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Dan Phillips Interview with Greener Living Today

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Items that most people might consider worthless, such as discarded picture frame corner samples, old pieces of wood, bottle caps and pieces of bone have special value for Dan Phillips.

Dan Phillips is a man with a combined mission—to assist the working poor and sustain the planet.  He is the founder of Phoenix Commotion—a local building initiative located in Huntsville, Texas—created to prove that constructing homes with recycled and salvaged materials has a viable place in the building industry. They provide low cost housing to target groups of single parents, artists, and low-income families. In 2003, Dan received the award for most innovative housing worldwide from The Institute for Social Invention in London.

He recently agreed to an interview with Greener Living Today. 
 
dan_phillips_lg1Greener Living Today:
Was there anything special about your childhood that contributed to your mission today?
 
Dan Phillips:
I loved going to the city dump as a child, because everything was free.  Over the years I have suspected that indeed one could build an entire house from materials in the landfill.  And, sure enough, it's true. 
 
Greener Living Today:
We were surprised to learn that you have a PHD in dance. Could you explain the role dance plays in your life?  What other elements of your life are unique and different?
 
Dan Phillips:
I do indeed have a doctorate in dance--an Ed.D, rather than a PhD.  My studies in dance serve me everyday on the job site in infinite ways.  I access the sensibilities for design that I developed during my years in dance everyday.  Dance is through and through a non-verbal pursuit, and constructions in dance are predicated on manipulating materials on a non-verbal level.  So it is with building.  While there is a substantial intellectual dimension to building, the designs of my houses grow out of whatever materials are available, and so building materials are manipulated and shaped intuitively as well.  
 
I am basically your garden variety human being, but I have done my best to sample all that life has to offer.  I rode Brahma bulls for eight years; worked as an interpreter/translator in West Berlin in top secret intelligence in the early seventies; I developed logic puzzles and various permutations of cryptograms which were syndicated to newspapers around the country for twenty five years (just closed that pursuit last year); I had a business restoring art and antiques for fifteen years; and I am developing an on-line class for upper-level and graduate students in sustainability.
 
Greener Living Today:
How and why did you make the transition to sustainable living and more specifically, home construction?
 
Dan Phillips:
No one can simply have an epiphany one day and change all elements in life to more sustainable versions.  My wife and I are no different.  We have a tank water heater, but when it craters, we will go tank-less.  We have some wall-to-wall carpeting in our house, but when it wears out, we won't replace it with more--we'll seek out a more sustainable solution.  And so, just like everyone else, it is a gradual process as resources allow.  But it is clear that all of us need to get the transition to sustainable living underway sooner rather than later. 
 
dan_phillips_lg2For millennia humans used whatever materials were available, and built their houses according to their needs.  However, in the last century and a half, we have ever so gradually confused what we crave with what is necessary.  The philosophical, psychological and sociological underpinnings of this are complicated indeed, but it is clear that the planet cannot support our sprawl into consumerism.  For instance, dining rooms typically are used perhaps three times a year as a dining room. We grind up vegetable waste in our disposers and send it down the sewer, but then on Saturday go buy potting soil. We flush our toilets with drinking water.  The list goes on and on.  We have allowed ourselves to become disconnected from primal sensibilities in our quest for the Augustan style of living--which often enough is fraudulent and superficial.  Since the dawn of the species, home construction was "nest building," or "shelter."  But it has become a commodity, marketed by the slicks, and perhaps quite a distance from what we might have as a house were it not for cultural pressures.  In many ways we are abdicating "human-ness" in our homes, and opting for what is "expected," or "standard." 
 
Greener Living Today:
Describe the circumstances that lead to the start of Phoenix Commotion.  Was there a specific event or chain of events that inspired its beginnings?
 
Dan Phillips:
Everyone wants to be a builder.  As children we play with blocks and drape a sheet over furniture to build forts.  I simply never lost track of the fantasy.  During my years restoring art and antiques I developed many skills that would eventually serve me in "recycled building," and it was during that time that I decided if I were going to be a builder, I had better get to it.  The name of the restoration business was "The Phoenix Workshop," a metaphor of the legendary Phoenix bird being reborn from the ashes to live a new life.  And so my wife and I decided to start another "commotion" of the Phoenix in the area of home construction.  We mortgaged our house to get the start-up capital, and we were on our way. 
 
