Right from the start when Dan Phillips and his wife Marsha mortgaged their home and raided their savings to fund Phillips’ vision, their hope was that his idea for truly affordable, quality housing for low income families would take hold and replicate itself across the country. Ten long years later it is finally catching on, fueled by growing concerns for the environment and a flurry of media attention.
In 2003 Phillips received the award for the most innovative housing worldwide from the Institute for Social Invention in London. He has been featured in several national magazines including People and Fine Homebuilding, as well as on PBS, CNN, and other major networks.
What’s ironic is that Phillips’ idea isn’t new, but dates back to when our earliest ancestors built shelters out of whatever was available, and is still practiced in third world countries today. What is new is where Phillips finds his materials – in dumpsters or en route to landfills.
“We want to save the environment…we’re going to have to start rescuing materials rather than burying them,” he says, noting that the building industry is one of the worst offenders at trashing excess materials which are still perfectly usable.
“I’m not a chain-myself-to-a-tree, wild-eye radical, militant greenie, but we’re clearly in trouble,” Phillips says. Disturbed by what he found in dumpsters, he suspected that one could build an entire house out of what was going into the landfill. “And sure enough, lordy mercy, it’s just numbing,” says the former Sam Houston State University professor turned eco homebuilder.
Phillips hasn’t built just one house; he’s built 12, and now several companies ship excess materials directly to him. “When these larger companies realize that they can dump their stuff on you rather than putting it in a dumpster, they’re happy indeed because it saves them tipping fees, which is the expense of putting it in the landfill, and it’s great PR for them.”
A Whole Lot of Commotion
Phillips “agenda” is simple, but multifaceted. His goal is to build affordable housing with materials otherwise destined for the dump, and to use unskilled workers (including the future home owners) teaching them marketable job skills, all the while exploring the limitless possibilities of design utilizing materials on hand. Put all those together and you have Phoenix Commotion, the business Phillips established in Huntsville, Texas – its name, a reference to the mythical bird that rose up from the ashes, not unlike his salvaged materials.
The homes he builds are small, unique, and cleverly artistic – a perfect reflection of Phillips himself. The designs grow out of whatever materials are available, and by his own admission can be “a little odd or strange looking” (reminiscent of the quaint dwellings often found in children’s fairy tale book illustrations).
In a “Dan Phillips” home prepare yourself for the unexpected. You might find a wine cork floor, relish tray windows, picture frame ceilings, and a license plate roof, along with hickory nuts as part of the exterior trim. Each is totally energy-efficient and sustainable with air conditioning, lots of insulation, energy-rated appliances, a tankless water heater, and a water capture system for flushing the toilet and washing clothes. What you don’t find is carpet, vinyl flooring, dishwashers or trash compactors, but recently, Phillips confesses, he reluctantly caved in to including a TV jack.
The houses are endearing works of art, and in a posh, Lake Tahoe neighborhood, Phillips estimates that they would sell for upwards of $350,000, but not so in Huntsville – one of the poorest counties in the state. But then, a mega price tag was never his intent. With most of the materials obtained at no cost, Phillips’ clients pay between $18,000 – $25,000 for the home and its property. With a seven-year note, monthly payments average $200 – $350 a month, including taxes and insurance.
Phillips established Phoenix Commotion as a for-profit business to prove that money could be made (albeit, not a lot) building houses for low income families. He didn’t want other builders claiming that the reason he is able to build these homes is because he gets “free grant money.” “I’m subject to the same market pressures as anyone else,” he says. “I’m in the black.” Admittedly he has to be concerned about money, but that is not his focus. “I’m not trying to build an empire,” he continues. “I just want to provide affordable housing, keep stuff out of the landfill, and train a few people in the meantime. And the one common thread through all of that is, you have a lot of fun doing it.”
Having fun (and he has a lot of it) is just one of the things Phillips gets out of his work. He also finds it rewarding and beneficial to the community when he can help put people in the economic mainstream. Suddenly these individuals become interested in who runs for tax assessor, and how the money is going to be spent. You get more responsible people, he notes.
“There is a physic income that is way beyond any sort of physical activity you do or any money that you would make,” he explains. “It’s not just a warm and fuzzy – this puts you on the ground level of humanity…You’d be surprised at how much human beings are alike across the board.”
