Dan Phillips turns backyard scraps into whimsical Texan houses

Transforming wine corks and bottle caps into flooring, cow bones into countertops, frame samples into ceilings and old deck boards into doors, Dan Phillips believes a second life is possible building refuse.

His company, Phoenix Commotion, turns trash into homes, employs “unskilled” workers and creates shelter for low-income families, but it’s not a non-profit. Instead, Phillips is trying to show that there are many good reasons to reuse construction waste (estimated as high as 10-15% of the materials that go into a building) and provide a whimsical alternative to mobile homes or other affordable housing.

With no formal training in architecture or construction, Phillips is a self-taught carpenter, plumber and electrician, but he has no problem complying with local building codes. “Every building code has a provision that alternative materials and strategies are allowable provided you fulfill the intent of the code. The only thing codes do is protect the public health and safety. So if there is nothing dangerous about it I can do whatever I want.”

He estimates his home are 75 to 85 percent salvaged material. He employs 5 minimum-wage workers, but also requires the home’s eventual owner (usually single mothers) to work on their future shelter. Since founding Phoenix Commotion with his wife 20 years ago, Phillips and his ever-rotating crews have built dozens of homes in Huntsville, Texas for low-income families and artists.

We visited his plumbed-and-wired treehouse home built in a bois d’arc tree (part of an artist’s compound with a 350-square-foot rental cottage and separate studio space), his “bone house” (made from donations from the “bone yards” of local ranchers) and his latest project, a home shaped like a cowboy boot.

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