Gabriella Morrison and her husband, Andrew, designed and built their dream tiny house after getting rid of 95% of their worldly belongings. They have lived in their tiny house for nearly 3 years and during that time have been featured on news outlets such as Diane Sawyer World News, The Today Show, Huff Post, Daily Mail, Forbes, PlayBoy, Fox News, Elle Decor, TEDx, and more. You can see more from Gabriella and Andrew Morrison at TinyHouseBuild.com.
When you first encountered tiny houses, you felt that you had come across something you were looking for – “conscious living”. Can you describe what you mean by conscious living, and how it relates to living in tiny houses?
I would describe our lives pre-tiny house as mind numbingly dull. There was a sense, pre-tiny, that we were just going along for the ride of life. It’s not that things were horrible, it’s just that we made day-to-day decisions that didn’t involve a lot of thought and introspection. We found ourselves living in our “dream” home in our “dream” neighborhood but couldn’t understand why, within 6 months of living there, we were so miserable. Our lives turned into a series of “nos”. We had to say “no” to our kids when they wanted to play because we were so busy making money to pay for this bigger house. We had to say “no” to vacations, exercise, couples time, etc. because our energy now went into a house that was much bigger than what we actually needed.
Right at this time, we received an email from someone with the sig file: TinyHouseBlog.com. Having never heard the term “tiny house”, I became intrigued and visited his site. It didn’t take long for both Andrew and I to become inspired and determined to create a radical change in our lives.
Within 6 months, we had gotten rid of the house, the extra car, about 75% of our worldly belongings, bought a pop up tent trailer and moved to the beaches of Baja, Mexico with the money we had made from selling our things. Our goal was simple – to learn what defines a home and to see how little we could live with and still be happy.
In living with the least, we experienced the most. The most joy, sense of well being, calm and openness that we had ever felt. Determined to bring back this sense of conscious living into our day-to-day lives in the US, we committed to designing and building a tiny house. To have a refuge that would support our dedication to living a life that supported our mind, body, and spirit.
When you transitioned into tiny house living, you got rid of 95% of your belongings. Was that difficult? How did you decide what to keep and what to get rid of?
It was at first, but only because we didn’t know where to even begin the process. At the time (2010), there wasn’t a ton out there about downsizing so we created our own technique and called it the 365 Day Rule. The guidelines were simple: we must take out EVERY single item we owned out of EVERY single drawer, nook, and cranny and if we hadn’t used it within one year, we had to put it in a pile. By the time we were done our garage floor was covered 2′ deep in accumulated junk. The more we got rid of, the easier and more fun it became.
Most people don’t realize (we sure didn’t) that material possessions have not only a physical but also an emotional ‘weight’ to them. We hear time and time again how free people feel once they start getting rid of their possessions. The same was true for us.
You’ve got a 11-year old daughter. How do you balance living off-grid with the responsibilities of being a parent?
Our daughter is now 16…time flies! She was 11 when we moved to Baja. We also have a 19 year old son who was going to school in Colorado to play ice hockey when we went to Baja. Today both kids live with us on our 5 acres. Our tiny house is home base for all of us. It has the only kitchen, bathroom, and hang-out area on our property so they are in our 207SF tiny house a lot. At night they have their own tiny cabins for sleeping in and that has worked perfectly for us.
We are a really close family. We always have been. Both Andrew and I have worked from home for most of their lives so we are all used to spending a lot of time together. One of the reasons our family suffered so much when living in that large and expensive house was that everyone scattered to separate corners of the house and in turn that had a deletirious effect on our dynamic. We do better in small spaces that invite/force contact and communication.
Tiny house living has helped you learn about what you really need, and experiencing real freedom and contentment. How has living in a tiny house encouraged these discoveries?
The most eye opening experience we had in this regard was during our 5 months in Baja. We went down with next to nothing: 1 fork, spoon, knife, cup, plate, bowl each, 5 spices, very basic cooking supplies, 1 pair shorts, pants, bathing suit, 3 shirts, 2 shoes. A couple deck of cards, backgammon board, couple books, guitar, frisbee, and SCUBA diving gear (we had all just gotten certified).
We had no cell reception, had canceled our social media accounts, and went down with the intention of ripping ourselves away from our addictions to screen and “busy-ness”.
The first month was HELL. Truly, for all of us. We considered coming back home because we feared we had made a drastic mistake. One day though, something suddenly shifted for us. A veil lifted, and we saw the incredible paradise that we were living in. From that point on, we were free to enjoy our lives to the fullest. We needed next to nothing in order to find that happiness.
