree house meeting; serving drinks at that meeting
*  Doing the play with Talia & Anya
*  Inviting my cello teacher to Thanksgiving
*  Seeing/inviting Uma for Thanksgiving dinner
*  Seeing Seth & Kaelin at Halloween


When we at Great Oak rented an infrared camera to try to find sources of heat loss in winter in our Common House, we took the opportunity to also do a “study” of the exteriors of our other buildings to try to find any surprising sources of heat loss. A set of pictures of each unit were provided to the owners. Here are some interesting things that were noted:

  • the temperature range of the picture is shown at the bottom with the corresponding colors — dark is coldest, yellow to white is hottest — so for outside pictures, you want to find the bright spots that show heat leaking from your home,
  • as far as possible, I tried to take the pictures at night, without including the sky to reduce the range of temperatures and thereby constrain the color  variation to make local details more visible — if the sky is included it will show up as “-40″ at the low end…like this:  IR 0175 W side of Building for units 34-37
  • unfortunately, on bright days, concrete porches absorbed a lot of heat and radiated it back out during the night, overwhelming the image and reducing the detail, so I took some more pictures during the day hoping to do it before the sun hit the home or caused large reflections on the windows, but not always successfully - here are some taken at night (the timestamp on the second picture is wrong) after a bright (but not necessarily warm) day;
    IR 0187 Unit 24 front porch

    IR 0722
  • likewise, bright portch lights also can overwhelm the image
    IR 0737

    IR 0717

    IR 0188 Unit 24 front top
  • exposed cement foundation is a major source of heat loss — it conducts heat from your house all night long and in summer gets heatedup and conducts the heat into your house, so if the dirt is scraped away, put it back, and as you can cover it up
    IR 0682
  • you might see “sideways” plumes of heat, that is the exhaust from your water heater, or single large bright circles are typically the furnace vent;
    IR 0849 notice sunlight reflection on siding

    IR 0852
  • note the kitchen fan exhaust venting heat
    IR 0853
  • there might also be reflections of sunlight or my reflection in windows that minorly distort the true contrast               
    IR 1417
  • chimmneys seem pretty well insulated, though I couldn’t hover above the roofs to really see the heat loss from above
    IR 0940
  • double basement doors are terribly leaky in all cases
    IR 1419

    IR 1422
  • in general, as can be expected, doors and windows were the major cause of heat loss; thick curtains/blinds really do work to insulate your home and probably are the best investment we can make (note the blind on one side of the upstairs window)
    IR 1425
  • the rear of the units were harder to photograph as they were on a slope, or had a fence or there wasn’t much room to get far enough back
  • although building roofs routinely show a gap in the insulation between units during snow melt, the heat loss wasn’t significant enough to show using the IR camera
    IR 0822

    IR 0824

    IR 0827
  • and lest you think it wasn’t fun or funny
    IR 0924 Susan with Scruffy on leash and Dewey on porch

    IR 0925 Tim with coffee


It has been 5 years since the Great Oak common house was built and we have 5 years of heating bills. Unlike the factory built buildings with our individual units, the Common House is the sole, heated, stick-built building on campus and is comparatively very leaky. As a more affordable alternative to a full blown energy audit, we had an Infrared-only audit performed in November 2008. The auditors recommended we add insulation to our Common House attic as the quickest and least expensive step to reduce our energy bills. Unfortunately, they did not do a followup Infrared audit to see if that solved the most egregious problems. So, this year, Great Oak rented an Infrared camera (a Flir b50 from at $425+shipping  per week) to take pictures and compare. Here is a comparative set of pictures, with 2008 on the left and the 2010 on the right with a visible spectrum image in the middle of our sitting room fireplace mantle and above:

the before and after pictures look about the same, unfortunately, but the comparison is not entirely fair as different cameras were used and the auto-scaling of the colors to match temperature range might not be the same — the original 2008 audit pictures don’t have the temperature range shown so we can only guess that it is about the same as before or slightly better with the attic insulation. Which is disappointing.

A full table of comparisons may be found here.

Taking advantage of the camera, we also took picutres of the outside of all the buildings and various folks took pictures of the insides of their units.

Notable pictures taken in the Common House are shown below (all were taken after dark, after 9pm on a night when it was around 22 degrees Farenheit outside and the Common House is pretty much heated to 65 degrees inside). This first picture shows the residual heat in an uninsulated section of pipe coming from the solar hot water heater tank that feeds into the main hot water heater (natural gas powered).

