Green Building: Building Homes For The Working Poor

by heather

Can you imagine having a recycled house? I mean, I’m talking about a house that’s almost completely built using recycled, salvaged materials. It’s green building at its finest.

Just let me give you a few images here…imagine a floor made completely out of wine bottle corks. Imagine having windows that are made of old pickle plates. Imagine having a ceiling made out of cast-off picture frame samples. Fun, unique, quirky AND affordable…everything that today’s behemoth McMansions are not.

Can you picture it?

I admit, it might be a stretch for some people. But, this new green building movement is catching on in a big way. How? Well, thanks in part to efforts from organizations like The Phoenix Commotion.

Building Green Houses For The Working Poor

The goals of The Phoenix Commotion are very simple: build affordable homes for the working poor using recycled and reclaimed materials.

Before I go into what The Phoenix Commotion is doing, let’s take a quick look at that word for a moment. Affordable.

What is affordable? Well, if you’re in the stable middle class, “affordable” means $210,000. That’s about the average cost of a house in this country.

If you’re part of the working poor, making minimum wage and barely getting by, the dream of home ownership is completely out of reach. After all, the powers that be in this country seem to think that a home selling for $140,000 is affordable to pretty much everyone.

Tell that to someone making $7.50/hr. To them, $140,000 is just as expensive, and just out of reach, as a $210,000 home.

What we need is truly affordable housing. Housing that anyone can afford. Houses that cost $25,000 or $50,000. Not four times that.

This was the vision of Dan and Marsha Phillips. They founded the Phoenix Commotion to help address three key issues.

What are they doing? They’re building affordable homes for the working poor. Simple. But, each house is built using reclaimed and recycled material. And, we’re not talking some scrap wood here, an old door there. Dan’s goal is to use 80% recycled material in every home.

This not only makes homes affordable, but it also helps keep this good material out of landfills. It’s green building that has the double impact of helping people who really need it.

Another amazing thing about Dan’s homes is that they’re built using unskilled labor. He trains workers to build homes, which enables them to go on to bigger and better things once they’re done. And in case you’re wondering, unskilled doesn’t mean Dan’s recycled homes are trashy (no pun intended) or thrown together. Each one is completely sound, and built to code.

Here’s their mission statement from their site:

  • Reduction of Landfill Burden– While an exact percentage is difficult to achieve, a reasonable estimate would be that 10% of the average landfill waste-stream consists of usable building material. Reclamation is practically impossible once these materials reach the landfill, because of the immense liability involved. Municipal lawsuits tend to be large, and last for years. Most municipalities have simply forbidden salvage activity, to avoid possible lawsuits. There are, however, strategies for reclamation of materials before reaching such finality.
  • Low Income Housing Everyone must live somewhere. However, when a family owns its home, there is a conspicuous increase in overall self-esteem of its members and general family well being, which ultimately leads to positive social results. The venues available to low-income families are rental property, public housing, or sheer luck. Purchase of a home is often out of reach for a low-income family because of the down-payment barrier. Further, low-income families typically have very little positive credit history.
  • Trained Unskilled Labor All workers on after-market houses are hired as unskilled laborers, at minimum wage. Since one minimum wage crew does all aspects of the construction, workers accumulate many marketable skills after a year on such a crew. They are then able to compete for higher-paying jobs. An unskilled crew does not mean “ineffective”, however. New skills come quickly with very little tutelage.

Pretty cool, right? I mean, this organization is building green homes with reusable materials for people who really need them, and they’re training people for better careers in the process. It’s so simple!

Green Building Designs

Dan Philips is way more than a builder; he’s a true artist. His design sense is amazing, and his homes just glow with love and grace. Take a look at some of these images.

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Connection

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Photo courtesy of The Phoenix Commotion

Again, Dan is a sheer genius when it comes to finding creative, artistic solutions for reusing these materials. He’s amazing. I’d love to have a house as visually exciting as this one! Did you notice the wine cork flooring? The wine bottle window? The picture frame ceiling?

It’s amazing to realize that all of this stuff would have been thrown away in a landfill.

Who Gets A Green Home?

Dan helps anyone who has a job, and good or no credit. That’s it. There are no hoops to jump through, and no other eligibility requirements.

There is a wonderful YouTube video on The Phoenix Commotion site that you should check out. The tv journalist is interviewing a man who is working with Dan on his future house.

