“Unique” is an overused word, so much so that it appears in overqualified redundancies like “completely” or “very unique.” But, what the hell, I’m going to go ahead and call Dan Philips very unique. Philips, who has worked in army intelligence, and as a dance instructor and antiques dealer, seems to have finally found his calling at age 64: building custom houses out of up to 80 percent salvaged and recycled materials—from construction castoffs like old doors and odd-shaped beams to cattle bones, wine bottles, and license plates. In the TED talk above, Philips, a very witty and engaging speaker with a slight build and bushy handlebar mustache, walks an audience through some of his idiosyncratic designs, remarking on details like eggshells as decorative buttons, salvaged vintage appliances, his own low-tech solutions for laundry chutes and bathtubs, and a surprisingly tasteful “Budweiser House.”
If any of this sounds a bit quirk-for-quirk’s sake, it’s not (entirely). Philips is a man with a serious purpose. As a New York Times profile put it, he is “fervently committed to his vision of building for low-income people,” especially poor, single mothers (Philips’ father abandoned his family when he was 17). A self-taught plumber, carpenter, and electrician, his vision—articulated through his Huntsville, TX company Phoenix Commotion—includes housing that is not only structurally sound, but also architecturally beautiful. “I think mobile homes are a blight on the planet,” he says. “Attractive, affordable housing is possible and I’m out to prove it.” While many of his buyers defaulted on their mortgages during the recent crises, and some of his houses have been “gentrified”—sold to upper middle-class families attracted by the design features and energy efficiency—Philips is still pleased that his construction represents the reality of sustainable design with recycled materials and a building philosophy that transcends the endless vistas of bland nouveau colonials, ranch homes, and shoddy tract housing that seems to stretch across every suburban landscape.
Click here for a slideshow of several of Philips’ creations.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.