Rainbow Mansion sits on top of a hill west of Cupertino. Part Mediterranean villa, part castle, it could be the trophy home for a high-powered tech couple and their kids.
But a different kind of family lives here. Rainbow Mansion is a commune, an "intentional community," made up of young professionals in their 20s and 30s who describe themselves as driven, passionate and socially conscious. Rainbow's seven full-time residents are putting a tech-age spin on the 1960s commune, though their reasons for living together are similar to their hippie predecessors: They want to change the world.
On a tour of the 18-room home with Mike Grace, a gregarious, pony-tailed lab manager at NASA Ames Research Center, the hanging tapestries and mismatched sofas make it clear that Rainbow's design aesthetic is more off-campus apartment than suburban opulent.
In the kitchen, Molly Newborn, a recent arrival from Montreal, stands at the cluttered granite-topped island while Ripul Shah melts chocolate on the Viking stove. In the adjacent media room, Chris McCann and Zack Wexler-Beron, both 27 and veterans of a half-dozen startups between them, type on their MacBooks.
As Grace heads upstairs, the 28-year-old explains how he grew up "really poor" and moved around a lot as a child. To pay for college, he joined the Army at 17, shortly after 9/11, and served in Afghanistan. A YouTube video he made on using microorganisms to terraform Mars landed him an internship at Ames. Coming west to the pricey and hypercompetitive Bay Area, he needed housing that was affordable and friendly.
"Rainbow made my Ames internship possible," he says.
He pops into a bedroom to say hi to Nina Vasan, 29, a psychiatry resident at Stanford, who is on a conference call about her new book on social entrepreneurship. In the master suite, he finds his "genius" fiancé, Diana Gentry, a colleague at Ames and doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering at Stanford University. Gentry, 30, sits at one of their side-by-side computer workstations.
Grace apologizes for all the dirty laundry before showing the view from their private balcony. A bright yellow moon hangs in the clear night sky, and lights shimmer across the valley floor.
"I'm pretty lucky," he says -- to have the master suite with the balcony, to be in California, to be in love, to have found Rainbow.
"I never realized how lonely I was," he says. "The idea of not having people to come home to sounds kind of intimidating. Everybody here is so interesting and smart and knows so much. It's great to have people to bounce ideas off of, to be interesting with and around."
As he heads downstairs to the library for dinner, he jokes about another benefit of cohousing: "You have people to cook for you."
The new communes
In July 1969, Life magazine declared that youth communes were "confronting" Americans with a new way of life. Young people living in cheap Haight-Ashbury flats or back-to-the-land wilderness experiments wanted to fashion small utopias around revolutionary ideas on love, family and society.
Today, 45 years later, variations of co-op housing are sprouting up in lofts, retrofitted Victorian mansions and suburban ranch houses in San Francisco, Berkeley, Silicon Valley and elsewhere. They include "hacker hostels" where aspiring techies from around the world crash in dormlike accommodations while hoping to meet the co-founder of their next startup.
These new commune dwellers, mostly millennials born after 1980, may be less overtly political than their baby boomer predecessors, but they are equally passionate about their belief that cohousing offers a lifestyle that's environmentally friendly, socially responsible, creatively stimulating and personally meaningful. To some extent, they are re-imagining the historically American ideal of creating the "city on the hill" that serves as a model for rightful living.
Today's communes also address practical realities. Most millennials, veterans of the recession and tough housing markets, are not earning the oversize salaries mythologized in tech boom narratives. Some don't want to forgo certain amenities, and Rainbow offers a large, comfortable home to a decent number of people making "normal incomes," Grace says.
Rainbow Mansion began in 2006, when several Ames engineers recruited a few other people and pooled their resources to rent the 5,000-square-foot home. Rent is now $7,300 a month, with Wexler-Beron paying $950 for his large single room, a monthly rate that in line with rooms in apartments elsewhere in the South Bay, according to Craigslist. But at Rainbow, residents have free use of large common rooms, including a state-of-the art kitchen and the library and media room, which are perfect for dinners and community salons; a three-car garage provides space for residents to set up labs or work on other projects. Several startups have started at Rainbow.
The mansion is home to skilled home chefs, so residents and guests eat well. Dinner that Wednesday night included homemade vegetarian tamales and Shah's molten chocolate cake with freshly made crème fraîche ice cream.