When it comes to building the houses Phillips has two options. He can build the houses himself and sell them, but then he misses the people he is targeting since poverty and bad credit go hand in hand, and you need good credit to get a loan. Or, the families can build the homes themselves under the tutelage of a seasoned builder who is paid $10 a square foot to guide them through the process. The houses are the minimum square footage allowed by law, which is 240 sq. ft. living space for one person and another 100 sq. ft. for each additional occupant, plus an approximate ten percent slippage. For a couple, that amounts to 360 sq. ft.; the builder mentor receives $3,600. “Basically, what that does, is pay for my fuel,” he says.
(Note: The houses also include a porch that is half the size of the house and includes a roof, insulation and electrical stub-outs, so that when necessary, the family can expand by closing in the three walls.)
Messy, but rewarding
Along with “a crushing need” for affordable housing, Phillips cites the need for job skills. Too many individuals emerge from high school without any direction, no marketable skills, and no hope of going to the university. “They get on the public dole, or get into illicit activity to fund their living.”
Phillips hires unskilled workers and provides them on-the-job training. One of the advantages of working with salvaged materials is that it provides the perfect venue for training people in the building trades. “If they make a mistake, well, shoot – it was headed to the landfill anyway. Let’s go get another one and try again,” he says.
By rescuing materials from the landfill and employing unskilled laborers to help build affordable housing, Phillips is using one social problem to solve another. “That’s a good thing, but I promise you, it’s messy!” He often ends up being “a mother to some.” Over the years he has counseled workers on drugs, alcohol, those with suicidal tendencies, spousal problems, financial problems, and dealing with racial slurs. “If there’s one racial slur you get fired. That’s it. Too bad, you’re out of here,” he says. Employees are also “gone” if they come in with an attitude, get caught pilfering, or engage in a fight, in which case both individuals are fired because one started it and the other didn’t back away. But that doesn’t happen very often, he adds.
“Generally speaking,” Phillips says, “if you do for other people; if you’re kind to them and you care about them, they get revenge – they care back.” He admits that it is high maintenance, but the payoff is magnificent. “Not only do these people come back years later and tell me what they’re doing now, but also bring their friends and they’re proud of what they’ve done.”
Getting the permit
Short of violating the laws of physics or the building codes, Phillips has the freedom to do whatever he wants with the structure. While it is true the design evolves from the materials, Phillips puts a lot of attention on the design element. “If you just started throwing things together you end up with a slummy admixture – something like a Sanford and Son house – you don’t want that,” he says. “You want something they can be proud of…to stoke their self-esteem a little bit.”
Building a house when he’s not sure what he will have to build it with, starts by accumulating a little bit, Phillips explains. Then he draws up his plans. “My plans are pathetic, but I’m not trying to impress someone…All I want is my permit.” For the beams that will hold up the walls he marks “4×6 No. 2 yellow pine, or better.” Even though he may have beams that exceed that in terms of structural integrity, he may not have enough, so on his plans he puts down only what will pass code.
Building codes are very specific about windows in a bedroom – they require emergency egress and ingress. The dimensions are very specific because a firefighter has to be able to get through the window wearing a back pack. Phillips says those windows have to be sized. The other windows he marks as “this size or larger.” What tempers that, he explains, is the National Energy Code which specifies that if your glass to exterior wall ratio is below 8% you can use single pane glass. “I go lean on the windows so that I’m well below 8%. You don’t get a lot of windows in these houses. You can see out, but if you really want to see outside – go outside,” he says. “That’s so that I can use the recycled windows and recycled single pane glass.” On the plans he notes that regardless of the window size the ratio will be 8% or less. “That’s the strategy.”
Phillips never spends a dime that doesn’t have to be spent, but he also doesn’t hesitate to buy “new” to flush out a salvage shortfall or to get the things like wire, pipe, nails, glue, etc. “If I can’t get salvaged roofing then I have to buy it. If I can’t get a salvaged sink than I have to buy it, but I don’t mind because 75-85% of everything that goes into the house is free to begin with.”
Repetition, repetition, repetition
The key is repetition creates pattern, Phillips explains. If you have a hundred of these and a hundred of those, then you have the possibility of a pattern, and it doesn’t matter what “these and those” are – whether wine corks, bottle caps, broken tile or animal bones, etc. “If I set you down on the living room floor with a hundred of these and a hundred of those and say, okay I’m going to come back in an hour and I want to see a pattern or you don’t get lunch. Maybe you didn’t have breakfast that morning and so you come up with a pattern. Anybody can do it.”
