June 29, 2012 6:52 pm

Over the rainbow

Communal living is back in vogue, especially among Silicon Valley’s young technology workers
Sunday dinner at the Rainbow Mansion©Melissa Barnes

Housemates and guests share a Sunday community dinner

At first glance Rainbow Mansion appears to blend in seamlessly alongside its high-end Silicon Valley neighbours, nestled among the eucalyptus trees and driveway gates of Cupertino, about an hour south of San Francisco. The salmon stucco stretches around multiple bedrooms, balconies and turrets. In the front yard, a stone footbridge arches over a bubbling koi pond.

Inside, it looks more like a university dorm. Bean bags and mismatched couches sit at odd angles in the living room. A former dining nook, now christened “the mystery room”, is lined with hippie-style Indian tapestries on the walls and mattresses on the floor.

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Seven people live here, from the ivy league of Silicon Valley companies, such as Apple, Google and Tesla. They are from America, the UK, Serbia and Moldova. While none are blood related, they call each other family.

“We’re not a frat house,” says Mike Grace, 26, a lab manager and researcher at Nasa. “We’re an intentional community.”

The arrangement is simple. By pooling their money to pay the $7,300 monthly rent, excluding bills, the seven residents get to live in an 18-room mansion, worth an estimated $1.7m. They also gain an instant circle of fellow technological thinkers, brainstormers and tinkerers with whom they can dream and invent.

“People here care about changing the world,” says Loredana Afanasiev, 32, a Google software engineer. “When I started living at Rainbow, I started learning more at home than at work.”

How it works

The current residents of the Rainbow Mansion range in age from 23 to 34. They all gather every Wednesday night in the “mystery room” for a house meeting, cuddling to discuss logistics and concerns about the house. Except for the couple sharing the master suite, everyone pays the same rent for a bedroom, and splits other costs equally. They have groceries delivered once a week, and a cleaner comes twice a month. Though some people cook more than others, and some are better about taking out the rubbish, no chores are recognised financially.

“Here, we’re set up like a family economy,” Grace says, launching into one of his many political-economic digressions. “I’m a huge capitalist but in small interpersonal relationships, capitalism is completely out of place.”]

On a recent Sunday evening, as on most Sunday evenings, all the residents gathered in the library for dinner. Including friends and guests, 15 people sat around the oval table eating lasagne, mashed potatoes, garlic bread, and salad. Grace instigated a debate about the minimum wage, and a lively yet civil discussion ensued, with all manner of opinions and personalities emerging.

Theoretical debates take place on staircases, around the dinner table and by the grand piano. Whiteboards are scattered throughout the house, with one covering the wall in the living room, floor-to-ceiling, where people do maths problems in different-coloured markers and scribble ideas for start-up companies. The residents host salon discussions once a month, inviting experts in politics, oceans or rocket launches to lead a conversation. A couple of times a year, they have a “hackathon”, when scores of computer geeks bring their laptops over and share some beers.

Eric Stackpole, 27, an engineering associate at Nasa, set up a workshop in the garage to work on his robotic submarine. “People aren’t just living together,” he says, “we’re building ideas that will last for years.”

Communal living is having a resurgence in local technology circles, mirroring the wave of new venture capital investments in young start-ups, and a tightening rental market. Arrangements vary from two computer hackers sharing an apartment in Palo Alto and co-founding a company in the living room, to groups of engineers who are converting former auto repair shops and factory warehouses in San Francisco into shared flats housing more than a dozen people.

Just a few years ago, real estate agents had a glut of empty mansions they couldn’t sell during the mortgage crisis, and grudgingly rented to flocks of 20-year-olds.

That’s how Damian Madray and his friends found the Glint, a 6,500-sq ft mansion on Twin Peaks in San Francisco. Sixteen people live in the house, some permanently, some just for a couple of months, but all are entrepreneurs or artists, looking for companionship and inspiration.

Rainbow Mansion©Melissa Barnes

Rainbow Mansion, Cupertino

“When you’re an entrepreneur, you often work till 2am and you feel like you’re the only person doing it,” says Madray. “At the Glint, everyone is up till 1 or 2am. There’s a certain comfort and motivation in that – my friends are hacking away at this, I might as well keep hacking.”

The hope is that the cross-pollination of thoughts will spark a new idea, like “the glint in the eye” of a man catching sight of his beloved in a comic book, Madray says.

