My Summer With a Phoenix: Home Sweet Home
By Sabrina Bedford. Sabrina is a sophomore and writes for the Stanford Arts Review.

August 30, 2011 11:00 am

This is the fifth of Sabrina Bedford’s posts about her arts internship in Houston, Texas and sixth of her columns for the Stanford Arts Review. Sabrina has been working with Dan Phillips – an artist, a builder of houses largely made out of recycled and salvaged materials, and the founder of the building initiative Phoenix Commotion. Read Part I, Part II, Part III, and Discovery Green.

Home Sweet Home

Phoenix Mosaic

In small town Huntsville, Texas, Dan Phillips’s name is well known. Dan has built several homes using recycled materials, oftentimes what other home builders have considered to be garbage. Within these homes, Dan has managed to produce efficiency and beauty, all within the confines of strict safety codes.

This week, I have been lucky enough to stay in Huntsville (just a few hours north of Houston) with artist extraordinaire Edie Wells. Edie, my former high school art teacher at the Fort Worth Academy of Fine Arts, is now one of the artists working on the Memory Wall at Smither Park in Houston. Edie and her family live in the Bone House, a house Dan and his crew built that more than lives up to its name.

There are bones everywhere. The kitchen countertops are cow ribs cut to squares. The handles on the doors, drawers and cabinets are also bones of various sizes. Each room is unique. The house, originally built to host three artists (with a large art studio in the back), has three different living quarters. One floor is made of wine bottle corks, and has a slight bounce to it. Another is made of bottle caps. The kitchen floor is a colorful mosaic of wood tiles, scattered in a semi-controlled chaos, only to blossom to the shape of a phoenix, the symbol of Dan’s mission. One of the rooms has a wall that folds in and out, and can disguise itself as a bookshelf. Other crucial elements in Dan’s houses are the secret compartments—he wouldn’t tell me where they are, he said, because then they wouldn’t be secrets. There is one restroom in which you must be very comfortable with yourself to use. The floor, walls, ceilings and door are covered in shattered glass mosaic. It’s an eerie experience, the lights bouncing off in every direction, your own face broken up like a Picasso painting.

Cork floor...literally

The entire Bone House, now adorned with art work by Edie’s students, Edie’s own artwork, art from Edie’s travels to Africa, and found and hunted deer heads, has an atmosphere that is anything but typical. A colorful mix of artwork, found objects, antiques, new additions, the studio, garden, and home are all places worthy of exploration. After a few days, you might even get used to the bones.

Story Book House

Dan’s other houses, which I also have had the opportunity to visit, are hard to beat. The Tree House, nestled in a tree 35 feet above the ground, with a connecting studio and other living quarters, was simply exquisite in the dwindling day light. Built on a tree Bois d’arc that won’t rot, be eaten by termites, and lasts an incredible amount of time, this home is sturdy. Dan believes that a person does not need a lot of space to be comfortable, and this house is a perfect example of that. The rooms are small but wonderfully cozy. Dan is careful to make use of the view around the house. The City Hall is only a few hundred yards away, but you would never guess that, with the crowds of trees hugging the windows and balcony. The studio, just across a short bridge (under which sits a sizeable courtyard, full of children’s toys and swings) is a beauty in itself. The ceiling is made of frame samples, all fitted together in various colors, some glimmering and golden in the setting sun. One of the walls has several round windows, and with a closer look, you can see that the windows are actually relish plates, sparkling and letting light spill in from all directions.

The Tree House | The Studio

By simply exploring these houses (I’ve only visited four of the 11 in Huntsville), I could see the development in Dan’s skill and style. They are all built with the resident in mind and all made to last. Making use of the rising and setting sun, of the ground levels already there and of the trees nearby (that provide ample opportunity for support), each house is unique to its current owner. Each has a name and a substantial amount of love and care that makes every floorboard and door knob something special and meaningful. One of the hardest things I’ll have to do this summer is leave these wonderfully atypical homes and return to the ones in which almost every American kid has grown up. But Dan has proven not only the beauty of a recycled and handmade home but also that any house can be a home, no matter how small or big, cookie cutter or completely original. It takes a special resident to make any of these homes their own, to make it beyond a normal house or just like any other.  This is simply a new way to live.

The Tree House

To learn more about Dan and Edie, check out his website.


Sabrina Bedford is currently a sophomore Stanford University double majoring in English and art practice. She hasn’t stopped drawing since she was two, and doesn’t plan to stop any time soon. Sabrina is the editor of the Theater section of SAR.