Housing Reclaimed

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Cover Courtesy New Society Publishers
Sustainable Homes for Next to Nothing

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 homeskeep waste out of the landfill and communities alivein Huntsville, Texas.

In 1998 in Huntsville, Texas, Dan and Marsha Phillips founded thePhoenix Commotion, a home-building business dedicated to providing low incomehousing for working folks — mainly single-parent, and low-incomefamilies and working artists. The company keeps costs low by building withsalvaged materials collected from all over the world. Made from an unusualand diverse assortment of building materials — landfill-bound scrap woodand insulation, used wine corks, adobe, stone, bottle caps, shards of brokentiles and mirrors, papier mâché, old plates and CDs, to name a few — PhoenixCommotion homes don’t look like the standard suburban ranch house. Thesehomes, part perfectly personalized living space, part living art project, lookmore like something dreamed up in a fairy tale than something you’d find ina subdivision. As Dan Phillips explains, a town the size of Huntsville throwsaway enough waste to build a small house every week. He’s trying to buildthose small houses.

Phoenix Commotion Basics

Dan Phillips has had several careers throughout his life, and today he appliesskills from all of them to his dream job. Spending ten years as a dance professorat 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 otherunwanted building supplies he obtains for free from manufacturers andwholesalers. He is driven by a twofold commitment: to keep usable buildingmaterials out of the landfill and to provide homes for the working poor. Thefirst, he says, was borne of a childhood with parents — a lumberyard-workingfather 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.”

Along with keeping building supplies out of the landfill, using free materialshelps Dan achieve affordability. So does his crew. Every Phoenix Commotionproject is manned by a staff of untrained minimum-wage builders, community volunteers and the homes’ future owners, all under Dan’s expert tutelage. Of his crew, Dan says the building program is part job, part apprenticeship: “I only hire unskilled workers at minimum wage, but they get a fire hose of information and training during their tenure on the crew. When they have enough skill to compete in the marketplace, I push them out the door when permanent jobs become available at a higher rate.” Each untrained, paidcrew is occasionally supplemented with a slew of volunteers from the community and SHSU. The final crucial component of Dan’s workforce is the future homeowner — he requires every homeowner to participate in the building of her home.

Building a Phoenix Commotion Home

The first Phoenix Commotion house was a Victorian-style charmer constructedover 18 months beginning in 1998. The exterior walls contain no studs; rather, they are made of blocks of western red cedar that Dan and his crew stacked, glued and toe-nailed together. Victorian houses often have turrets — small ornamental towers on the front of the home. The Phoenix Commotion Victorian is no different, except that its turret is constructed of stacked, nailed and glued nine-inch chunks of western red cedar 2-by-4s. In an artistic unification of indoors and out, Dan constructed a high-backed master bathtub using the same method. Hickory nuts and egg shells filled with Bondo providedecorative accents on the outside of the house — a homespun alternative to marketed counterparts.

The two main tenets of a Phoenix Commotion home are reuse and efficiency. By gathering materials from all over the world, the company provides a valuable service to its building-supply donors: a guilt-free, non-landfill destination for post-market building materials. Word of the Phoenix Commotion has gotten out to everyone from local businesses to large national ones such as Weyerhaeuser and McCoy’s building supply companies. Rather than pay a hefty fee to send their leftover supplies to the landfill, companies ship materials to Dan’s warehouse, providing tons of valuable lumber and supplies for free. Because scavenging is banned at Texas landfills, the key is getting access to landfill-bound supplies before they’re sent there, Dan explains: “I goto wholesalers, and the scenario is this: The wholesaler will sell 75,000 squarefeet of tile, and then the person who bought it says, ‘I really only need 72,000square feet.’ The wholesaler says, ‘OK, fine,’ and they end up with the extra 3,000square feet, which isn’t enough to sell at a wholesale level and ends up at the backof a warehouse. Eventually they say, ‘Let’s get rid of this stuff. Let’s give it to Dan.'”

Because wholesalers must pay a fee to ship materials to the landfill, sendingit to the Phoenix Commotion saves them money. The donation is also tax-deductible,making it extremely financially attractive to wholesalers. After a few years of doing this work, Dan says that he rarely finds himself in short supply: “Over the years, the companies know what I’m doing, and they ship it to me. One afternoon, I’ll receive an 18-wheeler with $50,000 worth of stuff. Last fall, I got an 18-wheeler of redwood. Two months ago, I got three 18-wheeler-loads of framing lumber — 2-by-6s to 2-by-12s. Theysay, ‘It got a little gray on the end, let’s give it to the Dan.'” He estimates gettingat least three phone calls weekly with offers of free supplies. “My advice to anyonewho wants to take this on: First get a warehouse, then start sniffing around.It’ll come by the 18-wheeler.”