Admittedly most all of the materials Phillips works with are flawed in some fashion. The lumber will have a crack, or a split, knots, or some sort of blemish. Rather than hide the blemish, Phillips features it. “I’m building a house out of warped lumber, and so that means nothing is square – Nothing!…but because repetition creates pattern, you have a pattern of everything that’s not square, and your eye is able to drink that in and forgive all those cracks and crevices.”
Neither does Phillips bother covering nails with putty, either. “Seeing a nail has somehow wiggled its way into the American mentality (as something) that’s going to ruin your day. There’s a certain kind of honesty to be able to see nails, and materials as they arrived in your life, rather than trying to make them be what they’re not. So there’s a kind of primal congruency and honesty with the way humans live on the planet and the way natural rhythms proceed that feeds your spirit in ways that conventional construction does not.”
World of design at your feet
Phillips spends a lot of time figuring out how to use “this thing and that thing so it doesn’t go to the landfill.” If you find a use for a thing – wine corks, bottle caps, etc – it can go somewhere in a house and be vastly more interesting than marketed designs, he believes.
“Somebody brought me 10,000 eyeglass lenses…When I figure out what to do with them I’ll do it. Maybe I’ll have a leaded-glass window with eyeglass lenses – that’d be kind of fun.”
People love his wine cork floors and often ask if how to make one is a guarded secret – no. In fact, he recently posted to his website a series of articles which include instructions for the wine cork, papier-mâché and the tile shard floors (along with a few other pieces like “How to Take a Shower,” and the” Zen of Dishwashing”). (www.phoenixcommotion.com)
“You have the world of design absolutely at your feet,” Phillips proclaims. “But it never occurs to us to consider anything but vinyl on the floor and formaldehyde in our lives…If you use predesigned vinyl, than you’re abdicating that wonderful ability that every human being has to play with design and see what’s going to strike a chord in the seminal regions of your soul. Then you end up with something that truly reflects you and how it feels to you to live on the planet Earth, rather than some guy at a draftsman’s table…”
The culprit is cultural expectations. We behave in ways that fulfill the expectations of others, Phillips explains. “That’s what’s happening in the building industry. The culture has certain expectations, and we build, and do our floors, ceiling, walls and wallpaper, appointments and so forth, according to what the cultural expectations are. If you want to be identified with the ‘beautiful people’ then you have St. Augustine grass, three-car garage, Beamer in the driveway, crown molding, fireplace, trash compactor, wide-weave carpet, etc.”
But Phillips maintains that the average person can make his own decisions and not cave in to marketed strategies. “If they are lucky enough to identify that little spot inside that has some nerve – you have to have the nerve to try something that’s going to feed your own spirit…to say, you know, I believe in myself enough that I’m going to try something different.”
A locus of intent
“I’m not going to save the world anytime soon,” he says, “but if you can reel out a model that makes sense, that is doable and feasible, then it’s going to happen whether I’m alive or not.”
Phillips’ idea is catching on and gathering steam. Earlier this year he began an endeavor with the non-profit organization Living Paradigm to help build a small eco-village of homes in Houston’s 5th Ward. There is also an initiative starting north of Baton Rouge, and one in northern Georgia, Phillips reports, as well as one with a builder in Muskogee, Oklahoma who has been building with recycled materials predicated on Phillips’ model for years. A woman in California is also working to get something started in her area. “There’s a little locus of intent in those places that will affect somebody,” Phillips says. “And eventually it will catch on – that’s the idea. And that is my fondest hope.”
That is our hope, too, Dan.
(Editor’s note: On February 12, at 2:00 a.m., the day following the Change Magazine photo shoot, Phillips’ latest creation, the nearly completed “Bone House,” burned to the ground. Despite investigation by four inspectors the cause could not be determined. Less than three weeks after the fire, the resilient Phillips is back at work on the house that will literally rise from its ashes. “It was a deep cut, but we’ve scabbed over enough that we can talk about it and be functional,” he says. “We will rise from the ashes… that’s what the Phoenix does – Up until now it was a metaphor now, it’s literal. We’ll do it.”)