Circular architecture: Dan Phillips’ recycled homes
In his quiet Texan town, self-taught builder and designer Dan Phillips is waging a personal war on waste.
The homes he and wife Marsha build, mainly for low-income families, have garnered international attention. That’s not just for their quirky design, but also for the principle that underpins their construction – waste is a state of mind.
Phillips believes it’s too easy to dismiss usable resources as junk and for the building industry to specify virgin materials, with all their attendant impacts on the waste chain. Founding his business, the Phoenix Commotion, in 1997, he’s been demonstrating ever since how salvaging, recycling and repurposing materials can create functional and personal living spaces.
There are many whimsical touches: a discarded beer tap from a bar gets new life in a bathroom setting, walls are panelled from old highway signs. Tile shards become mosaic floors and walls.
Even the giant Houston-based Waste Management organisation commissioned Phillips to design the interior of its new recycling education centre, featuring a tile mural, another made from papier-mâché, and a stage floor and chairs made from reclaimed and recycled materials.
No two projects or buildings are the same, with their design inspired by what’s available to Phillips and his team at the time. Phillips even requires his clients to get involved in the design process, as well as construction where possible – it’s all part of his ethos to minimise cost and educate people about the value of repurposed materials.
While some in the building community see him as a maverick, Phillips relishes his freedom to be creative.
“Countless architects envy the freedom that I have,” he says. “They’re designing cookie-cutter houses, strip malls and apartment complexes – miles away from what they thought architecture would be. I get to do whatever I want, subject to code-compliance.”
And that’s the bottom line for Phillips and his team – the houses may look weird and wonderful, but they all have to come up to code. Phillips has taught himself most of the trades required to create his buildings and uses apprentice labour when he needs extra hands. Occasionally, some of the products he incorporates create some functional issues. “I don’t always pass my building inspections the first time, but I’m ready and willing to do what needs to happen to clear the bar.
Phillips says waste in the building industry is part and parcel of the lack of understanding about the value of recycled and repurposed materials. “There is an American neurosis that ‘used’ is somehow ‘icky’. When you stay at a five-star hotel you don’t sleep on brand new sheets. Well, we can launder building materials as well. It is a cultural mindset – irrational as it may be – and very powerful.”
He points to ‘Apollonian’ thinking, which he says is epitomised in the building industry through standardisation. “Builders routinely order 10 percent extra materials to account for mistakes, mismatches and culls. But there’s no infrastructure to receive usable, but unwanted building materials. No contractor’s garage is big enough to store materials that should not be thrown away.
“I had always suspected that an entire house could be built out of what goes into landfill. And, as it turns out, it’s true. Around 10 to 40 percent of the average waste stream contains usable building materials. It seems a bit piggy to be throwing away these materials when there are families who would do anything to own a house.
“The great thing about building with recycled materials is that it too is an organic process; design grows out of the materials, subject to the principles of art and design.”
The Phoenix Commotion is a for-profit business with a social enterprise bent.
“My agenda is to build with recycled materials, using unskilled labour and targeting underserved populations and I’ve proven that you can do this and make a reasonable living; if I was a non-profit organisation people would say I’m doing this with bucket loads of grant money, but I’m subject to the same conditions as any other builder.
“On the upside, 75 to 85 percent of my materials are free. I just lean over by the side of the road and pick them up. I use bottle caps for, example; more steel goes into them each year in the US than autos. From that I can make a dandy floor, a wall covering, a ceiling… I use broken tiles. Just walk through the streets of Pompeii and there are tile shard mosaics everywhere that are magnificent.
“All materials are raw materials. Flaws and imperfections often enough are opportunity for wonderful design. The Apollonian mindset follows market-driven strategies. That’s why all our houses look pretty much the same – geometrical, predicated on the four by eight tyranny, and following the dictates of marketed design.
“Perfection is driven by the marketplace, because that is what machines do – they create perfect and repeatable materials. Advertisers and marketeers seduce us into thinking that is the new and modern way.
“As it turns out, these marketed designs have more to do with manufacturing expediency than human preference. There is a conspicuous absence of organic shape and texture, because machines can’t do that, only people.
“Let’s face it. The marketplace makes it easy and cheap to use standardised materials. That’s what the marketplace does – increase the bottom line. And that’s what architects do – keep the client happy with virtual, walk-through designs.
“Continuing to specify virgin materials is absolutely unsustainable. We are denuding the planet. But architects don’t have an option because their clients are demanding that. We must change the mindset of the culture before we will become sustainable.”
Phillips says, for him, the light bulb moment came after a natural disaster. “When a disaster hits, houses are ruined. Typically, workers come in with a front-end loader and bury it all.
“Three things are in short supply after a disaster – one is a job, another is materials and the third is housing. I thought there was a perfect opportunity to create jobs by deconstructing ruined houses and building new ones out of the materials.
This article also appears in Issue 5 of CWS magazine. Get your free, obligation-free trial of the mag here.