Visionary Dan Philips has been running his construction company Phoenix Commotion for 12 years with a dual purpose: creating beautifully unique affordable housing, and making use of recycled materials. A recent New York Times article reports from Huntsville, Texas, on this environmentally wise and socially responsible endeavor:
To him, almost anything discarded and durable is potential building material. Standing in one of his houses and pointing to a colorful, zigzag-patterned ceiling he made out of thousands of picture frame corners, Mr. Phillips said, “A frame shop was getting rid of old samples, and I was there waiting."
So far, he has built 14 homes in Huntsville, which is his hometown, on lots either purchased or received as a donation. A self-taught carpenter, electrician and plumber, Mr. Phillips said 80 percent of the materials are salvaged from other construction projects, hauled out of trash heaps or just picked up from the side of the road. “You can’t defy the laws of physics or building codes,” he said, “but beyond that, the possibilities are endless."
The recycling aspect of the Phoenix Commotion's mission has been wildly successful, making use of everything from salvaged wood and scrap metal to "mismatched bricks, shards of ceramic tiles, shattered mirrors, bottle butts, wine corks, old DVDs and even bones from nearby cattle yards." Inspired by his homes, the community and local government are cooperating to make recycling in this way mainstream:
[C]ity officials worked closely with Mr. Phillips in 2004 to set up a recycled building materials warehouse where builders, demolition crews and building product manufacturers can drop off items rather than throwing them in a landfill. There’s no dumping fee and donations are tax deductible because the materials are used exclusively by charitable groups or for low-income housing.
"I’ve been recycling all my life, and it never occurred to me to recycle a door,” said Esther Herklotz, Huntsville’s superintendent of solid waste. “Dan has changed the way we do things around here.”
Officials in Houston also consulted with Mr. Phillips before opening a similar warehouse this summer, and other cities, including Bryan, Tex.; Denham Springs, La.; and Indianapolis have contacted him to inquire how to do the same.
While the goal of providing low-income housing is hitting more rocks in its path -- a number of the houses have been foreclosed and re-bought by more affluent clients interested in their energy efficiency and quirky aesthetics -- success stories abound and Philips is determined in his efforts. He even has the future owners participate in construction to solidify their "sense of satisfaction and self-determination:"
An example is Kristie Stevens, a single mother of two school-age sons who earned a college degree last spring while working part time as a restaurant and catering manager. She has spent the months since graduation hammering away on what will be her home.
“If something goes wrong with this house, I won’t have to call someone to fix it because I know where all the wires and pipes are — I can do it myself,” she said. “And if the walls are wonky, it will be my fault but also my pride.”
Browse through the New York Times photo gallery to get a glimpse of Phoenix Commotion's masterpieces.
Photo: Michael Stravato for The New York Times