Another group of young entrepreneurs wants to set up a full network of 100 houses in the San Francisco Bay area, called the Founders’ Campus, where start-up founders can live and work together. The idea is to start with a cluster of houses in Silicon Valley, where entrepreneurs work during the week, then a cluster in San Francisco, where they can enjoy the weekends. Eventually, they want to build a transportation network connecting the houses, and provide cleaning services and meal delivery, so founders never need to leave their laptops.

The Rainbow Mansion, named for its address on Rainbow Drive in Cupertino, was founded in its current communal housing form in 2006. Three friends, who met at a conference in Vienna about space, landed in Silicon Valley around the same time, each getting jobs at Nasa’s Ames Research Center. They decided to move in together, saw the Rainbow Mansion listed on Craigslist, and found four roommates to join them.

Lush gardens at the communal mansion©Melissa Barnes Photography

Lush gardens at the communal mansion

People moved in and out over the years until the last original resident, Will Marshall, 33, moved out in February, leaving the mansion in the hands of the next generation. “It’s the flux of people that keeps the ideas going,” he says.

He rejoined the other two members of the original Rainbow trio, Jessy and Robbie Schingler, who married shortly after their Rainbow-dwelling days, to form a new communal house in San Francisco called the Elements, this time named for the professional interests of several inhabitants who work in wind, water and solar energy.

For them, communal living is a movement. Schingler, 30, a PhD student in computer science, talks of “scaling” the lifestyle into a global network of communal houses with a shared mission of “having a positive impact on the world”. She calls it the Embassy Network. She imagines physicists, mathematicians and engineers from San Francisco travelling to Berlin for a conference and dropping in the local communal house for a few nights, tapping into an immediate network of like-minded locals.

“It’s not for personal profit, it would be for communal profit,” she says.

The mission has not always gone over well with suburban neighbours. Marshall remembers putting a United Nations flag on the gate outside the Rainbow Mansion. “The neighbours went to the landlord and said, ‘These people are not in keeping with the neighbourhood. No non-traditional family unit belongs here,’” he says.

The neighbours wanted the Rainbow Mansion residents evicted. “But our landlord said he couldn’t discriminate against people who were not blood related,” Marshall says.

He and his friends occasionally face criticism from their families, who ask when they plan to grow out of their college ways. “We want to do this for the rest of our lives,” says Marshall. “It’s not a phase.”

April Dembosky is the FT’s San Francisco correspondent

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Collective spirit

The Glint in Twin Peaks©Melissa Barnes

The Glint, in Twin Peaks, home to 16 permanent unrelated residents, overlooks San Francisco

Communal living in Silicon Valley has been around for decades. The 1960s hippie culture of San Francisco, which saw the emergence of communes, trickled through to the technological innovators in the valley south of the city. Entrepreneurs holed up in garages to build computers and lived in shared houses as they cultivated new start-ups.

“A signature feature of the technology industry was a blurring of everyday life and work life,” says Fred Turner, a communications professor at Stanford and author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture. “Particularly in Silicon Valley, where the physical geography is lots and lots of single-family homes, but the social geography is lots of single people and people in different kinds of relationships, the commune provides a nice social alternative.”

In San Francisco, one group of entrepreneurs is modelling its motorcycle shop-turned-flat on the Factory, Andy Warhol’s much-trafficked studio in New York in the early 1960s. They call their home the Sub, where they host events and parties with the intention of fostering community.

“But not just through art – through art and music and technology,” says Johnny Hwin, a serial entrepreneur and resident of the Sub. “We see ourselves not as an artist collective but as a creative collective, where creativity is an umbrella that covers art and entrepreneurship. We make art but we also create companies, because companies have the potential to push ideas forward.”

Hackathon guests©Melissa Barnes

Hackathon guests exchange ideas

A similar sentiment drives the Glint, whose residents look back not just to the Factory to inspire their group mansion but to the Bateau-Lavoir – the Parisian studios where Pablo Picasso, Amedeo Modigliani and Gertrude Stein lived and worked in the early 1900s – and even to Plato’s Academy.

The only problem with those places, says Alexandros Pagidas, co-founder of the Glint and a patent tracking start-up, is that they are now “just tourist destinations”. They were all forced to close. “People would leave or die, so there was no continuity,” he says. “We’re trying to reverse that pattern. So instead of making people the centre, we want to put the place at the centre.”

They want visitors to remember the spirit of the hackathons they have attended, the conversations from a Sunday night dinner, or the sensation of bouncing on the trampoline in the backyard. They want history to record the same, not the names of the residents that may eventually, hopefully, become famous.

“That’s why we’re making the Glint a brand,” says Damian Madray, a Glint co-founder. “So we can take that with us if we have to move. What we’re branding is the experience.”

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