When it comes to housing, it just might be thanks to Phoenix Commotion and Cube Square
by Guest Contributor Rich Heiland
FOLKS IN HUNTSVILLE, Texas can plop down in front of the TV and turn on any number of channels making hay off the new craze for “tiny houses.”
Or, they can just go drive around.
In the past Huntsville had two claims to fame – it was where Sam Houston made his home later in life and it’s headquarters to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, best known as “the prison system.” A couple of times a month folks are executed just two blocks off the old town square and more than one Huntsvillian traveling abroad has been shocked to know Europeans know the small town where. The Italians have dubbed it “La Città della Morte.”
Now, thanks to some local folks, it also can be known as a place of progressive thinking when it comes to the environment, making the best use of our planet and down-sizing our living space.
First on the scene was Dan Phillips, a former dancer and dance instructor at Sam Houston State University. He and his wife Marsha co-own an antiques store.
A few years ago Dan tackled two problems at once. What do you do with perfectly good construction material that goes into landfills and how do you provide struggling artists a place to live? Out of that came Phoenix Commotion. The Phoenix is the mythological bird that rose from the ashes and “commotion” pretty much describes the frenetic style of Dan and his merry band of builders.
The way it worked was that Dan was beg, borrow and scavenge perfectly good building materials that were dumb bound, get a piece of land and build a small house. The idea was that it would be affordable to a struggling artist and as a part of the deal they would have to pitch in sweat equity then pay a reasonable amount to live in the house.
As a result you can drive around Huntsville and see houses that have smashed beer cans for sidings and roofs and cow bones for railings and newel posts and door handles. I currently am saving every tooth paste tube I empty, every toothpaste carton because Dan at some point wants to use them on the ceiling of a bathroom. So it goes. Old CDs have been used on ceilings.
The houses are small, generally 900-square feet or less and are energy efficient, have modern appliances and are very livable. Dan has travelled the talk show circuit and in fact the world talking about how he has done it, and just as important how he has enlisted a community to help him.
THAT WAS STEP one in making Huntsville a center of creative thinking for alternative housing.
Next came Jack Wagamon and his sister, Tina Wagamon Felder. Over on Sycamore Street we’ve been watching for months as massive shipping containers arrived in the parking lot of the family business, Wagamon Printing. Now we can drive by and see colorful, creative housing.
The family printing business was started by their father, Charles (Doc) Wagamon. The Wagamon family long has been a family of creativity and service in the community. A few years ago Jack ran for City Council and won. He was not a popular figure in the minds of what some of us call “The Powers That Be” who have run the town since, oh, about 1845. He ultimately stepped down from the Council but not before TPTB had pressured a lot of clients to pull their printing business.
Jack and Tina didn’t waste a lot of time crying about that. They did what all entrepreneurs do. They went upgraded their equipment, expanded what they can do and went out of town to find new print clients.
And, they looked around at what they could do with a huge parking lot that stood empty.
Bingo. Cube Square.
“I’d been thinking about it for a while,” Jack told me one night while we sat in the living area of one of the 450-square-foot crate units on colorful furniture, sipping whiskey. “Finally we just decided to do it.”
Thousands of shipping containers come into the ports of America’s coastal cities each year and then sit and rust. The Wagamons are not the first to use them for housing, even for retail and storage businesses. It’s been a business on the West Coast for years, particularly in the Greater Seattle area. Jack and Tina figured it if would work there, why not here?
The first phase consists of 16 units, eight per tower. They are all leased out, mostly to students, at $575 a month. A stackable washer-drying can be rented for an additional $25 a month and the tenant pays electric.
“We are only rental to singles,” Jack said. “The appeal is to parents and kids who are concerned about academics. These are people who worry about all the distractions of these huge complexes that have gone up.”
For almost two years Tina has handled design for the units as well as for all the marketing. Jack has been the hands on construction manager. Plans are for maybe one more stack on the Sycamore site, then Jack said he might be interested in moving onto other properties.
ONE OF THE first questions I had was how it all went over with the city of Huntsville. A lot of developers belly ache about the city’s codes and code enforcement, but Wagamon said it has not been a problem.
“First, we didn’t ask for a single variance on any of this. We looked at the code and did it by the code. I’ve been talking with Aron Kulhavey (the city’s director of community and economic development, which includes planning) from the start and he said “cool, go for it.” One of the inspectors told me I really benefitted from having Dan Phillips go first. He said Dan showed them a lot about how alternative housing could be done and still be within the code,” Jack said.
Jack and Tina held an open house recently and a large mass of folks wandered through the units. I was out of town so went by on a quiet evening. I was surprised, having watched a lot of the “tiny house” shows on TV, at how open the units felt. The living area had room for a couch, coffee table, chair and TV. The bedroom had room for a queen bed and dresser. The bathroom and kitchen, while not large, were plenty big enough for one person and, I decided, even for my wife and myself should be so inclined.
No doubt a lot of people would feel the space is too small, but that is a part of being American. I have been in apartments in Europe that are not any larger and no one thinks much about it. In Europe space always has been at a premium and the vast majority of people do not live in American-style space. The European way has always been smaller space, filled with quality stuff. It’s a style more Americans are coming to embrace, even though when you see all the mega-homes still being built it might not seem that way.
I for one think the Europeans have it right. I think Dan Phillips and Jack and Tina Wagamon have it right. I hope they continue to provide more of this kind of house, not just for folks to live in but to provoke thought and discussion about how we ought to be living going forward as our time of infinite space and resources starts to fade.