ReUse me

Dan Phillips has long hair, a scraggly mustache, calloused hands and a heavy Texas accent—he looks the part of old school green building guru, before green buildings were more likely to conjure images of skyscrapers than off-the-grid yurts. His work falls somewhere in between those poles, or maybe he’s doing green building of another kind altogether: making homes out of leftovers—and for cheap. A homeowner can start with as little as $500 to put down, as long as he or she has good credit and a stable job.

Phillips calls his Huntsville, Texas-based project the Phoenix Commotion, a low-income housing initiative that has future homeowners helping with the home’s creation, the sweat equity model of Habitat for Humanity, but with a very different approach and aesthetic. He uses the unskilled labor of the future homeowners during construction. They’re paid minimum wage but learn a marketable skill while they’re helping out—a kind of paid, part-time training program that ends in homeownership. When the place is finished, the homeowner owns as much as 80% of the property, and can get a mortgage for the rest. Phillips started the program in 1996; in 2003, he won an award for the most innovative housing in the world from The Institute for Social Invention in London.

The homes are modest in size—240 square feet for one person, with another 100 square feet tacked on for each additional inhabitant—and use a mélange of recycled materials; he calls them “after market houses.” Floors might be crafted of paper maché as much as scrap wood or adobe; actually, those might cover the walls, too; ceilings are formed from picture frame corners that would have been tossed in the trash. They have a storybook quality, with railings crafted out of stripped branches that curve and spike like antlers.

Phillips, a former dance teacher, furniture refinisher and architect, has a self-proclaimed fascination with landfills, and his project is not just a series of houses but a philosophy. Along with plans and training programs, the Phoenix Commotion includes a lecture series with titles like The American Neurosis, Carbonated Prune Juice and the After-Market House and Sheetrock and the Search for Primal Congruency.