He describes working with Dan like planting seeds. Dan has planted this seed of goodness in him. Dan’s teaching him the skills to build his home. And this man, in turn, is going to help others with his knowledge.

It’s planting seeds, which bear fruit, that can be used to plant more seeds. It’s how the world changes.

Where To Find Reusable Building Material

On the Phoenix Commotion website there is a wonderfully thorough listing of where you can find reusable building material for your own projects. Here is the list, in its entirety:

    Readily available sources for free and salvage material

  • Flea markets and junk shops
  • Garage sales
  • Classified ads (one can peruse ads for materials offered, or take out an ad requesting materials)
  • Antique shops (hardware often is available at antique shops for a fraction of market cost)
  • Building sites – Simply talk to the contractor.
  • Salvage yards serving demolition contractors. Especially near larger cities, demolition salvage yards have a smorgasbord of building appointments. Search the Internet with “salvage” as the keyword.
  • Auto-salvage yards – Don’t overlook possibilities in auto-salvage yards. License plates make great shingles, for instance.
  • Landfills – These days landfills do not allow reclamation. But occasionally there is one where scavenging is allowed.
  • Dumpsters – Seek out dumpsters that have the best likelihood of usable material, those near building sites, at lumber companies, and institutional dumpsters who would not otherwise have a use for building materials (schools, for instance).
  • Lumber companies and home-improvement centers – All large companies that market building material -wholesale or retail – always have culls, mismatches and cutoffs. Often simply contacting them will provide more material than can be used.
  • Manufacturing industries. Industrial activity usually produces byproducts. Byproducts can range from core-samples, 55-gallon drums and five-gallon buckets, and cribbage, to pipe trims, bales of material (paper, plastic, metal), and sludge. A quick analysis of the byproduct will lead to a decision on usefulness.
  • Landscapers, tree-removal firms, and lot-clearing contractors. Most of the medium-sized firms don’t have enough refuse to market for mulch, and are thrilled to have someone take materials off of their hands. Often enough one can acquire cabinet-grade hardwoods.
  • Natural materials. Mud, sticks and rocks are classic building materials. They’re in your backyard, and on the building site. Coupled with the materials that technology provides (Portland cement, modern polymers, and fasteners), natural materials are surprisingly versatile.

  • Make it known that you are in the market for salvage building materials. You’d be surprised what friends and total strangers locate in their garages for you.
  • Approach the editor of your local paper, and ask that they offer a “free” section in the classified section. The materials advertised would be usable, and free for the pick up. The ads are also free of charge, or minimal. Most editors will recognize the potential of increased readership that a “free” column would encourage.
  • Get to know others who are in the market for salvage and free materials. Trading back and forth increases available inventory by a sizable percentage.
  • Get to know remodelers and contractors. Every remodel job results in usable material left over. They are happy to have someone pick it up, so they don?t have to pay for disposal.
    Recyclable garbage

  • Materials that are otherwise thrown away are often quite useful for many things. Paper sacks (coupled with modern materials) make great wall and floor coverings as papier mache appointments. Glass, cans, plastic, and packaging material are available everywhere. Your imagination is your only limitation, and the resulting design does not have to look like a “Sanford and Son” achievement. It can be clean, tidy, well-designed, and free.
    Search the Internet

  • Many web sites cater to salvage and recycling materials acquisition. We will be adding some links to aid your search for salvage and recycling materials

How You Can Help

There are several ways you can get involved with Dan and The Phoenix Commotion.

You can contact him through his website and donate money. You can sponsor an entire build, or even donate a door knocker. You can buy groceries for one of the families he’s currently working with, or even help pay for the electrician and plumber that must be hired for each project.

Click here to access The Phoenix Commotion’s contact page.

At the very least, please go look at some of his project photos. You’ll get some great inspiration for your own home or future project!

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Beth - Smart Family Tips January 29, 2009 at 7:21 am

This is SO cool! The photos are fabulous.

Aya @ Thrive January 29, 2009 at 10:28 am

These houses are amazing! Who ever thought construction could go green? I would love to see one of these houses!

I came across your blog from a link in your comment on MSN Money and immediately told our outreach coordinator (who runs our blog) because she has been obessing with being green. I knew I had to tell her there’s a green personal finance blog – she thought it was a miracle 🙂
Very cool stuff, very cool!

heather January 29, 2009 at 10:31 am


I know, I almost fell over when I saw them. Dan is a true artist, and he’s doing so much good with The Phoenix Commotion.

