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Do You Know? Dan Phillips

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Dan-Phillips-SittingPhotos by K2 Images

Although Dan Phillips has been interviewed by national publications such as People Magazine and The New York Times, has appeared on primetime television in Germany, and has been asked to speak around the world, he is a down-to-earth man with a mission. His heart is as big as Texas; his humble, generous spirit gives each and every day, and his hope is to change at least a little corner of the world.

Where did you grow up? How did you come to live in Huntsville?

I was born and raised in and around Denver, Colorado. Through a series of events and careers, I ended up in Huntsville. I had a teaching fellowship at Sam Houston State College (now SHSU) in dance. That is where I met Marsha. I went on for a doctorate at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Then the draft got me. I spent a couple of years doing intelligence work as an interpreter/translator in West Berlin during the Cold War. After that, I made job inquiries. I received six offers, but I took the first offer, which was Sam Houston. I knew they had a good program. I was on the faculty of Sam Houston for a decade.

Dan-Phillips-DoorAfter I resigned, my wife and I started a business restoring art and antiques. I had always wanted to be a builder. I always suspected that you could build a whole house out of what went into the landfill. Sure enough, it is true. We would otherwise be burying a small-scale house once a week. We have families who would do anything to own a home, and here we are throwing away usable building materials.

So the mission of The Phoenix Commotion is to keep stuff out of the landfill through demonstration and advocacy. I am trying to prove it is possible to make a reasonable living building for the poor, using recycled materials and unskilled labor. I am in the for-profit sector; I am not a non-profit. I’m about as non-profit as you can get and still be in the for-profit sector.

How long have you been married?

Marsha and I have been married 46 years. She has taught me so much. She is the only person I can really trust. She will give me honest feedback when I ask, “What do you think of this?” That kind of honesty is pure gold.

Marsha works part-time as an academic mentor at SHSU helping students with academic and other issues. She loves what she is doing. Our stress-index is down to zero. I love my life. Occasionally, I still teach a class at the university. I will be teaching a graduate class this fall. It is an aesthetics class, Philosophy of Art for Dancers.

Art aesthetics is one of the more interesting branches of philosophy. We need the utility of language, but language will never be able to communicate what a small dance move or a symphony can articulate. More viruses affect our language than ever threatened our computers. They manifest themselves in terms of mindsets. When I say the word “house,” the image that pops into one’s head is not a Navaho hogan or a Siberian yurt or a Pakastani cave; it is a three bedroom, two bath, brick house. If we just scratch a little below the surface, we realize a house can be anything, as long as it protects you from the weather, and you have a place to keep your family safe.

One person can make an awfully lot of “noise” in one lifetime; that’s what I am doing. I’m just making “noise.” Some folks listen, and some people are just annoyed.

Dan-Phillips-House-910Tell me about the Tree House.

That Tree House just made the cut in a book titled Green, Hidden, and Above, which features exceptional tree houses from around the world.

Artists are an underserved population. If you are an artist in this town, your studio is somewhere across town in a garage, or your dining table, or you clear out your bedroom. Nothing is built as a studio for artists. The Tree House has a huge studio.

Dan-Phillips-House-WindowHow do you connect with the families that need your assistance?

I might walk into a convenience store and ask the clerk, “Do you own your own house?”

“Hmph! No.”

“Would you like to own your own house?

“Well, yeah!”

“If I said that I could build you a house at or below what you are now paying in rent, would you be interested?”

After initially scoffing, when the clerk sees that I’m serious, she tears up. Home ownership is not available to the average person. I usually have a gut feeling about people who need the help.

I have four or five projects in line as I go. The design of each house grows out of the materials.

Dan-Phillips-House-1321What was the first house you built in Huntsville?

It is a Victorian house on the corner of Avenue N and 14th Street. Peter Grivich and Annie Zellar have lived there since 2000. That was a fun house to do. I’ve used hickory nuts, chicken eggs, and broken tiles.

Now, we are in the marketplace. Each project “throws a hamburger to Marsha and me,” and the rest becomes seed money for the next project.

How did you originally start gathering materials?

I started networking in the spring of 1999. Three months later, I stopped networking. That is how many materials I was getting.