IR 0145 SDHW machinery

Almost without exception, outside corners were several degrees colder than adjoining walls or ceilings, suggesting that insulation was not “wrapped” around, this was true of the factory built units as well - this is the NW corner of the CH sitting room:

IR 0150 sitting room NW corner

The North side of the dining room ceiling, with peaked roof shows a bright stripe across it where the hot water pipe runs to the East side of the Common House from the hot water heater, so although the ceiling is around 65 degrees, there is a 9 degree or so heat loss out of that water pipe and at least half of it radiates skyward no doubt pushing up our hot water bill — perhaps we should consider having a separate hot water heater on the East side?

IR 0153 dining room N ceiling

IR 0158 dining room N side with water pipe?

The next pictures are the water pipe coming down to the hallway
sink on the East side with one showing the heavily insulated attic
access panel (so heavily insulated now that I couldn’t push it up and
get in there to take “after” pictures).
IR 0169 W outside sink corner

IR 0168 E attic accesss

The 52 windows in the Common House are the major source of heat loss, though the blinds help to reduce the heat loss by almost half (just looking at surface temp) so we need to make sure we pull the blinds at night (or during the day in the summer) as it does really help. This is a North-facing window with a blind pulled half way down.
 IR 0184 dining room N windows showing effect of blinds

The pictures on the left are some dining room windows and the one on the right shows the play room windows — the middle one is clearly leakier than the other two:

IR 0155 dining room south windows

IR 0156 dining room south windows with peak

IR 0162 playroom window, contrast

The skylight in the game room is just a bit leakier than most windows, so likely a major source of heat in the hot summer:

IR 0166 game room skylight

and even though the LCD projector is in “standby” it is always warm, consuming a trickle of energy:

IR 0165 game room ceiling

the outside doors are particularly leaky, especially as they age fast and warp in the corners given the heavy use — this one is the NE door and the South main door (which is new but doesn’t seem to be terribly better than the original doors we had in 2008 other than it latches more firmly):
 IR 0167 NE door corner

IR 0129 south main door

A running laundry machine is a good source of radiant heat so we should keep the laundry door closed in summer, to the right is the aquarium, with around the same surface temperature:
IR 0170 laundry room (note extra cold window)

IR 1458 aquarium

Outside, the laundy vents aren’t particularly notable compared with the heat loss from the rest of the building, though having the sky in the picture does throw off the automatic ranging:

IR 0186 laundry dryer vents not leaking as much as joints 

the solar hot water panels don’t hold much heat at night:

and doors from the outside are somewhat leaky (notice my “heat” reflection in the glass):

IR 0182 east wing, notice slab leakage as bad as window

IR 0828 NW main doors

IR 0829 N side door

IR 0830 N side door and media room

and some of the South side:

IR 0172 general view, windows leak most

IR 0173 W wing, windows and doors leak most

In summary, adding the insulation to the ceiling made some difference but it is hard to be more specific. Given the structure that was probably the simplest change to make. The next best steps would be to see if can cover the exposed slab with insulation or at least some dirt (a building expert friend suggested that the best course of actoin would be to dig around 8-12 inches below the slab and then horizontally up to two feet underneat the slab and place foam insulation, but given the massive amount of labor and cost that would incur, it probably would not be cost-effective) and to try to cover as many of the windows as possible to minimize daily heat loss or gain as appropriate for the season.

art , cohousing , life in community , news

Congratulations to Ted who had his photograph of the Great Oak West node featured as part of The View From Your Window — click on the picture below to see the feature.


life in community , news

this Saturday, June 7, 2008, from 9am to 3pm is the combined Touchstone/Great Oak yard sale! Directions are on our location page.

life in community , meals

Passover crowdOver the years, a number of wonderful traditions have been established at Great Oak: the GO anniversary/Valentine’s party, July fireworks, late summer bonfires, and what has become my personal favorite — the Great Oak Seder. I no longer remember what inspired Rachel, Tom and me to organize the first one, but it was such a fun event that we’ve done it every year since.The first seder was a relatively simple affair on some levels — although Rachel, Tom, Bonnie (Rachel’s mom) and I did much of the cooking, other GO’ers volunteered to make some of the traditional dishes. As many had never had these foods, let alone cooked them (or shopped for ingredients that were kosher for Passover), it was quite the learning experience!

The evening began with an introduction to a key Passover ritual — the reading of the Haggadah. In a moment of insane inspiration, Rachel, Tom and I decided at the semi-last minute to write our own haggadah. Interweaving English and Hebrew, prose, poetry, songs, and (amazingly) a brief play, the Great Oak Haggadah (and its musical supplement) was the first introduction many had to the Passover story and to a second key Passover ritual — eagerly eyeing the food while becoming overcome by the sinking feeling that it would be hours before one would actually eat.

