For years, Gabriella and Andrew Morrison squirreled away their earnings, their eyes on the prize: a huge house in a good neighborhood on a block surrounded by friends. And, in 2009, that American Dream was theirs. “We did it,” they told themselves. “We’re successful now.”
Just six months later, though, faced with the financial burden of housing costs and the resulting pressure on the family dynamic, they knew that something had to give. An email about the tiny house movement landed in Gabriella’s inbox, and a new plan was set in motion. By the end of the year, the family would sell their massive house and 90 percent of their belongings and move their entire life into a 150-square-foot pop-up trailer—in Baja, Mexico.
During their five months under the Mexican sun, they discovered that good things really do come in small packages. The experience led to a long-standing commitment to tiny living when they returned to the United States, and it also spawned three businesses that entrenched Gabriella and Andrew in a community of people committed to making the world a better place.
Gabriella and Andrew are propelled by their vision for a future where tiny houses solve the world’s big housing problems.
The couple now sells tiny house and straw bale house plans via online stores and produces how-to videos empowering people to build their own sustainable homes and learn to live a happier life with less. While sales of educational products in their online store pay the bills, they make most of their impact through their advocacy. The couple works with states across the U.S. to make building codes more tiny-house-friendly and occasionally advises on rebuild projects with the United Nations.
Here, Gabriella explains how the couple started their businesses with one cheap Costco video camera and zero experience in ecommerce, learning the ropes along the way, and propelled by their vision for a future where tiny houses solve the world’s big housing problems.
Shopify: What did you learn from your first experience living small in Baja?
Gabriella Morrison: We went down with a specific intention of understanding and defining what “home” means. We felt like we had just been going along with the status quo. We realized, to create a home, it really has nothing to do with the materials on the walls or how many possessions we had. We [each] went down with:
- one fork
- one knife
- one spoon
- two pairs of shorts
- two T-shirts
- one pair of shoes
Like, just the absolute basics.
Shopify: How did you get started in the tiny house movement when you returned to the U.S.?
Gabriella: We didn’t want to just fall right back into our normal routine. We really felt like the only way to continue that lifestyle was to design and build a very, very small space that forces one in some ways to experience life from a conscious, minimalistic framework and also incites a lot of contact with our kids.
Andrew went from being a contractor and developer to teaching people how to build, empowering them in the DIY movement.
Shopify: How did your new lifestyle inspire you to build a business around it, and what did that transition look like?
Gabriella: Andrew went from being a contractor and developer to teaching people how to build, empowering them in the DIY movement. We really feel like there’s genetic coding in all of us to build our own shelter. There’s something really powerful and incredible that happens for people, especially when they don’t have any experience building anything. It’s become second nature for us to take the pieces that we knew, and we want to help and teach other people to create a great life.
Shopify: Was there a big learning curve when you started the business?
Gabriella: I knew nothing. My degree is in wildlife conservation and management. I bought a $149 little video camera from Costco. The microphone was a $29 corded kit, so Andrew could never go more than about eight feet away from the camera because he was tethered to it. I had no idea how to edit. I had to teach myself how to use Final Cut Pro. I had to figure out how to create a website. I spent months and months with manuals and just took the time to learn how to do it all myself.
Shopify: Tell me about a moment that was really meaningful to you in your tiny house journey.
Gabriella: In our workshops, we not only teach people the actual how-tos, but also supporting stuff like insurance and financing. Sometimes we will also do an emotional process at the end because for us, it’s really important that we help people create the change in their life so that when they move into a tiny house, it actually works for them. In other words, if people think that they’re just going to build a tiny house and move in and not make changes in their lives, it’s just not going to work.
Shopify: How have you been involved in making change?
Gabriella: There wasn’t a building code that recognized tiny houses before because this was all new. Andrew co-wrote the National Tiny House Appendix, which is a national code that recognizes the definition for a tiny house. We went to the hearings in Kansas City in 2017, with a room full of hundreds of code officials and fire marshals. This was an angry crowd. We had to win two-thirds of that room, and then also win a two-thirds vote of the national co-council officials. This was a massive, massive undertaking.
Shopify: What’s your hope for the future?
Gabriella: My sincere hope is for there to be more of a collective awakening, especially in America, for this veil to lift, and for them to see the consumerist material filters that are in front of us all the time. That is not the way to fulfillment, or to happiness.
Shopify: Do you think we can get there?
Gabriella: I feel very optimistic about how things are going. Even just two years ago, that was not the case. Things have changed for the positive very dramatically. But there’s still definitely lots more work to be done.
Photos courtesy of Gabriella Morrison and Michael Langston