Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Our visit with Dan Phillips
I'm just as lucky as lucky can be... I emailed Dan Phillips of Phoenix Commotion to see if we could come for a visit, he said come on down, and everything fell in to place to jump in the car that very day and drive on down to Huntsville, TX for a tour.
We learned SO much and experienced a huge paradigm shift just laying eyes on what he has created. It seems very deeply ingrained in us that a)houses are expensive, b) only the chosen few can build houses, and he blows that all to shreds. He says that houses can be affordable and $120,000 is not affordable. $20,000 to $60,000 is. He built a house with a single mom and her monthly payment, taxes included, absolutely everything included, was $199 a month.
Not only is he hell bent on changing this problem for the shelter-poor and disenfranchised of Walker County ("the poorest county in Texas", he said) by building one house at a time, he's empowering all these people who may also be skills-poor by building the house with them. They build the house with him from the ground up. They do absolutely everything. They get their electrician's license, their plumber's license. It may take a year to build their house, but at the end of that year they'll have a house that's cheaper than paying rent on an apartment, and the skills to get a good job. That is just so brilliant.
What I loved about Dan was that he is just really a do-er. He's not really that interested in bemoaning how messed up the system is. I mean, he'll talk a little bit about that, but mainly he just wants to get to work. And he's not just doing this work because he thinks he should... building is completely his passion. He says he works 7 days a week, because it's what he wants to be doing. He loves it.
He said in the first few months of starting this business, after putting the word out that he needed cast off supplies, whatever was left over from other building sites, he was overwhelmed with donations, so much so that it took him five years to recover and get it organized. He said they could easily build a house each week with all the materials that they get, if they could move that fast. And the materials are all sorts of things.... the average sort of course and then he lucks into beautiful stained glass windows that were destined for the landfill, turn of the century wrought iron gratings, license plates (which he used to tile a roof)... and then of course there's all sorts of stuff that he gets a notion to use like the bottle caps and wine corks, and we also saw hickory nuts and egg shells (!!) (he uses them decoratively), and bones, lots of bones. We met him working on his bone house, which due to some mysterious circumstances had burned to the ground earlier that month. But he said, "If there's one thing I'm good at, it's rising from the ashes". He says the only difference between bones and ivory is that ivory is illegal. Also, he said that you go to any farm around there and ask them to point you to the boneyard and they'll show you a big pile of bones. This seemed so creepy to me to begin with but when you pick up a bone and realize how incredibly strong, hard, and versatile it is... it makes sense. It all makes sense.
So how can we cause a Phoenix Commotion sensation across the nation? This is just so fabulous. I would love for people to be doing it EVERYWHERE.
In my little corner of the universe, I had the idea of building a playhouse as a class with some kids, out of reclaimed materials, of course. And then we could donate the house to a school or low income family who would enjoy it. Don't you think that would be a cool experience for a kid in their formative years? I really want to do this, I'm a bit flummoxed as to how to start, but I just wrote Dan about the idea so hopefully he'll give me a little insight. He can do this with the big people, and I can do it with the small. Got to start somewhere.