Building Dreams: How One Texan Contributes to the Green Collar Economy

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Owner Dan Phillips built his home from salvaged building materials, including bottles, cans and paper.
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Phillips calls this Huntsville, Texas, home—made almost entirely of recycled materials—a composite of every storybook home he read about as a child.

Cofounder with wife Marsha Phillips of The Phoenix Commotion near Houston, Dan Phillips is expanding notions of what a home can be. The Phoenix Commotion proffers three main goals: reduce landfill burden, provide low-income housing and train unskilled workers. The program shows low-income individuals how to build their own homes without incurring high debt, using an extremely broad spectrum of salvaged building materials–think bottles, cans, paper and more–and modern design and efficiency techniques. Phoenix Commotion’s untrained workers learn skills they can transfer to higher-paying jobs.

How do people react when they see your homes?

Most people are a bit dumbfounded, but nevertheless thrilled. Through no prowess of my own, the houses I build are intrinsically interesting because they are conspicuously organic–that is, the design of the house grows out of the materials available.

What is your vision for housing America?

Housing in America needs to be downsized.The houses I build are very small–typically ranging from 300 to 750 square feet, with lots of outside covered deck space. There’s no carpet, vinyl, dishwasher, garbage disposer, trash compactor, bathtub, separate dining room, room for king- or queen-size beds (unless the client is 7 feet tall). All water heaters are tankless, and the toilet and washing machine are fed with rainwater from a cistern. Landscaping is minimal, with a preference to xeriscaping. Appliances of choice are Energy Star, and there’s a huge quantity of insulation. 

How does owning a home change someone’s self esteem and attitude toward life?

At least in America, home ownership puts the owner in the economic mainstream, concerned how taxes are being spent and how the asset of a “house” can be protected and passed on to progeny. There’s a sense of being self-sufficient and vested. Ownership infuses the entire family with a heightened self esteem and brightens any cynicism that otherwise contributes to discouragement and despair.   

Why is it beneficial for people to build their own homes?

The owner-built home not only encourages pride in the final product, because it was customized to fit that family’s needs, but the owner now knows how to maintain it because he or she built it in the first place.

What’s your greatest success story so far?

So far, three single mothers–one with four children, one with two, and a widow with one child–have built their own houses from recycled materials under the mentorship of a seasoned builder. A couple with five kids built their own house the same way. These people had nothing to do with the building trades before. And, yet, each mustered some grit, banged a thumb or two, and did it. And their pride resonates back over the millennia to the dawning of humanity–something very few of us can even fathom. Anyone can build a house–not the St. Louis Arch or the Empire State Building–but personal shelter. 

What’s your wildest dream–the one crazy thing you hope to accomplish?

My wildest dream is to see the melding of the unbelievable technology at our fingertips with “homespun” and on-site strategies–a new toolbox, as it were–to leave the smallest footprint possible with no loss of quality of life. There are primitive pleasures in “chopping our own wood,” and “hauling our own water”–pleasures we haven’t been privy to for a century. And there are thrilling pleasures in the technology that is currently galloping through our lives. My wildest dream is [big type]that we are smart about our arrogance and humble about the opportunities the planet has provided[end big type].  We can re-sensitize synapses that have long ago atrophied.  There’s still time. And I want to be a part of that.   

Dan’s favorite things

Lecturing to groups wanting to know more about how to build with recycled materials–a strategy that is dead center John Dewey, Art As Experience.  We are still in the age of Dewey, and he can teach us many things, as can Friedrich Nietzsche in The Birth of Tragedy.  Rarely are Dewey and Nietzsche more understandable and relevant than when you use chicken eggs, warped lumber, and broken mirrors to build a house.

Wine corks. I use them for floors. Surprisingly enough, if you put the word out, corks start arriving on the jobsite; they arrive in the mail (from all over the world); and people call, saying, “Shall I drink some more wine?”  Corks are a great way to get people involved in my agenda.  The subtext, of course, is Recycling is Fun.

Prime rib–medium rare–with cabernet sauvignon, while watching a hurricane pass through without damage. A good cabernet is intrinsically designed to make a hurricane simply fizzle.