Dan-Phillips-House-912How many houses do you have here?

They are not all houses. I have about 24 projects. I have built an office building, studios, a public restroom, a church. I am asked all the time to build all over the country, but I don’t do it. I stay inside the city limits.

Tell me about the Waste Management project.

I was a keynote speaker at the STAR (State of Texas Alliance for Recycling) Conference. Chuck Rivette from Waste Management was in the audience. He contacted me about building an education room. I told them the way I work is, “You tell me what you have, and then you have no dominion over the design. I get to do whatever I want, and then you pay all of the bills.” They agreed, and they were good to their word. It’s not that I’m trying to be a fascist, or that I’m the authority on design; it’s just that one person has to be in charge of design.

Dan-Phillips-Inside-Open-WindowTell me about your crew.

My preferred crew is three, because they all need supervision. I only pay minimum wage, but they get a firehose of information. We address issues of design, safety, technique, strategy, etc. When a higher paying job comes up, they are ready for it. “Next!”

The crew is required to work at least 30 hours a week. They can work as many hours as they want, but I don’t pay overtime. Sometimes the crew is made up of college students or Ph.D.s who want to know how to build a house. The only requirement is that they are unskilled.

Dan-Phillips-House-CanDo you have a storage warehouse?

I have a possibility of storing some things out at T J Burdett and Sons. When I built their office, I told them there were five conditions: 1) You can decide the configuration of the office, but beyond that, I’m totally in charge of the design; 2) You pay all the bills; 3) I get to store stuff until I die out at your yard; 4) I get to “cherry-pick” from your yard whenever I want; 5) It has got to be right on I-45.

I also have brokered a deal with the city to set up a Materials Reuse Warehouse. Whatever overage I have, I just send it out there. That material is then dropped off to low-income families and non-profit organizations.

Are there materials you purchase new instead of recycled?

Since it is a design/build model and the materials are mostly free, I get an incredible price. I don’t hesitate to buy new; I just rarely have to. Some materials, I buy new—wire, insulation, fans. Eighty percent of these houses are salvaged material.

Dan-Phillips-House-WoodWhat groups have volunteered to help build the houses?

Individuals have volunteered, students from surrounding universities (Rice, UT, University of Kansas, Sam Houston, fraternities, sororities), people just arrive and say, “I’d like to volunteer today!” I require individuals to put in 30 hours per week for at least three months. If it is a group, I figure out something a group can do, like put down granite—something I can train them to do in 25-30 minutes.

How do places like the University of Kansas find out about you?

I receive quite a bit of press, and I have a pretty good presence on the Web. The TED Talk sent me all over the world. The TED folks selected two speeches from the TEDx Houston to put on their national website. I hear from people all the time wanting me to speak. I’m not shy; I’ve got an agenda. I’m not out to build an empire. I don’t care about money. I have to be able to pay my bills, but my focus is not on profit.

What are the upcoming projects?

Dan-Phillips-Inside-TV-RoomAcross from Brookshire Brothers, there is going to be a house that looks like a cowboy boot and one that looks like a cowboy hat. They are being funded privately. I agreed to build them, provided that they are rented to artists below market rates. It is a demonstration that you can build anything you want out of recycled materials. I am working on the Children’s Studio at the SAAFE House. The labor is all by trustees. It is a joy to work with them. They work hard; they listen to you; they are excited to be involved in this project. They are effusively courteous.

I am making my way into the commercial sector now, provided that their mission aligns with ours. The idea is to make building with recycled material a viable option. Then you get a building that is laughingly below market rates, quite likely a building more interesting than anything the marketplace could provide, and it is energy efficient.

Dan-Phillips-McCoys-FloorHow do the local retail hardware stores contribute to your mission?

McCoy’s has helped me regularly from the beginning. Early on, if I had an 18-wheeler delivering materials, they would help me offload it. They have never charged me. Walker County Hardware has given me stuff; they are wonderful. There isn’t a business in town related to the building industry that hasn’t helped me in some way. They are proud to do it.

For more information on Dan and his projects, tours, etc., visit his website: www.phoenixcommotion.com

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