Greener Living Today:
How do you support the project financially?
 
dan_phillips_lg3Dan Phillips:
The Phoenix Commotion is in the private sector.  That is, it is not a 501c3, non-profit.  The idea is that I am trying to prove that a person could make a reasonable living building for the poor, using free materials, and hiring unskilled labor.  And, indeed, it is possible.  If I were a non-profit organization, folks who might otherwise do this would think, "Oh, sure, anyone can do that if you have truckloads of free grant money.  We can't do that.  We're in the marketplace."  The Phoenix Commotion is subject to the same market pressures as any other construction company.  Phoenix Commotion houses cost between $30-40 per square foot to build.  With the going rate of $70-120 per square foot, that's not bad.  The Phoenix Commotion has never been in the red.  I'm not hitting home runs, but the business is self-sustaining. I could increase my income more if I didn't spend so much time (and money) in research and development.  Whatever disposable income there is from the various projects is plowed right back into development.  
 
Greener Living Today:
Do you have any plans to expand to other areas of the country?
 
Dan Phillips:
Part of the mission of The Phoenix Commotion is to demonstrate a model that can be replicated anywhere else in the world.  Every time there is national publicity, I hear from people all over the world--from Tokyo, Thailand and India to Australia, South Africa and the United Kingdom.  Perhaps Americans invented excessive lifestyles, but the problems of waste and affordable housing are worldwide.  I don't always win my battles, but I am keenly aware of what the battles are, and people describe the same battles from all parts of the globe. 
 
So, I won't be expanding The Phoenix Commotion beyond Huntsville, Texas, but I go to great lengths to help others start a commotion in their sector of the world.  The most developed replication of the model is Living Paradigm in Houston, with another well underway in Cooper, Texas, and others in the planning stages north of Baton Rouge, in Indianapolis, Australia, India, and South Africa.  The model is a good one, and can be adjusted to any locale, anywhere.  All it takes is resolve. 
 
Greener Living Today:
Tell us more about the homes you are building in relation to energy efficiency and the use of recycled materials.
 
dan_phillips_lg5Dan Phillips:
Over the years I have learned to focus on energy efficiency.  Infiltration barriers and insulation are major factors, and the houses meet or exceed requirements of the National Energy Code for this area.  There is always lots of thermal mass inside the insulated envelope, and heating/cooling equipment is the most efficient available.  In Texas there should never be a reason to pay for hot water in the summer.  I have solar heating assists to a tank-less water heater--a good combination.  Whenever I can get double-insulated, low-E windows, I of course use them.  But I also make my own windows--no double-hung windows.  I go lean on the windows (below 8% of glazing to exterior wall ratio).  Windows are thermal chimneys.  And so in one of my houses, if you want to see outside, go outside.  With plenty of deck space, there is room for pleasant outside living.   
 
Greener Living Today:
The homes are very artistic and look like they are right out of a fairy tale. How do you develop the building plans?
 
Dan Phillips:
There are two threads that operate in developing plans.  The first is that the plans grow out of the materials available.  At first glance that might seem restricting, but surprisingly it has not prevented me from following the second thread, which is realizing a lifetime of fantasies of how a house could look.  I have more freedom than most architects, because I have practically unlimited materials for free and a low cost labor force.  And so I built a composite of every house that I had ever seen in a story book as a child.  I built a tree house--who doesn't want to build a tree house?  Then often enough the materials available lead to whimsical solutions--relish-plate windows, wooden bathtubs, wine-cork floors, bottle-cap floors, and papier mache floors.  If you allow yourself to be a child again, you realize that anything is possible, or at least worth trying, and then you access the adult part of you to solve the technical problems of achieving the childlike strategies. 
 
Greener Living Today:
You have traveled quite a bit in third world countries. Tell us more about that and if there are any lessons that we can learn from these countries?
 
