Okay, so I created a log in to share this. Might pluck a few photos out if I can, too.
[size=12pt]One Man’s Trash ... [/size]
By KATE MURPHY Published in the NY Times: September 2, 2009 HUNTSVILLE, Tex.
AMONG the traditional brick and clapboard structures that line the streets of this sleepy East Texas town, 70 miles north of Houston, a few houses stand out: their roofs are made of license plates, and their windows of crystal platters.
They are the creations of Dan Phillips, 64, who has had an astonishingly varied life, working as an intelligence officer in the Army, a college dance instructor, an antiques dealer and a syndicated cryptogram puzzle maker. About 12 years ago, Mr. Phillips began his latest career: building low-income housing out of trash.
In 1997 Mr. Phillips mortgaged his house to start his construction company, Phoenix Commotion. “Look at kids playing with blocks,” he said. “I think it’s in everyone’s DNA to want to be a builder.” Moreover, he said, he was disturbed by the irony of landfills choked with building materials and yet a lack of affordable housing.
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.”
While the homes are intended for low-income individuals, some of the original buyers could not hold on to them. To Mr. Phillips’s disappointment, half of the homes he has built have been lost to foreclosure — the payments ranged from $99 to $300 a month.
Some of those people simply disappeared, leaving the properties distressingly dirty and in disrepair. “You can put someone in a new home but you can’t give them a new mindset,” Mr. Phillips said.
Although the homes have resold quickly to more-affluent buyers, Mr. Phillips remains fervently committed to his vision of building for low-income people. “I think mobile homes are a blight on the planet,” he said. “Attractive, affordable housing is possible and I’m out to prove it.”
Freed by necessity from what he calls the “tyranny of the two-by-four and four-by-eight,” common sizes for studs and sheets of plywood, respectively, Mr. Phillips makes use of end cuts discarded by other builders — he nails them together into sturdy and visually interesting grids. He also makes use of mismatched bricks, shards of ceramic tiles, shattered mirrors, bottle butts, wine corks, old DVDs and even bones from nearby cattle yards.
“It doesn’t matter if you don’t have a complete set of anything because repetition creates pattern, repetition creates pattern, repetition creates pattern,” said Mr. Phillips, who is slight and sinewy with a long gray ponytail and bushy mustache. He grips the armrests of his chair when he talks as if his latent energy might otherwise catapult him out of his seat.
Phoenix Commotion homes meet local building codes and Mr. Phillips frequently consults with professional engineers, electricians and plumbers to make sure his designs, layouts and workmanship are sound. Marsha Phillips, his wife of 40 years and a former high school art teacher, vets his plans for aesthetics.
“He doesn’t have to redo things often,” said Robert McCaffety, a local master electrician who occasionally inspects Mr. Phillips’s wiring. “He does everything in a very neat and well thought-out manner.” Describing Huntsville as a “fairly conservative town,” Mr. McCaffety said, “There are people who think his houses are pretty whacked out but, by and large, people support what he does and think it’s beneficial to the community.”
Indeed, city 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.
Phoenix Commotion employs five minimum-wage construction workers but Mr. Phillips also requires the labor of the home’s eventual resident — he tends to favor a poor, single mother because his own father walked out on him and his mother when he was 17, which left them in a tough financial situation. “My only requirement is that they have good credit or no credit but not bad credit,” he said.
One of his houses belongs to Gloria Rivera, a cashier at a doughnut shop, who built the home with Mr. Phillips and her teenage son in 2004. Before then, she lived in a rented mobile home. Constructed almost entirely out of salvaged and donated materials, the 600-square-foot wooden house is painted royal blue with various squares of red, maroon and fuchsia tile glued to the mismatched gingerbread trim.
Inside, there is imported Tuscan marble on the floor, though the tiles are not of uniform size, and bright yellow stucco walls that Ms. Rivera said she textured using her thumb. “It’s not perfect but it’s mine,” Ms. Rivera said, touching the stucco, which looks like very thick and very messy butter cream frosting. “I call it my doll house.”
Phoenix Commotion homes lost to foreclosure have resold to middle-class buyers who appreciate not only their individuality but also their energy efficiency, which is also part of Mr. Phillips’s construction philosophy.
Susan Lowery and Alfredo Cerda, who both work for the United States Department of Homeland Security, bought a Phoenix Commotion house after the intended low-income owner couldn’t manage the mortgage. It has mosaics on the walls and counters made of shards of broken tile and cushy flooring made out of wine corks. “My wife likes the house because it doesn’t look like everyone else’s, but, being a guy, what I like is that it has a galvanized metal roof that I’ll never have to replace,” Mr. Cerda said.