Thinking back to that first year, I’m somewhat amazed that we ever decided to do it again. But we have! And, for reasons that aren’t quite clear to me, things have gotten more elaborate each year. (And more and more people participate — we had 91 attendees this year!)
Over time, our Haggadah has become more polished (well, at least I’d like to think so!). My annual revision process (writing parts of the text and integrating pieces from a wide range of published and unpublished sources) has deepened my own awareness of the meaning of this holiday. I think, too, that varying the text has served to keep folks more interested — there’s usually at least 2 sections that have been substantially revised.
And, in keeping with the Jewish tradition that we should continue to find new meaning in the story of Passover, we try to bring the story alive in new ways. This year, through the combined efforts of a lot of folks, we did a musical puppet show. It was a crazy amount of work but I think it was well worth it — adults and kids all seemed to enjoy it a lot.

Friends are gathered round, tonight we’ll stay up later
Because there is no greater than the Great Oak Seder

Moses, Laird, and Pharaoh discuss conflict resolution Miriam sings

cohousing , life in community

Parenting is a complex, difficult and harshly judged affair. Being a new parent is to be full of self-doubt and anxiety (at least it was for me). I can’t think of a more ringing endorsement for parenting in cohousing than this cheeky article:

My idea of childcare is a large field. At one side is a marquee
serving local ales. This is where the parents gather. On the other
side, somewhere in the distance, the children play. I don’t
bother them and they don’t bother me. I give them as much
freedom as possible.

Maybe cohousing isn’t all that in the specifics, but Great Oak (apart from the darkest and coldest winter stretches) is certainly about as close to that that I’ve seen in my, admittedly limited, parenting years.


One of the biggest social differences between cohousing and traditional neighborhoods is our work program, which involves community dinners about 4-5 times a week.

These dinners are quite a time saver for our family since we don’t need to plan, shop, cook, or clean up after the meal. We sign up for the meals we want to eat in advance, and then just show up, eat, and clear our plates. At the end of the month, we get a bill for our share of the meals that we ate, which average between 3-6 dollars per meal. Eating together is where most of the community’s social interaction occurs, and is the crucial glue that binds us together.

Dinner cooks are given 4 hours of work credit per month for planning a menu, shopping, and doing about 2 hours of cooking. Since my cooking style typically doesn’t involve looking at a recipe, often acting on instinct, and balancing 12 things at once, I tend to roll my dinners out the door at the last minute. My wife jokes that I have a style similar to Indiana Jones, where I have a brush with disaster, but end up sliding under the door, only to grab my hat at the last minute. Therefore, I give myself some leeway by starting to cook about an hour earlier than most other head cooks.

I first became involved in cooking for large groups about 11 years ago when I moved into Michigan House in the student housing co-ops here in Ann Arbor. I had worked in various restaurants as a dishwasher, busser, host, and as a short-order cook for a number of restaurants. When I moved into the co-op house a few days before the term started, the work schedule hadn’t been drafted yet so I was asked to contribute some work to the house. On my first night there, I volunteered to cook a large pan of lasagna for the house, and really enjoyed the experience.

Earlier that spring, I had become a vegetarian, and felt strongly that nutritious and delicious vegetarian meals could easily satisfy a large group, so I cooked my meals meat-free. I wasn’t the only one, about a third of the house cooks were vegetarian, and only a small handful of the members really wanted to see meat on their plate at every meal.

There were some complaints by house members that they weren’t getting enough protein from the vegetarian meals, so I put more effort into highlighting ingredients with high protein content. Over the next two years, I gained a lot of experiences with cooking for 50 people, since my cooking shifts happened weekly. I had plenty of experiences with burning dishes, over-spicing, undercooking, or under-planning a meal with several components for 50 people who wanted to eat at the same time. The most difficult part has always been delivering all of the courses finished and warm by dinner time.

When we moved into cohousing, I knew that cooking for this crowd would be similar, and yet have some unique requirements such as a simplified menu for young and picky eaters, as well as a recognition that college students can be more adventurous eaters than older adults who might be more set in their ways. I eagerly signed up and cooked one of the first meals in our newly opened common house.

I recently talked with the meals billing people, who have managed the finances with a homegrown web-based system. My neighbor, Adi, dug out some statistics from the billing database. From early March of 2004 until the end of 2007, we had served 28,695 meals. It was recently discovered that Great Oak serves more dinners per week than any other cohousing community in the United States. I’d like to note that 39.9% of them were for the vegetarian option. However, that’s a bit inaccurate since some people sign up for the meat option when the meal is vegetarian, so I’d say that about half of the meals we’ve served have been vegetarian.

