Dan Phillips is one of the most unconventional home builders you'll ever find. In fact, he's more an ecological social messiah than a home builder (see video below). For $10,000, he builds affordable homes for low-income people that are attractive, energy-efficient and save landfills. Most builders purchase building materials -- piles of wood, sheet rock, nails, bricks, and tiles -- that are used in construction and then, when the house is finished, the waste is discarded to the dump. Phillips, 66, salvages those materials, hauling them from the trash or even picking them up on the road, to build or remodel homes for low-income buyers.
He says he's just doing what people have been doing for years -- using whatever they can scrounge up to to build shelter.
"And if you ponder what could be used," says the Huntsville, Tex., resident, "then building materials are everywhere."
Phillips himself has been "everywhere": He worked as an intelligence officer in the Army, then as a dance instructor, an antiques dealer and a puzzle maker. Fourteen years ago he started a new career: Creating affordable homes for low-income families out of trash. He is a self-taught carpenter, electrician and plumber. His motivation came from the disparity he saw between
landfills overflowing with discarded building materials and a lack of affordable housing. He started Phoenix Commotion, a for-profit company that hopes to solve the world's social problems associated with housing.
Phillips builds homes for as little as $10,000, making them energy-efficient with tight insulation, solar hot water and even a rainwater catchment system. He hires unskilled workers, teaches them marketable construction skills and then helps them find jobs when the project is complete. He keeps the landfills shallow by using truckfuls of leftover building materials such as lumber, tile and granite. Locals even hand off their old fixtures and doors to Phillips when they remodel, which he keeps in a warehouse and distributes free to low-income and needy people and organizations.
Huntsville officials say he is saving costs as well as Mother Earth. In fact, his materials warehouse has inspired a spin-off in Houston, the nation's third largest metropolitan area. The Houston warehouse opened in October, 2009 and within the first six months diverted 200 tons of building materials.
So far, Phillips has built 13 homes that are highly unusual, especially in Huntsville, a town of 35,000 north of Houston whose main industry is the huge high security prison that houses Texas death row inmates.
There's the "Bone House," which features a stairway made of bones, floors covered in wine corks and beer bottle caps, and a skylight made from -- are you ready? -- a Pyrex baking dish.
There's the Storybook House that has that medieval Hansel and Gretel feel. There's the Budweiser House with an exterior of red, white and blue. There's the 600-square-foot Doll House, built for Gloria Rivera, a doughnut-shop cashier who put her own thumbprints in the bright yellow stucco walls, which was constructed of almost 100 percent salvaged, donated or recycled materials.
To Phillips's dismay, about half the homes he has built in Huntsville have been lost to foreclosure. As he told the New York Times in 2009, "You can put someone in a new home, but you cannot give them a new mindset."
Undaunted, he is continuing to spread the story of what he does to others and preach his philosophy: You may not save the world anytime soon, but you can help tidy up your own backyard.
Candy is an award-winning, Dallas-based real estate reporter, blogger, and consultant. She's the gal who brought House Porn to the Bible Belt! Read more at SecondShelters.com. and send story ideas and tips to CandyEvans@secondshelters.com.