Artsy houses prove both communally, environmentally beneficial

One look around Huntsville could tell a person that cookie-cutter structures are a thing of the past, thanks to the help of one prominent citizen and business owner.

Dan Phillips has become well-renowned for his structural creations in and around Huntsville. Since 1999, Phillips has built about 24 projects in Huntsville from the ground up using strictly recycled materials. Each project is complete with a nickname typically assigned to accommodate an unusual component in the house.

“I have always wanted to be a builder, and suspected that an entire house could be built simply out of stuff that would otherwise go to the landfill,” Phillips said. “Sure enough, it’s true.”

Phillips’ projects include many houses, an office building (T.J. Burdett and Sons Recycling), a restroom, and a church (unfinished).

His company, Phoenix Commotion, has won several awards, such as the 2003 award for the “Most Innovative Housing Model Worldwide” by the Institute for Social Invention in London, the 2009 “Beacon of Light Award” by the National Interfaith Council, the 2010 “Edison Green Award” in New York (gold) sponsored by Rutgers University, and the “Environmental Excellence Award” sponsored by the Texas Commission on Environment Quality. In 2014 Phillips was awarded a “Robert Rauschenberg Residency” in Captiva, Florida.

“I started building with recycled materials at the right time in history,” Phillips said. “Folks were simply ready for a change, and I am thrilled to be a part of a larger army fomenting change. While I won’t be saving the world anytime soon, one person can make an awful lot of noise in one lifetime.”

The Phoenix Commotion builds for needy populations. Phillips currently possesses ownership of two of the many houses he has created and rents out. He builds the houses for approximately $40-$60 per square foot and targets selling them to single mothers and low-income families.

“When a client is identified, he can specify a basic floor plan, but, beyond that, he has no control over the design because the design grows out of the materials available,” Phillips said. “So, I get to do anything I want short of violating the laws of physics or the building codes. I have more freedom than any architect I know.”

All of the houses are sold to families in need. The money earned from the sale recoups the money invested and allows Phillips to continue his work.

“The model of The Phoenix Commotion is building from free, salvage and recycled materials, only hiring unskilled workers and building for needy populations” Phillips said. “Once a worker achieves a marketable skill and has the confidence, I push him out the door and find someone else who wants to learn a new trade.”

Phillips spent a large portion of his adult life teaching modern dance and married an artist, Marsha Phillips.

“I have never been more than a stone’s throw from the arena of arts,” Phillips said. “I could not do what I am doing without my wife. She vets my ideas and keeps the family afloat. Her opinion is the only one I can truly trust because she has an outrageous sense of design. With anyone else, I don’t know if they are simply being polite or giving me an honest opinion.”

Phillips occasionally makes an exception and allows artists to rent a place at below-market rates. Before being considered, the artist must have a portfolio.

“Ideas are everywhere—the well spring of ideas is infinite, available to anyone willing to experiment and play,” Phillips said. “But my ideas fail often enough. If failure destroys you, you simply cannot do this. But failure informs success, if you allow it.”

Phillips’s company does tours once a quarter on Saturdays only. The next tour is January 31 at 2:30 p.m. at the Bone House. To attend the tour, you must sign up on

“I love it when folks realize that a “recycled” house doesn’t have to be icky or a slummy-admixture,” Phillips said. “It can be lots of fun, and helping folks own a home is wonderful indeed. Keep in mind that I do not set out to build an “artsy” house. I simply am building with whatever is free using the same processes that other artists use –completely organic. I am proud of all of them, and have at least one regret on every one of them. I would personally live in any one of them. I will be building these houses until I die.”

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