Tag Archives: green building

Interview in The Bone House, Texas

Excerpt from a video interview with Dan Phillips, founder of the Phoenix Commotion at the Bone House, Huntsville Texas. I’ve posted an intro to Dan’s work here.

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The Bone House, Texas

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Someone else I first came across through Lloyd Kahn and Shelter Publications was Dan Phillips of the Phoenix Commotion. Dan’s organisation, based in Huntsville, Texas, specialises in building affordable homes out of recycled and rejected materials.  When I met him at what is probably his most famous, the Bone House, he told me that, when people first hear about the rejected stuff concept, many think it is ‘icky’. However when they see the houses that preconception changes. By not only utilising, but celebrating the quirks and faults of the materials they have, and by being creative and ingenious about how those materials are used, Phoenix Commotion doesn’t make houses that are as good as anyone else’s, they make houses that are better.

The organisation does good on many levels. The first is to draw attention to the amount of viable building materials that end up inaccessible and no use to anyone in landfill sites. One material hits the landfill it is hard to get it back, but Dan has an ever-expanding network of enlightened suppliers prepared to donate ‘waste’ rather than dump it. Obviously the more firms that recognise the potential of their ‘waste’, the better.

They use apprentice labour, providing their workforce with the training and construction skills they can use to get better-paid jobs within the organisation or elsewhere afterwards. The combination of low labour costs and cheap, often free, building materials means the houses can be kept affordable – within the means of the growing category of would-be home-owners who are struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder and settle. All very good, and tidy.

Last but not least, they put some playfulness back into house-building. There’s a Tree House of course, some others have themes – like the License Plate and Budweiser Houses, and all have touches of ingenious brilliance that also make you laugh – like creating bathroom walls out of smashed mirrors, studio walls out of DVDs, floor surfaces out of metal bottle caps, wine corks, sheets of music, and counters and stair treads out of beef bones. Ah yes, the bones: Not sure about the patio suite, but I love the bone stairs and, as Dan says, the only difference between beef bones and ivory is that beef bones are free.

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Tiny Texas Houses

Obviously once I find Somewheresville, I’m going to need something to live in. The industrial spaces and trashed duplexes being bought for pennies / cents and lovingly restored in Detroit are tempting, mainly because the people involved in reviving the city are so inspiring. The wooden cottages in Hillsborough, North Carolina are pretty as a picture, with enough quirks and antiquity to make them odd and interesting, creaky and atmospheric. And I do like a porch. And the tropical colours, raised elevation and ornate flourishes, verandas and columns of New Orleans Shotgun houses . . . well, ooh la la. However, none are exactly where I would have them. Hence the fascination with mobile / modular / pod / prefab housing. Our route across the USA has been designed to take us to the workshops of as many of the leading practitioners as possible. The stay in Luling wasn’t just to sniff the oil and meet Thomas, as interesting as that was, but to pay a visit to Tiny Texas Houses and meet the founder and owner, Brad Kittel.

I can’t do justice to Brad’s philosophy, justification, ideas and influence – or his tiny gem-like houses in the space of a blog post, but I’ll be writing and uploading lots of footage on both Tiny Texas Houses and mobile, container and reclaimed houses in general (offline but posting online) at a later point. This is a rough taster. Suffice to say I called in unannounced in the hope of a 30-minute chat and left 8 hours later (partly because the car refused to start) which Brad would say was divine intervention and the Hertz rental people would say was the ignition.

The biggest house in Texas is 42,000 sq. feet. Brad is taking things the other way, hoping to “create the antithesis of what America has become to the rest of the world, which is the epitome of excess”. The houses are architectural gems, and mobile; desirable as off-grid retreats but also, increasingly, as primary dwellings for the growing number of Americans keen to divest themselves of stuff. Aside from providing a different sort of housing option, the houses are made from material that would otherwise be in landfills, and re-investing energy and materials – and encouraging others to do the same – is core to Brad’s mission. As he says:

“Our custom Tiny Texas Houses have been designed and built with 99% Pure Salvage. That means that everything from the doors, floors, windows, lumber, porch posts, glass, door hardware, interior walls and even the siding has been saved and re-used to create houses that we hope will last for a century or more. Our small homes built with salvaged vintage materials demonstrate that it is possible to reduce our carbon footprint, simplify our lives, and live in a healthy house that is energy efficient as well as beautiful. Each Tiny Texas House is a unique piece of House Art that will last for the rest of the owner’s lives and for generations to come.”  (See tinytexashouses.com for more inspiring info).

Brad lived all over before coming to South Texas, but there’s something about this hot, dry place with its big skies that either draws or creates people with anything-is-possible big ideas.

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