Housing Reclaimed

A look into those using architectural salvage to create aesthetically beautiful, sustainable houses for next to nothing.

| March 2013

  • Housing Reclaimed
    Sustainable Homes for Next to Nothing
    Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers

  • Housing Reclaimed

Housing Reclaimed (New Society Publishers, 2011) is a call to arms for nonconventional home builders. Author Jessica Kellner, Mother Earth Living Editor-in-Chief, examines how technological advances, design evolution and resourceful, out-of-the-box thinking about materials and efficiency can help us meet the challenge of building affordable, environmentally-friendly, beautiful and unique homes. Focusing on the use of salvaged and reclaimed materials, this inspirational volume is packed with case studies of innovative projects.  

The Phoenix Commotion’s unique, artistic homes keep waste out of the landfill and communities alive in Huntsville, Texas.   

In 1998 in Huntsville, Texas, Dan and Marsha Phillips founded the Phoenix Commotion, a home-building business dedicated to providing low income housing for working folks — mainly single-parent, and low-income families and working artists. The company keeps costs low by building with salvaged materials collected from all over the world. Made from an unusual and diverse assortment of building materials — landfill-bound scrap wood and insulation, used wine corks, adobe, stone, bottle caps, shards of broken tiles and mirrors, papier mâché, old plates and CDs, to name a few — Phoenix Commotion homes don’t look like the standard suburban ranch house. These homes, part perfectly personalized living space, part living art project, look more like something dreamed up in a fairy tale than something you’d find in a subdivision. As Dan Phillips explains, a town the size of Huntsville throws away enough waste to build a small house every week. He’s trying to build those small houses. 

Phoenix Commotion Basics   

Dan Phillips has had several careers throughout his life, and today he applies skills from all of them to his dream job. Spending ten years as a dance professor at Hunstville’s Sam Houston State University (SHSU) gave him skills in instruction and artistry. Long dedicated to the idea of creative reuse and making new from old, Dan and his wife, Marsha, opened an art and antique restoration business called the Phoenix Workshop in 1985. The store gave him the chance to see all the great “waste” materials coming out of the construction industry in his area. But it wasn’t until 1998, after 35 years of marriage, that they decided to make good on Dan’s lifelong dream of becoming a builder. They mortgaged their home and founded the Phoenix Commotion, Dan’s salvaged home-building business. By 2003, the Phoenix Commotion had taken off to such a degree that Dan could no longer split his efforts between the Phoenix Workshop and the Phoenix Commotion, so Dan and Marsha closed the Workshop to focus full-time on the Phoenix Commotion. 

Named for the mythical phoenix, which continually renews itself from its own ashes, the Phoenix Commotion makes its business out of using resources others consider worthless. Dan builds affordable homes with salvaged, slightly damaged and other unwanted building supplies he obtains for free from manufacturers and wholesalers. He is driven by a twofold commitment: to keep usable building materials out of the landfill and to provide homes for the working poor. The first, he says, was borne of a childhood with parents — a lumberyard-working father and homemaker mother — who had lived through the Great Depression. “We never threw anything away,”Dan recalls. As a child, he would go to landfills with his parents and search out usable materials. He built his first bicycle at age 14 from parts he found there. He says his fascination with saving old things from their landfill fate found a perfect match when he realized the great need for affordable housing in his area: “I had always suspected that one could build an entire house from what went into the landfill, and, sure enough, it’s true. Then, with the crushing need for affordable housing, [building homes] was a natural connection.” 

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