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In San Francisco mansions and on Virginian farms, people are rejecting conventions and experimenting with better ways to build society

This month, A Beautiful Perspective relaunched as a digital magazine tackling a single theme each month. For our first month, we’re exploring the concept of home. Click here to read more stories from the HOME Issue.

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“The Purgatory Administration Office is CLOSED.” So says the note on the door to the Totally Social Anti-Social Room inside the Embassy San Francisco.

Signs, both witty and instructive, are scattered all over this grand house. In the dining room, a placard sums up the philosophy of the “dispossessed closet.” In the kitchen, posted notices direct visitors to wine glasses and admonish those who would dare leave dirty dishes in the sink. In the downstairs bathroom, a framed proclamation on toilet roll etiquette references the butterfly effect and is attributed to Abraham Lincoln.

Signs are a common feature of houses like this one. In clever or straight-forward language they orient visitors and enunciate the basic rules—empty the dishwasher, throw away junk mail, replace the used up toilet paper roll—that allow a household with 12 or 15 or 38 adults to function with minimal discord. They are the kind of reminders that should go without saying, but as anyone who’s ever lived with a roommate can attest, sometimes they very much need to be said.

Just off the main living room, where a Gulbransen piano sits under a molded plaster ceiling, a chalkboard sign in a cozy nook denotes the Totally Social Anti-Social Room and cautions against interrupting those seeking a moment of serenity. “Every time someone talks in here an introvert fairy dies.”

Living in a commune, Zarinah Agnew explains, can be socially overwhelming. “You have to carve out space to be silent.”

Agnew is one of the original residents of the Embassy SF, a six-year-old commune, or intentional community, based in a 5,850-square-foot home in the heart of San Francisco. The 15 people who live here work jobs outside the house and share the cost of rent, but they aren’t just roommates. They’re participants in a small social experiment that questions housing conventions, forms of governance, ownership and societal structure.

“This is where you incubate culture,” Agnew says. “Living together is not just about a house share. It allows you to be greater than the sum of our parts.”

That mindset isn’t the last gasp of a bygone era, and it isn’t unique to the Embassy. It’s part of a growing movement in the United States that’s reacting to economic pressure, housing shortages, environmental issues and loss of community, by coming together and asking: Is there a better way?

The backyard greenhouse office at the Embassy SF.

The word “commune” carries echoes of the 1960s with flashes of utopian villages and the orange-clad Rajneeshees in Netflix’s Wild, Wild Country. But today’s incarnations are less about fleeing the “default world” and more about experimenting with ways to evolve it.

“The more isolationist, escapist thing that was happening in the ’60s is really gone at this point,” says Sky Blue, executive director of the Fellowship of Intentional Community (FIC), which defines an intentional community as “a group of people who live together, share common facilities and regularly associate together on the basis of shared common values.”

“People who are starting communities now are much more wanting to do something that’s good for themselves and good for society,” he says.

The FIC serves as a connector and networking hub for those people, who are creating communities with a wide variety of structures and values. There are urban co-ops dedicated to social justice and rural eco-villages where fossil fuels are verboten. There are co-housing neighborhoods made up of private homes, and communities where income is shared as a group. There are communes in Victorian mansions, college co-ops and co-living projects run by corporations in high, glassy towers.

“There’s a lot of pianos,” says Michael Merchant, “and way more hot tubs in co-ops than in non co-ops.”

At the Embassy, the house operates according to an anarchist governance philosophy called do-ocracy. At Alta+ by Ollie in Long Island City, there’s a co-working lounge and free Malin + Goetz bath products.

“I like to refer to it as the cuddly house,” says Michael Merchant of the months-old Manor of Being in San Francisco. “You’re guaranteed to be able to get a hug whenever you want it.”

While good data on intentional communities is hard to come by, everyone seems to agree that they’re growing. The Embassy has spawned a network of affiliated houses, including properties in Greece and Haiti, and Agnew says in the Bay Area alone she knows of more than 100 communes. The FIC maintains a directory of communities on its website that it prints periodically. The 1990 edition listed 240 communities; the 2010 edition had 679. By 2016 there were about 1,200, and today, there are 1,547 intentional communities listed online.

Lincoln would like you to change the toilet paper roll.

If 1,547 modern communes are grappling with the best ways for humanity to live together, part of the answer undoubtedly has to do with governance.

One of the pitfalls a lot of groups fall into is a governance and conflict resolution strategy that amounts to “we’re just going to love each other and get along,” the FIC’s Blue says. “And it’s like, no. … Interpersonal conflict is unavoidable. There’s going to be conflict.”

At the Embassy, most of the housemates work full-time jobs, and residents participate in the community as much or as little as they want.

“We don’t have house meetings. We abandoned house meetings in year two,” Agnew says.

Instead of trying to achieve consensus on every succulent arrangement and witty sign, the house runs as a do-ocracy, empowering individuals to take action—with a few crucial caveats:

-You must be transparent (let people know what you’re going to do before you do it).

-You must be communicative (welcome and respond to feedback).
-The action must be reversible (you can put up a poster, but don’t tear down a wall).

It’s a system that relies on trust, everyone acting in the interest of the group and really listening when someone says “no.”

