By Kate Murphy for the New York Times
AMONG the traditional brick and clapboard structures that line the streets of this sleepy East Texas town, 70 miles north of Houston, a few houses stand out: their roofs are made of license plates, and their windows of crystal platters.
They are the creations of Dan Phillips, 64, who has had an astonishingly varied life, working as an intelligence officer in the Army, a college dance instructor, an antiques dealer and a syndicated cryptogram puzzle maker. About 12 years ago, Mr. Phillips began his latest career: building low-income housing out of trash.
In 1997 Mr. Phillips mortgaged his house to start his construction company, Phoenix Commotion. “Look at kids playing with blocks,” he said. “I think it’s in everyone’s DNA to want to be a builder.” Moreover, he said, he was disturbed by the irony of landfills choked with building materials and yet a lack of affordable housing.
To him, almost anything discarded and durable is potential building material. Standing in one of his houses and pointing to a colorful, zigzag-patterned ceiling he made out of thousands of picture frame corners, Mr. Phillips said, “A frame shop was getting rid of old samples, and I was there waiting.”
So far, he has built 14 homes in Huntsville, which is his hometown, on lots either purchased or received as a donation. A self-taught carpenter, electrician and plumber, Mr. Phillips said 80 percent of the materials are salvaged from other construction projects, hauled out of trash heaps or just picked up from the side of the road. “You can’t defy the laws of physics or building codes,” he said, “but beyond that, the possibilities are endless.”
While the homes are intended for low-income individuals, some of the original buyers could not hold on to them. To Mr. Phillips’s disappointment, half of the homes he has built have been lost to foreclosure — the payments ranged from $99 to $300 a month.
Some of those people simply disappeared, leaving the properties distressingly dirty and in disrepair. “You can put someone in a new home but you can’t give them a new mindset,” Mr. Phillips said.
Originally Published Sept. 2, 2009, in the New York Times.
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