Dan Phillips and the Transformation of Trash

Reader Contribution by Jessica Kellner

This week’s post looks back on a feature of Dan Phillips, one of the most interesting people we’ve ever met, and one who also stars in my recently released book Housing Reclaimed. Dan is the founder of The Phoenix Commotion, a group in Huntsville, Texas, that makes unbelievably fascinating homes almost entirely out of reclaimed material otherwise destined for the landfill. I first encountered Dan when we did a Q&A with him back in 2009. The biggest problem with my interview with Dan was whittling down all the amazing information he provided in his ingenious yet down-home way. It’s difficult to fit anything into the space you’ve allotted when you get someone who gives you 20 quotes like this:

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 that we are smart about our arrogance and humble about the opportunities the planet has provided. We can re-sensitize synapses that have long ago atrophied. There’s still time. And I want to be a part of that.   

Dan is a rare breed: eloquent and intellectual, incredibly well-read and artistic. At the same time, he is about as down-to-earth a Texan as you’re ever going to find. And, almost unbelievably, his houses are just as fascinating as he is. Phillips started the Phoenix Commotion after he’d owned a reclaimed building materials store (after many years as a dance professor at nearby Sam Houston State University). He saw that people were throwing away enough stuff to create at least one small home every day, and he decided to try to actually convert that stuff into houses. Dan collects what others would consider trash — damaged lumber, broken tiles, beer-bottle caps, wine corks, DVDs, rubber bands and tennis balls, just to name a few — and, with a team made up of untrained workers, volunteers and the future homeowner — creates beautiful, customized, sometimes fantastical homes for low-income families and artists. He’s gotten a lot of press, such as this article in The New York Times, and he’s given a TED talk. If you want to read much, much more about Dan, check out my book, Housing Reclaimed, which came to be thanks to inspirational groups and people such as Phoenix Commotion and Dan Phillips.