Thanks so much for writing in!

heather January 29, 2009 at 10:34 am


I think Dan is based in Texas (around Houston), so if you live down South I’m pretty sure that’s where they are.

I’ve also done a few articles on Micro-home/Small home living. Those homes are incredible; you’ll find them in the “Small Home Living” category here on the blog. They’re green, and incredibly artistic. You might like to see those too!

Thanks so much for the compliment, and for writing in!

Beth @ Smart Family Tips January 30, 2009 at 7:31 am

I really like the cork floor. I’m amazed by how beautiful all this hodge-podge stuff can be.

Great blog, by the way. I found you only recently and have been enjoying reading.

bucket trucks for sale March 27, 2009 at 10:46 am

It is nice to see green building products being used nationally and worldwide, and also the demand for such materials has risen dramatically. We should all be thinking of our planet Earth in any way we can. Just look at the auto industries, boom trucks, bucket trucks, and even crane trucks are going green.

James Blackledge May 13, 2009 at 2:17 am

FREE PICK-UP ON USEABLE BUILDING MATERIALS, is the name of my company in La Salle County IL. I pick-up building materials to sell them cheaply, or give them to as you put it the working poor to build homes. My intention is to be a nonprofit corp. by the end of this year. If you have any ideas on what I can do to to help the working poor better please, let me know. Thank you.
Urgently Needing Help,
James Blackledge

James Blackledge May 13, 2009 at 2:24 am

BTW, for FREE PICK-UP ON USEABLE BUILDING MATERIALSyou can contact me at: [email protected]

Utility Bucket Truck September 30, 2009 at 9:13 am

This is the coolest green house iv ever seen! Also im not sure you could build this house without the help of a bucket truck…go green!!!!!!

Used boom trucks January 27, 2010 at 2:20 pm

Cool pictures!! Not sure I’d want to live there, but the concept is nice. I’d be afraid of the wood attracting termites 🙂 No thank you!

Pole Trailers for Sale March 16, 2010 at 9:56 am

I’m all for green building and such, but this is a little over the top!

Grant House April 14, 2010 at 4:30 pm

I want to see more! and read more! Are there “How to” books available
describing how to incorporate recycled items and natural materials into current building systems and codes? I’d like to prefabricate wall sections and roof sections from recycled materials that could then be made available at cost for projects like this. That way when materials are available, use could be made of them.

Custom Remodelers June 11, 2010 at 2:00 am

Interesting, still has to be given the go ahead by the powers that be though…You said about on green building homes for the working poor.

Donald Obemeasor November 26, 2010 at 11:15 am

Is there any sweepstakes for winning any of the green houses? I would like to enter one.

Nor_Cal February 5, 2011 at 3:28 pm

It’s all illegal to build anything inexpensive here. Just costs of all the endless permits/fees/charges/etc., engineering septic, (before even purchasing anything for it) bankrupts most before they even drive onto their property, and you drown in red tape, bureaucracy, rules/laws/regulations/etc. that they change to suit them from one person/building to the next, etc. It is an absolute nightmare. Property itself is out of reach of most all working here. Matter of fact, they charge $250.00 just to ask permission to apply for a permit, and wont tell you how much permits cost unless you pay that first. It’s a scam, sham, and a dirty rotten shame. Stay away from CA, it gets worse by the day! They’ve even tried, in our county, to illegally go against state laws, so they can get more permit money by making requirements that the state says they cannot require! Most counties here do what they want, and ours goes even further, as to invent new requirements for someone if they want something from them, like extorting a piece of their land by telling them they must donate part of it for public use, or they wont issue permits for them, etc. It’s truly out of control here in CA. They also recently outlawed yurts unless you pay all kinds of fees/charges/taxes/etc., and buy permits, etc. Anything they can think of for more money, they do, and it can change from one person to the next, depending on what they want, who you are, if they like your property and want some, if they want it to stay wild with no structures, if they think the public should have access to it, if they don’t like you, if they think you have money and they can get more somehow, etc. It’s truly a nightmare and gets worse every day. Welcome to the land of the liberals. They think/say they’re doing it for the good of man, but all they really do is make just trying to live, nearly impossible.