On the opposite end of the spectrum, Twin Oaks, the rural Virginia commune that Blue has called home on and off for the last 19 years, is an income-sharing community that sells hammocks and tofu and produces at least half of its own food. It uses a committee-based system, with different teams handling different responsibilities. One is the process team, where members can go for support and mediation to help resolve disagreements. If a behavior is really problematic, there are a series of escalating measures that end in expulsion.

The important thing, Blue says, is to establish a system that works for the group. “I think people underestimate the task that they’re taking on,” he says of setting up a commune. “People should go into it with their eyes wide open.”

Roomie time at Chaortica, the creative, artistic house "with a specific interest in off-beat weird stuff.” Sarah Feldberg

It’s a Sunday evening, and three members of Chaortica are staring into their laptops in a spacious living room under a blue ceiling hung with puffy white clouds. Jonathan Schoonhoven describes the two-year-old commune’s personality as “silly, creative and artistic, with a specific interest in off-beat weird stuff.”

Schoonhoven walks me around the house near the famous crossroads of Haight-Ashbury, a dignified, 108-year-old property that’s a little “rough around the edges” and last sold for $3 million in 2015. There’s a rambling backyard, an objectively enormous kitchen by San Francisco standards and enough extra space for a dedicated guest room and an arts and crafts closet. In the basement, a claustrophobic toilet stall has been doused in sparkles and party lighting and dubbed the Glitter Box. Upstairs, Schoonhoven lives in a bright, private bedroom. Rent, he says, ranges from $612 for a shared berth to around $1,500 for his airy single. Everyone pays $350 per month to a general house fund that covers groceries, repairs, a monthly group bonding activity and an annual weekend retreat.

In notoriously expensive cities like New York and San Francisco, there’s an obvious financial benefit to pooling resources with other like-minded adults, visible in these houses’ ample square footage and amenities that would be laughable for your average apartment-dweller.

“There’s a lot of pianos,” Merchant says, “and way more hot tubs in co-ops than in non co-ops.”

For many residents, however, the appeal is less about backyard patios and cheaper rent and more about building community and what Blue calls a “multiplier effect,” taking whatever you care about and magnifying the impact.

At the Embassy, the communal concept is at the heart of the house. Everyone contributes $200 a month for groceries, purchased by resident “food czar” Andrea Martinez; there’s a shared car in the garage; no locks on the bedroom doors; and if you need something, residents say, you can probably borrow it.

“My attitude towards possessions has totally changed,” says resident Sebastian Schloesser.

“’Cause Will keeps wearing your clothes,” Agnew laughs.

By living together and sharing resources, she adds, housemates cut down on their environmental footprint and create a series of surpluses that can be deployed in different ways. They use extra space to host events, many of which are open to the community. And with the time they save by sharing household responsibilities, housemates launch an array of projects, from storytelling workshops to critical theory reading groups to an alternative justice initiative, where members act as stewards for sexual assault cases. They’ve followed the parties on both sides of an incident for as long as two years, a tremendous amount of labor, Agnew says, made possible because you’re spending less on things like errands and chores.

Merchant, who has lived in five different communes, likes coming home to a space where he’s always learning from the people around him. “I’ve lived with robotics engineers and professors of anthropology. I’ve lived in queer spaces. In some ways, it’s like the dream of college being realized.”

Schoonhoven says Chaortica has satisfied his craving for community. Martinez at the Embassy says she doesn’t go to go bars anymore. There’s just too much happening, too many people to meet at home.

Megapixel, the Silicon Valley cat at the Embassy SF. Sarah Feldberg

We’re sitting in front of the Embassy’s “Vegetarian Fishtank (fishless since 2018),” and the cast of characters keeps changing. Three residents turns to four and then five, sprawling over fat, cushioned chairs and onto the floor. A guest, staying for a few nights in one of the extra beds the house rents before heading to Burning Man, plops down to join the conversation. A member of the Embassy Network arrives from Amsterdam. Someone opens a bottle of red wine.

Stephanie Lacy Price says her favorite moment at the house is when she comes home to find an impromptu dinner party with 15 people all digging in. The rule of cooking, Schloesser explains, is “you ask how many people are hungry, and you make double.”

In the kitchen, a couple of guys are cooking up dinner on pans that they will assuredly wash, dry and put away. A few more folks are in the backyard greenhouse, listening to music in the moody glow of a cobalt light. Two guys are in the vestibule, making a last-minute purchase before heading to the Playa, and Megapixel the Silicon Valley cat, who I’m told is polyamorous and genderqueer, is curled up on a chair studiously ignoring me as I try to take a picture.

Even on what I’m assured is a quiet Thursday night, there’s a palpable energy here, the buzz of bodies flowing in and out, of clusters of conversations, of the crack of laughter occasionally echoing through the house.

In an age when people are feeling less connected to their neighbors and less involved in traditional institutions, this place feels alive, less like a traditional home and more like a living, thriving hub of ideas and conversations and experiments that might change the way we live—or might not.

I finish my wine, wash the glass and—even though I know I should put it away—leave it on a dish towel to dry. I feel guilty about it the rest of the night.