Dan Phillips:
When you see the little one- and two-room mud huts outside of Cuzco, Peru, the father walks out, then comes the mother, then the kids, then a dog, then a pig, then a chicken, and then the family cow.  Everyone is neatly dressed, and clean, and there is a curl of smoke from the chimney.  No one has ever told them that they are not supposed to be happy.  No one has ever blown glitter in their eyes and schmoozed them into buying food that has no nutritional value, or having a special room for dining three times a year. Often enough in third world countries the reason folks don't have houses isn't because they aren't willing to lift a finger in their own behalf.  The vicissitudes of civil war, persecution, discrimination, and restrictive infrastructures simply prevent it.  We can learn a lot from third world countries.  If they build their own houses, they do it just like humans have done since the beginning of time--use what is available and add a personal touch.  They don't know anything else. Our disadvantage is that advertisers and marketeers are so skilled that we end up buying appointments that have nothing to do with what we really need.  That doesn't mean we all have to live Spartan lives at sustenance-only levels.  But what it does teach us is that we have become disconnected with the pleasures of simplicity, designs that grow from the deeper parts of ourselves, and the joy of accomplishing a nest for our families, with our own hands. 
 
Greener Living Today:
What is Brigid’s Paradigm and how are you involved with the program?
 
Dan Phillips:
Brigid's Paradigm is a homesteading model that grew out of the need to make houses even cheaper than I can build them.  I approached Brigid's Place--a non-profit organization sponsored by the Christ Church Cathedral in Houston--to provide interim financing funds for families that would like to build their own homes (thus, the title of "Brigid's Paradigm").  Candidates need to have good credit or no credit--but not bad credit--a stable job, which can be minimum wage, and $500 to buy their own tools.  The mentor is the liaison with the building jurisdiction and the ombudsman for seeing the project to completion.  The mentor makes sure the builder has plenty of free materials on site for construction, and makes sure the builder knows what to do, and how to do it, but doesn't do it for them.  The houses are minimum square footage allowed by code--which as nearly as we can tell is about 240 square feet for the first or only occupant, with 100 square feet added for each additional occupant.  Not much space, but one person doesn't need more than 240 square feet.  They also get a covered porch (already insulated with electrical stub-outs) that is half the size of the allowed square footage, so that when the family grows, they can add three walls and increase the size of their house by 50%--the way it has been done for millennia.  The first house was built by a single mother and her daughter.  Their payments were $199/month, taxes and insurance included, on a 7-year note.  Brigid's Place eventually decided not to continue the program, and so while the program here in Huntsville is no longer called "Brigid's Paradigm," it is nevertheless healthy as one venue for providing affordable housing. 
 
Greener Living Today:
Are there any new projects planned for the future?
 
dan_phillips_lg4Dan Phillips:
The current project is a residence/studio combination for legitimate artists with a portfolio.  I am using a lot of bone, which comes from local ranchers' bone yards (when a cow dies they drag the carcass to the back forty to bleach in the sun).  The only difference between bone and ivory is that ivory is illegal and bone is free.  Bone is explored in stair treads, balustrades, counter tops, handles, struts--wherever it can be worked in.  And bone represents the most elemental of textures of life on the planet earth. 
 
I will be building an office building for a local recycler, which should be pretty outrageous, since the deal we struck is that he would have no dominion over the design beyond the number and size of offices. I get to do whatever I want--provided of course that I don't violate the laws of physics or the building codes--and I also get to cherry pick anywhere in his salvage yard.  Fun.
 
We are working hard to have plenty of directions and "how-to's" on my website, so that folks can start their own commotions wherever they are, and at whatever scale they would like.
 
I'm working on a book, which is coming along nicely, tentatively titled Primal Congruencies: The Quest for Everyman's House.
 
I speak frequently not only to local and regional groups, but schools of architecture and at sustainability conferences around the nation.  I will be speaking at Austin Community College February 3, at Boston College in March and in Fayetteville, Arkansas sometime in April. 
 
In short, my life is full spreading the doxa, developing infrastructures, and building houses, and, in my mind, my quality of life is unmatched. 
 
Greener Living Today:
In closing, what final words or message would you like to leave our readers with?
 
Dan Phillips:
It is such a privilege to share the planet with other animals and plants.  Buried in everyone is a fantasy of how the world could be, and not a product of calculated strategies and quick-spin solutions.  We can all participate in the full measure of our humanity if we simply listen to deeper murmurs, and rediscover the thrill of realizing figments of our imaginations.  This is within each of our grasps--we simply need the resolve to play.
 
 
You can find out more about Dan and his projects by visiting his web site located at:

http://www.phoenixcommotion.com

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