Basic food items are among the costs that residents split, along with utilities, Wi-Fi and cleaners who come in every two weeks. It took a series of house meetings to devise equitable ways to manage housing costs, set up a dinner schedule and manage responsibilities.
"This isn't my first co-op," says Newborn, 32, who moved into Rainbow in December after getting her MBA in Montreal. Coming to the Bay Area to look for work, "I didn't want to move into a place where I'd come home, sit on the couch and watch TV. I wanted to be in place where things were going on."
For Wexler-Beron, living with others is a healthy choice because he's happier with other people around. Although his parents live 15 minutes away, he calls Rainbow "my secondary family."
Conflicts do arise, usually around people holding loud discussions past midnight or people's differing ideas about picking up after themselves. These may be resolved one on one or in house meetings. Wexler-Beron recalls an agonizing situation when residents had to intervene with a couple whose fights became verbally abusive. "They didn't want help, so we had to ask them to leave," he says.
Dinner conversations keep everyone on their game, but the tenor is friendly, with teasing put-downs, shoulder rubs and plenty of laughs. Newborn reminds everyone about the Zumba class after the house meeting, while Grace and Shevek, a principal engineer from Britain who works at a cloud computing company and declined to give a last name, discuss productivity in cities and the consequences of tax breaks for large corporations like Twitter.
After Shevek slips off to play Mendelssohn on the baby grand piano in the music alcove off the entry hall, Loredana, a Google software engineer from Moldova who didn't want to give her last name, says a commune is like "an organism." Gentry adds that it goes through life stages, from infancy to the "rebellious teen years where everyone is arguing about who we are as a community." Grace thinks Rainbow's rebellious years are behind it and it's settling into something more defined and stable.
After Grace and Gentry marry, they will probably stay at Rainbow. But Gentry admits she'd one day like to own a home because it would "create stability." But the couple agree they'll live in some kind of community. "You have to compromise and learn to tolerate other people's eccentricities," Grace says about communal life. "It's practice for being human."
Meet the Family
"Living in an intentional community is a great way to economize. I effectively live in a very large house, but I'm only paying $950 a month in rent. I'm not going to find that living in other ways."
-- Zack Wexler-Beron, software quality assurance
"When I first moved in, we did not buy food as a house or have regularly scheduled meals together. I care a lot about food and cooking, and I think those things are very tied into community. I basically said, 'If you guys are on board, I'll find a vendor, I'll order the food, I'll organize the cooking schedule. Over time, in ways large and small, it shapes the feel of the house."
-- Diana Gentry, doctoral candidate in mechanical engineering, Stanford University.
"When I found out about this place, it sounded so incredible. I applied when I was in Montreal. It seemed so far-fetched, 'cause I was so far away, but then they e-mailed me back and said 'We want to interview you.' Luckily, we did it on Skype."
-- Molly Newborn, MBA graduate
"When I found out that I'd be doing my residency at Stanford, I started looking for places to live. When I read about Rainbow Mansion, I stopped looking for other places and instead spent my time working on writing the four essays that are a part of the application to live here. I value the spirit of community and thought that this house -- a community focused on using entrepreneurship and technology to make an impact -- would be a stimulating, inspiring environment to live in."
-- Nina Vasan, psychiatric resident at Stanford School of Medicine, author, social entrepreneur
"One of the interesting aspects of community is the so-called nature of community, how it changes with the members and shapes and changes over time. It's like a living being."
-- Loredana, Google software engineer
"I like an environment where I can put effort in, but I don't have to do everything, so I can focus on the things I enjoy. I like cleaning, so I will clean the kitchens and bathrooms and anything. There is enough flexibility in the house that others will do the bits I don't."
-- Shevek, principal engineer, Nebula, a cloud computing company
"One of the things about living here I've gotten into is cooking a lot. I never really cooked before, but it's really cool because there are so many people, so you can make a big meal and there are lots of people to share it with."
-- Chris Mccann, entrepreneur
"Rainbow helped me out a lot when I didn't know anybody and didn't have a lot of money. Rainbow was here for me, and it feels good to pass that on."
-- Mike Grace, lab manager, NASA Ames Research Center
By the Numbers
50: Estimated number of "collaborative living" spaces operating in the Bay Area.
2,504: Numbers of "co-housers" and future neighbors in the East Bay Cohousing Meetup
27 to 35: age range of residents at Rainbow Mansion