Jenny March 15, 2011 at 8:02 pm

I have seen your house in a magazine called “Thats Life” I am really inpressed! I am one of those who are the ‘working poor’. Do u have anyone in Australia who can help me with this type of plan? The Queensland goverment has no general plan for those who wish to build, on a Low income. It is inpossible to get land and a cheap cottage built. Do u have any surgestions? Thanks J Gow

daniel boisjoly April 16, 2012 at 4:39 pm

thanks for such information .i plan to build a small house in the country in the laurentians in the province of québec canada . daniel boisjoly

wajana avid September 18, 2012 at 5:10 am

I am a Ugandan in east Africa, i want to own a house and many others who need houses, how can you help us? as a pastor in that capacity our people and church leaders are all renting houses.

LOIDE April 19, 2016 at 8:58 am

i am a namibian and dont have a place to stay i move from one place to another how can you be of great help

Annmarie Roof May 20, 2016 at 12:49 pm

I have two brothers, my mom, a niece and nephew along with my two sister-in-laws and four other step necies and nephews. My both brothers have ailments, one of my brothers fell of a truck backwards on his head and now have eye problems, my other baby brother fell off a roof and have spine dislocation several times, he does odds and ends jobs where he can find it (usually hard or dangerous jobs that no one else wants to do). I was the only child fortunate enough to of gotten some education, my father was terminally ill, in turn, my brothers could not attend school.

My family lives in Trinidad, West Indies and have lost their home and all their belongings in April 2009, where since, they have been somewhat squatting. One brother have to pay $1500 a month to stay in a little one room with his wife, baby and my mom, where sometime they have food, and at other times the don’t, and my other brother stays in another room for $1200 with his wife, his daughter and his wifes other three children. (one of her children got hit by a truck and passes blood in his urine every so often and gets dizzy)

I have been seeking help for my family without any luck ever since, as I too have lost my job in April 2009 right after they lost their home. I have went to everyone and anyone that I knew of or was told of, in governments, churches, red cross, philgrims in, Samaritan purse, etc., for help without any positive results. Every one just dismissed and/or turned me away.

My mother went without clothing and even an underwear for years. I took care of them before I lost my job. They only got clothes and shoes when I visited and took them some from Good-Will and what I got from strangers I begged. After loosing my job, I am unable to help myself, so its impossible to help them.

I use to visit my family atleast once a year to bring them back little clothing, shoes and other little things where I could, but I haven’t seen them for a good few years now as I myself is unable to make ends meet. I miss my family badly, but I cannot afford to purchase a proper grocery for my own family, much more, for an airline ticket. I desperately need to see my family especially my mother before she passes, but I don’t see that being possible anytime soon. I have been trying to get back on my feet for years now without any positive changes or hope.

My husband was born deaf and needs hearing devices that cost over $6000.00 every couple years due to the severity of his hearing loss, and he is currently in desperately need of a pair now. The government does not help with hearing expenses, and my husband has been and is currently looking desperately for a better paying job, but being hearing impaired, it is very difficult as most jobs involves customer service which is very challenging for him.

I have also been taking care of my granddaughter since she was 2 days old 110% without any help or assistance from anyone or anywhere.

Lately, things have gotten much more desperate for my mom due to the hardship and other difficulties. My mother have to find a place to stay and she is a very sickly person. She has liver problems, high blood pressure, diabetes, hip and joint arthritis, her legs swelling, bursting and oozing on a regular basis, among other ailments. My mom have been looking desperately for a room to live, but all she could find is a one little room for $2000.00 a month in which she cannot afford.

I want to be able to get back on my feet and be able to help my family on a semi-regular basis financially, I want my family to have even a one or two room of their own to live in and to call their own where they don’t have to worry about if to buy food to eat or try to pay the rent in fear of being kicked out onto the streets. I also want to see my family very badly, but circumstances.

I too have been battling severe depression due to my difficult situations, worrying about my family, my husband, my granddaughter, etc., plus I am in desperate need of women’s surgery for my womb and right shoulder surgery to correct a broken dislocated shoulder, but we don’t have the money to get any of this done..

What I am asking is if your company does any work to help poor people in Maraval, Post of Spain, Trinidad, if they can possibly get a room or two built for my family to live in, even under the condition where arrangement can be made that me and my family can pay back the expense over a reasonable amount of time, or if you know other companies that may do this type of work that I can seek help from them. I am desperate and don’t know where else to turn. Any kind of help will be sincerely appreciated. My family needs help, they are hurting and suffering and so am I. Please help me to help them. I know it would take a miracle as my situation vast and impossible all around, but I am grasping at any and all straws.

Please I know I have allot going on, but any little help or positive result would be a bit of hope in me and my family’s situation.



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