Mr. Phillips said it bothered him when his low-income housing became “gentrified.” But if it leads to an acceptance of recycled building materials and a shift away from cookie-cutter standardized construction, he said, “I’m O.K. with it.”
Although it has a social agenda, Phoenix Commotion is not a nonprofit. “I want to show that you can make money doing this,” Mr. Phillips said.
He said he earned enough to live on but he was not getting rich. While he declined to be more specific, he allowed that the business has become more profitable as he has gained construction experience. It now takes six months to build a home rather than the 18 months it took when he started.
But Mr. Phillips said his biggest reward was giving less-fortunate people the opportunity to own a home and watching them develop a sense of satisfaction and self-determination in the course of building it.
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.”
very cool. for some reason it makes me have more respect for the shanty towns across the world where individuals have patched small dwellings together with whatever they could find. I don't have romantic fantasies about their living conditions but at some point maybe reusing things will begin to feel like more of a neccesity to those that are more fortunate also.
I have a passion for reusing things & really wish the mentality of this country would change more. My husband is often on construction sites. The amount of usable "waste" items that are junked from these sites is unconscionable! A motel my husband was working on a few years ago blew down during a wind shear. All that usable wood was likely junked. They quickly cordoned off the site & wouldn't let people on it for safety reasons. Many people I know would have liked to pick up that wood, etc. & use it. Such shame to see such waste.
posted 10 years ago
Gwen Lynn wrote: Many people I know would have liked to pick up that wood,
me me me.
I used to cruise all the newly construction neighborhoods near our old house looking for the piles of scrap wood waiting to be hauled off by the dump truck. it is amazing what they throw out sometimes and commercial building sites are the worst.
What I think helps is to actually see the stuff folks can make out of recycled materials.
Wasn't it a cool goat shed you made, Leah, out of free or scrap lumber? (And the picture is on a thread somewhere...maybe the homesteading forum.) And Gwen Lynn, you posted those cool pics in that "I'm a re-user thread" in meaningless drivel.
We're such a visual society. For those who can choose to buy versus re-use, seeing it helps them understand it can look just as good, or sometimes even better with the right craftmanship.
And did any of you hear how toxic living in a trailer can be? Many, many Katrina victims got sick living in those FEMA trailers from the off-gassing of all the glues, etc. It's just very cool this guy has come up with a healthier, affordable and sustainable alternative that he can make a living by providing.
the trailer stories are scary but didn't surprise me too much. we have always had fun going through the rv's at the fair and home shows and they REEK! I find myself holding my breath in new cars sometimes too. I like "old car smell". if there aren't years of dirt and manure and dog hair trampled into the carpet and seats it doesn't smell right.
beautiful..when i was a child i always used to like to visit the bottle house in a nearby village..it was made with bottles in the walls and it was beautiful ...
i believe that was what set me and my family off on the recycle route when i was a preschooler..my father tore down buildinigs ..with the help of us kids..that were being demolished..and we used all the salvage we could to rebuild..we built a garage, dining room and porch on our house when i was 5 and that really got me going.
it was a family "thing" to search out salvage and even dig up buried treasure when we would go on outings..
My first shed i built was framed in with pallets screwed together to make the studwork.
This past year i glassed in the back porch almost entirely of salvaged windows and sliding glass doors.
in our old house i built cabinets and cupboard by using cast of cabinet doors, some with beautiful glass..and old louvered shutters..over board frames..
I LOVE SALVAGE !!!
Bloom where you are planted.
We love building with recycled and re-purposed materials. Our own home is composed of quite a mixture of reused.We also tear down old buildings to have materials for this purpose..One of our favourite jobs has been for friends who chose to reuse an old cherry barn.Which is a far cry from being square but it is very structurally sound.They had tons of old woods laying in the tall grass left there by previous owners.We built a structure with in the structure basically and utilized most of the woods they had available.Those that were not structurally sound became deco pieces adding character..Paul saw this one in progress when he stayed in Rollins for the Dayton permaculture adventure.It kept the cost down for the owners and allowed us to have a blast being creative..Even the old sleigh that was laying on the property became a large light fixture for their entry way..Love working with people like this..
Really liked that guy's work when i stumbled on Jocelyn's post before. Got me wondering if there were more eco-friendly glues, filling and plastering products, and must continue my research when i've time for some creative diy. Structures within structures sounds cool as well. Foresee a good bit of retrofitting on my site; makes no sense to start from scratch if there's lots of structures, however inefficient or not so symbiotic, already in place.
Location: NW MT Zones 4/5 Rollins Mt
posted 6 years ago
Con, there are quite a few alternatives that we have used..I don't have time to do an big list right now.It really is surprising what is available but also old techniques from days gone by come into play as well.I will try and get a few pictures in of the place we have been working on..