Good Deeds

Surreal Estate

UPDATED 03/25/2002 at 01:00 AM EST Originally published 03/25/2002 at 01:00 AM EST

Jim Tullos's new house has five bedrooms, 2½ bathrooms and a sundeck. But it's that Budweiser barley and hops design on the front gable that makes it stand out.

An ad for the beer company? No, a testimonial to the ingenuity of Dan Phillips, who constructed the 2,300-sq.-ft. Victorian-inspired house in Huntsville, Texas, his second in four years, almost entirely from material headed for Dumpsters and dumps. Having built it on the cheap—for an estimated $88,000—he was able to sell it to Tullos, his '$6-an-hour foreman on the project, for $100,000. "I don't know many 32-year-old guys that have a house like this," says Tullos, who moved in in December with wife Katy, 27, their two young children and Tullos's father, Jim.

"Ten percent of the average landfill is reusable building material," says Phillips, 56, an antiques restorer turned builder who has spent much of the past six years looking for salvageable gems so he can help house working people who might otherwise be unable to afford a place. "In a town this size, about 30,000 people, we throw away enough material to build a house every week. When we have families who can't afford a home, that's the height of arrogance."

Because form must follow foraging, Phillips's creations—all built to code—feature such oddball touches as hickory-nut doorknobs and skylights that started life as sliding-glass doors. "Just because you're building with salvaged materials," says Phillips, "doesn't mean you don't have an array of design choices."

To make the houses even more affordable, Phillips hires unskilled workers at minimum wage and trains them on the job.

Growing up in Littleton, Colo., the youngest of three children of George, who owned a lumber company, and Phoebe, a homemaker who died in 1979, Phillips developed his penchant for creative recycling by visiting the local landfill as a child, building a bicycle from scrap at age 14. "Once you realize you can create stuff," he says, "it bleeds into every corner of your life."

While pursuing a master's degree in dance at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Phillips met wife Marsha, now 58 and a high school art teacher. Married in 1969, they have two children, fighter pilot Ian, 30, and law student Phoebe, 28.

Phillips, who taught dance at his alma mater for much of the 1970s, segued into antiques restoration in 1983. By 1996, when a pair of inexpensive lots near his home went on the market, he was ready to fulfill a long-held dream of helping the less fortunate. With Marsha's okay, he mortgaged their four-bedroom ranch-style home to help finance his house building. "It's very hard for most people to put yourself on the line," says Marsha, "but he's never afraid to try something, and never afraid to fail."

Phillips began construction in 1997 and 18 months later had completed a three-bedroom, two-bath Victorian home with a high-backed, free-form bathtub and a foot-long Osage-orangewood faucet. Its unique look transformed bookstore clerk Annie Zellar, 44, who moved in with beau Peter Grivich in June 1999. "I'm real quiet," says Zellar, who paid $68,500 for the house, "but this house has taught me to be more creative and extroverted."

Phillips, who has prevailed on several major corporations—including Anheuser-Busch and the Weyerhaeuser lumber company—as well as smaller local businesses to donate material, plans to increase his output to four projects a year. On the drawing board: a house shaped like a mushroom cluster and another inspired by Mother Goose. "You'd be amazed," says Phillips, "at the number of people who want to live in a shoe."

Jason Lynch
Gabrielle Cosgriff in Huntsville

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