Nearly all of our meals are served with a vegetarian option, although there has been some controversy over this. We’ve ultimately settled on the agreement that you can serve anything you want, as long as your menu clearly describes what it is so that people can have an informed decision when they sign up. It makes me unhappy when we have spaghetti with meat balls and I’m simply served spaghetti without meat balls - particularly since we all pay the same price for the meal. Many cooks get around this by simply throwing tofu in as a replacement for meat, which doesn’t work all the time. I’m typically thrilled when the veggie option is something nice like avocado or roasted red peppers added to subs, or even better yet - a meal where one wouldn’t notice the absence of meat.

It takes some work, but it’s not really hard to come up with enough recipes. In recent years, the selection of great vegetarian-friendly cookbooks and food products have grown considerably.

I’m a software engineer during the day, so I crave the artistic opportunity that cooking for a crowd affords. I take pride in my work and enjoy the creative outlet, much like a performance. When I plan out my menus, I strive to pick meals that people will enjoy… and hopefully the omnivores won’t miss their meat. To save time, I prefer to plan out several meals at once since this takes a fair amount of creative energy. Typically this involves sitting down with a pile of my cookbooks, and browsing through when I’m a bit hungry, writing down recipe names and page numbers that look interesting. I like to sort them into categories such as side-dish, salad, desert, entree, etc.

I try hard to plan meals which take advantage of locally-grown produce so that I can patronize the farmer’s market. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible for most of the year since we have such a short growing season in Michigan. However, with some creativity I can continue to work in fresh produce as late as December, when onions, garlic, potatoes, and squash can still be found. I always try to select organic ingredients - when the price or stock allows - since growing food this way is better for the environment, our bodies, and nearly always tastes better. However, I do end up going to the grocery store often to pick up ingredients that I can’t get anywhere else. I always get interesting looks when I check out with 25 heads of broccoli.

I find it easiest - and most satisfying - to select dishes from cultures which eat predominantly vegetarian such as Middle Eastern, Indian, or Pacific Asian. This way the dish doesn’t feel like there’s something left out. One of the more popular dishes that I’ve made is Saag Paneer, where I bought fresh spinach from the farmer’s market, made my own paneer (a type of cheese) the night before, and then bought several orders of naan (flatbread) from local Indian restaurants.

So after a half-hour of brainstorming and writing down references to recipes, I then try to assemble these into themes for meals centered around the time of year. A fairly obvious fall meal which I’ve served for a few years is butternut squash soup with bread, a side salad and homemade applesauce with ice cream for dessert. I tend to do roasted vegetables and tempeh with fresh local greens in the summer. In early February, I made broccoli and tofu in garlic sauce, with brown rice and fortune cookies to help celebrate Chinese New Year.

One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned over my years of cooking for a large group is that you can’t cook meals which require personal attention or details without pulling your hair out. Dishes like omelets or crepes require too much attention to detail for everyone that it’s impossible to get all the components out the door warm and assembled at the same time. I’ve done Vietnamese Summer Rolls with a spicy peanut sauce a couple times, they’re a very special treat, but they involve hand-rolling a bunch of raw ingredients, so these need to get started at the very beginning.

My family’s quickly learned which cooks we really like, which ones we can’t stand, and others who we look to see what they’re cooking before we sign up. It’s really annoying when people don’t fill out their menus in advance, so we’re typically reluctant to sign up for a meal unless we know what we’re getting. However, some cooks are good enough that it doesn’t matter what they’re going to make.

Ultimately, it comes back to the social rewards. Common meals are where I get to relax and spend time getting to know my neighbors, share experiences, and “get out of the house”. They can also be an attractive and easy option for inviting friends over to dinner - even on a weeknight since it means that we’ll be served a home-cooked meal without the work, or the messy clean up. And then on warm pleasant evenings we can take a walk around the flower filled grounds with our guests.

An RSS feed of what we’re serving for dinner each night for the next week can be found on our home page.

life in community , meals , news

Any occasion to have a celebration/party/special meal and associated festivities is welcomed at Great Oak. For the first time, we celebrated Diwali with a catered Indian meal, sparklers for the kids followed by Bhangra dancing (lessons provided). The Common House dining room was decorated for the occasion with silk saris and rangoli. Click on the image below for more pictures of the occasion. Although the proceedings were much more modest than our annual Passover Seder we have grander ambitions for 2008!

(note the hanging saris on the wall along with the rangoli)

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