Without a program like the Phoenix Commotion, companies have literally no non-landfill options for efficient disposal of excess or slightly damaged materials. Wholesalers could theoretically sell them online or to private buyers, but the economic payoff doesn’t justify the man-hours required to sell small quantities; they simply won’t do it. With no infrastructure in place to reuse these materials, the wholesalers’ and manufacturers’ options are limited:

Dump it in the landfill, which is wasteful and expensive, or store it, whichtakes up too much valuable space. The Phoenix Commotion provides a betteroption.

Dan doesn’t discriminate when it comes to the types of donated materialshe’ll take. He says he’s often not sure how he’ll use the offered materials, but he’s open to almost every opportunity: “My friend said, ‘I’ve got a bushel of eyeglass lenses, do you want them? What are you going to do with those?’ Well, I don’t know, but when you need hundreds of eyeglass lenses, you don’t just go out and buy them.The university gave me 15,000 DVDs. Someone offered me a 55-gallon drumof rubber bands once a week. What do you do with that? There’s no way toknow. But when these things pop up, you say, ‘Oh, that’s fun, let’s try that.These things arrive, and it’s as varied as you can possibly imagine.”

Dan says the key to creative reuse is the ability to make patterns. Once youhave a large quantity of any item, you can make a pattern. Patterns lead to design. He feels that, when put to the task, nearly anyone can do this: “If you have multiples of anything, you have the possibility of repetition. Repetition creates pattern and also unity. Put anyone in a room with a pile of similar objects and say, ‘I want a pattern by 3 p.m. orno dinner.’ Anyone would come up with a design. It is easy, fun and availableto anybody. Most people just don’t have the nerve.”  

Conceiving of how to use all these crazy materials is one of Dan’s gifts, accordingto former intern Jerrod Sterrett, who was nearly finished his builder’sdegree from SHSC when he interned with Phoenix Commotion. He says theexperience taught him aspects of building he didn’t learn in the classroom: “Ilearned more about art than I did about building houses. Dan is a genius inways people don’t really even realize. If you gave most people a bunch of stuffand said, ‘Build a floor with it,’ they might be able to do it. But he can do thingswith stuff that gives it this very artistic feel, brings it all together and makes itlook like it’s not a house made of stuff nobody wanted.”

And though he admits his homes are unique in part because of the artistryhe and his crew put into them, Dan also credits much of his homes’ beautyto the quality of the reclaimed materials he receives: “A lot of these materials are things even the beautiful people can’t afford. They’re granite, travertine, vitrified china–wonderful, wonderful things!”

The fun of using unique materials aside, Phoenix Commotion homes alsomust go through the rigmarole inherent in any building project: efficiency, safety and building codes. Dan is serious when it comes to his homes’ efficiency. Low-cost maintenance is a crucial component of making these homes affordable for the Phoenix Commotion’s low-income demographic. High levels of insulation, efficient fixtures and appliances and built-in conservation methods make these reused homes run like brand new ones. Some materials weren’t meant to be salvaged. “I don’t hesitate to buy new,” Dan says. “Most of the time I don’t have to, but some things I buy new as a matter of policy. I buy new wire because you can’t depend on salvaged wire. I buy new pipesfor the plumbing, new nails, new screws. Typically I buy new toilets becausethe salvaged ones I get are the 3-gallon flushers and we’re in the world of1.6-gallon.”

A stickler for building codes, Dan states, “You have to build to code. You must pass muster and pass inspection.” He bristles at the idea that his homes, or any, should be immune to safety regulations. “Building codes are a good thing. People who throw rocks at inspectors are being naïve. It’s a lot like police officers; we want them around unless they stop us for a ticket. It’s the same with inspectors.” Meeting code doesn’t tie one’s hands when it comes to building materials and techniques, he explains, “Every building code has as a provision that alternative materials and strategies are allowed, provided youfulfill the intent of the code.”

Dan’s unique homes have garnered interest far outside Texas. “We Americansmay have invented excess, but the problem of waste is worldwide,” Dan says. “I hear from people all over the world asking how to start something like this. I’ve been featured in magazines in Italy, in Tokyo. I think, Lordy mercy, this is a model whose time has come. I’m not starting anything new. People have been doing this for years — build with what you have.”

Housing Reclaimedreprinted with permission by Jessica Kellner and published by New Society Publishers, 2011.

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