At first glance, Dan Phillips appears to be a Woodstock leftover, with a silver ponytail and thin frame, and a message of saving the planet. The Houston-area builder erects homes largely using recycled and repurposed materials. And not just removing a door from one frame and hanging it another.

  • Phillips uses found items in his homes, some of which have fun, creative themes
  • The Phoenix Commotion puts his principles into action
  • Materials that would otherwise end up in landfills helps to build low-income housing

At first glance, Dan Phillips appears to be a Woodstock leftover, with a silver ponytail and thin frame, and a message of saving the planet.

The Houston-area builder erects homes largely using recycled and repurposed materials. And not just removing a door from one frame and hanging it another. In Phillips’ homes, detail may be created by eggshells filled with Bondo, and shattered toilet bowls made to look like textured, wavy tiles on a bathroom wall.

In a lively TEDxHouston talk that he gave more than five years ago, one would expect Phillips to expound on the virtues of, well, being virtuous– saving the planet, using old materials in place of new, and so on.

Courtesy of Dan Phillips

Courtesy of Dan Phillips

Yet, Phillips’ philosophy of home construction is handed down from some of the greatest minds of centuries past — Nietzsche, Plato, and Sartre, to name a few.

Phillips weaves a tale of how housing has become like any other prefabricated, mass-produced commodity, and how waste is prevalent in providing it. Deftly weaving examples from hundreds of years ago, through the Industrial Revolution to Mazlow and Gestalt psychology, Phillips explains how our culture of consumption and perfection applies to the building industry.

For example, he talks about the observation that cultures tend to swing between one of two perspectives: an Apollonian perspective, which values thought and perfection, and the Dionysian perspective, which relies on intuition and passion.

“That’s the difference,” he said in his TEDxHouston talk. “I feature blemish. I feature organic process. Dead-center John Dewey. Apollonian mindset creates mountains of waste. If something isn’t perfect, if it doesn’t line up with that premeditated model, dumpster.”

In a Phillips home, expect surprise. In one home he built a bathtub himself. In another, he whimsically pays homage to Budweiser. He’ll hang the expected hallway light fixture in a bathroom, or place a pane of glass usually used in a front door in a hallway. He also uses found items as they cross his path: One home has a bidet in the bathroom just because, another has a set of stairs that Phillips boasts that he purchased for $20, delivered.

He also says that it takes courage for people to break free from the staid subdivision model.

“Our housing has become a commodity,” he said in the TED talk. “And it takes a little bit of nerve to dive into those primal, terrifying parts of ourselves and make our own decisions and not make our housing a commodity, but make it something that bubbles up from seminal sources. That takes a little bit of nerve, and, darn it, once in a while you fail. But that’s okay.”

About a dozen years ago, Phillips and his wife, Marsha, took out a home equity loan on their Huntsville, Texas, home in order to fund The Phoenix Commotion, a builder that puts his principles into action. Its mission is to use building materials that would otherwise end up in landfills to build low-income housing. It seeks to prove that constructing homes with recycled and salvaged materials has a viable place in the building industry.

Email Kimberley Sirk.

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