Dan Phillips: weaving dreams from discarded things
by Vicki Wolf
The dream of being a builder and a fascination with garbage dump discoveries were the seeds that took root and became a life’s work for Dan Phillips. “In 1996, we decided to get on with living our fantasy before it was too late,” Phillips says. He and his wife, Marsha, mortgaged their house and started The Phoenix Commotion, a business for building affordable houses from free, salvage and recycled materials. In 2003, the company received the award for most innovative housing worldwide from The Institute for Social Invention in London. Phillips’ innovative approach to housing has been featured in Fine Homebuilding, People and Reason magazines and on CNN, HGTV, and other major television programs. The Discovery Channel is doing a documentary about Phillips’ work.
Another motivation for The Phoenix Commotion is the urgency to do what can be done to care for the planet. “We are slowly denuding the planet,” Phillips says. “We can’t continue to live this way. We throw away and buy new rather than repair and re-use,” he adds. “We need to use renewable resources and use non-renewables carefully.”
Phillips’ dream and desire for more sustainable living goes beyond material things. Giving people a chance to live their dreams is another aspect of Phillips’ work. He hires only unskilled workers. “They get minimum wage and an earful of training,” he says. “When they are ready, I push them out to new jobs at higher pay,” he adds.
After working for Phillips, Jim Tullos got a job as a foreman with another builder. At his new job, he surprised his boss by going through the trash heaps looking for headers rather than automatically using new ones. He explained to his boss how much money he could save by going to the trash heap before using new materials. Now checking to see what can be reused or recycled is standard practice with that builder.
Phillips commitment to sustainable living has led to the development of “Brigid’s Paradigm, an initiative that facilitates home ownership through Brigid’s Place, sponsored by Christ Church Cathedral in Houston. “When you own your own home, the energy rises in a family,” Phillips says. “You are able to join the mainstream culture.”
To qualify, the participant needs to have $500, good credit and a stable job. Brigid’s Paradigm provides competent, seasoned builders to mentor people who participate in the program. The volunteer home building mentors are compensated at $10 per square foot. Phillips says the mentors guide participants while they build their own house – they don’t build the homes for them.
The houses are small – 240 square feet for one person with 100 square feet added for each additional person. There are no amenities such as dishwasher, trash compactors and king-sized beds. “When you are poor, you can’t afford a lot of space,” Phillips says. “Building small means building efficiently with energy efficiency.” Energy efficiency includes such things as lots of insulation, tank-less hot water heaters, and rain barrels that provide water for toilet flushing.
By the time the new homesteaders have finished building their home, they will own 80 percent, which includes the value of the land, free material and labor. The homesteader goes to the bank and gets a conventional loan for the remaining 20 percent. A person making a minimum wage of about $900 a month can have a seven-year mortgage for under $300 a month, one-third of the household income. “If the breadwinner has a minimum wage job, he or she can afford a house and afford to live,” Phillips says.
In summing up his dedication to work that contributes to sustainable living, Phillips says, “I have an agenda. I want to see some change. I represent that segment of America that is incensed about the amount of waste that we have in this country.” He adds, “every dollar you spend is a vote for either a sustainable life style or a wasteful lifestyle.”
Phillips lives in Huntsville, Texas with his wife, Marsha, who is a retired art teacher. They have two children. Their daughter, Phoebe, is a patent attorney in Chicago; and their son, Ian, flies an F-16 for the Air Force, is married, and has two children. Phillips is adjunct graduate faculty at Sam Houston University and teaches Philosophy of Art in the Dance Department. He holds a number of academic degrees, including a doctorate in dance.
For a copy of the infrastructure for Brigid’s Paradigm, contact Phillips at firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.phoenixcommotion.com.