When you moved into your tiny house, did you put any of your belongings in storage shelters? Do you advocate for storage facilities, for people in transitional states?
Lol. Yes, we had a pretty large storage unit that we put things into when we got rid of the house. We stored things like furniture, clothing, books, kitchen supplies. Just lots and lots of stuff (and this was after we had gotten rid of so much already). We thought…”OK, these are the REAL necessities in our lives. We’re done downsizing” So when we came back from our trip to Baja and opened our storage unit, we were shocked to see the things that we had found to be so “necessary” before.
We realized instantly that we had changed dramatically and that the people that had packed up those boxes were not the same people that were now going through them. It took us about 2 years to finally downsize out of our storage unit.
I think that downsizing may actually be a nearly endless process! We did spring cleaning this year and I was amazed at how much stuff we ended up getting rid of despite us living in a tiny house.
I advocate for people being honest and for doing whatever they need to do to reach a place in their lives that feels good for them. For us, having a storage unit for a while was a piece of our emotional journey and we learned a ton during that time.
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Marie Kondo talks about objects that bring joy, in her book The Life Changing Magic Of Tidying Up, as a criteria for deciding what’s important. Is this similar to your own decluttering process?
Such a great book. I could see how that approach would be so helpful for so many people. For some reason though, my approach to belongings is much more pragmatic. Something is either useful or it isn’t. I don’t really have belongings that bring me joy. If they serve a distinct purpose, I’m grateful to have them.
It’s interesting to reflect on this because before our downsizing process, I hung on to tons of things because I had an emotional connection to them. I was the person that had all my childhood toys, clothes, artwork, etc. So it came as a surprise at how easy it was for me to let go of things. I was even able to consolidate my heirlooms to one small box which represents the best- of-the-best of my childhood memories. Of the thousand of items that we got rid, I don’t have a regret about a SINGLE thing that is now gone from my life. Not one.
Can you recommend any apps or websites for downsizing your home, even something as simple as a Google Spreadsheet detailing what you already have and what you need?
Really the best tool that we have come across for downsizing is that 365 Day Rule I mentioned. That process is just so clear cut and easy. I think most people would agree that if they haven’t used something in a year that it’s likely not actually all that important. It’s a fast, easy way to get rid of a lot of stuff while people start becoming familiar with their relationship with material possessions.
One of the things that make your tiny house workshops unique are courses on time and stress management. Is it stressful, downsizing your life? What are some tips you could recommend, to help negate that stress?
We feel that the emotional part of downsizing, building, living tiny, etc. is the most important part and is so often overlooked in workshops. Most of us have been raised in a society that tells us that success is measured by the car we drive and how much money we have. That large houses are what a happy family should strive for, and that material possessions will bring us a sense of fulfillment and joy. These messages are everywhere.
Most don’t realize how strongly they’ve been indoctrinated by these messages until they begin to make significant changes and to downsize. Nearly everyone we know that is now living tiny went through a pretty intense process that required some soul searching.
All sorts of fears and doubts can come up when stepping into this lifestyle. It’s also not unusual for friends and even family to have strong reactions when they see someone they love go through a radical life change like moving to tiny.
We are big proponents of people doing a lot of introspective work when they are breaking away from the model that they have lived in for most of their lives. Fortunately, there are a lot of really useful and easy emotional tools that can be applied during those times.
What are some of the personal benefits you’ve derived from living in tiny houses?
Living tiny essentially forces me to live intentionally. I don’t get to just go blind and numb anymore. Everything has it’s place and requires me to put it away. I don’t have space to just go buy stuff that is not necessary so the cycle of waste and squander has ended. My relationship with my family is better than ever because we have to deal with things as they come up. The money and time saved from not having to pay for housing (we paid for our $33,000 build in cash) now goes into savings as well as travel funds. I have everything that I need in these few hundred square feet. All my needs are met and I don’t feel like I’m sacrificing anything.
What are some of the societal and environmental implications of minimal modern living?
Did you know that on average, a person works for 2.3 days out of their 5 day workweek to make the money to pay for the house that’s bigger than they need and that they don’t spend that much time in because they are so busy working to pay for it? Once people free themselves from the shackles of mortgages and high housing costs, a lot of things can open up.
Also, the environmental implications of living tiny vs in a conventional house are huge. The amount of raw materials that it takes to build a tiny house are a mere fraction of that needed for a full scale house as is the amount of resources that it takes to condition the space.
I think that if people could get to the point of seeing for themselves that they can live tiny and have all of their needs met, without sacrifice, and for a fraction of the cost, they would be lining up to create this new and empowering lifestyle for themselves.
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