Gig Harbor’s Finest Person of the Year: Brett Marlo
By Rachel Kelly
Photo by Samantha Elise Tillman
Life rarely reveals itself all at once but rather presents itself in a series of stepping stones. One decision to the next, we take hesitant steps toward the end goal. Whatever that is, we’re not sure. But we know what we want. It’s tempting to stop outright, as the path develops a mind of its own. Sometimes we’re not quite sure where the path is anymore, so we strike out somewhere new. This ability to move forward, to make a new path by setting down one stone and then the next, takes creativity and innovation. It takes bravery.
This is true of this year’s Gig Harbor Living Local Finest winner: Brett Marlo. She’s been called innovative before, but Brett doesn’t really see herself that way. She’s just trying to do what makes the most sense, not just for herself but for others. Even if what makes sense doesn’t fit into the “one size fits all” life model. Brett’s intention is to inspire others to live a healthy sustainable life by example (walking her talk) and by creating opportunities for all through advocacy, designing and building. This is why small-business owners like Brett are so important. They do something new.
Ten years ago, Brett founded her design company, Brett Marlo Design Build, with the idea of bringing health and quality of life together by designing and building homes. She was learning that a big home and a big mortgage did not fit all lifestyles or budgets. She began thinking how to connect the dots, bringing people, their communities, their health and the health of the community together through alternative housing choices. This was the beginning of the path that Brett would forge as she went along.
Brett then decided to hone her team’s skills by building a tiny house on wheels. This home would house all the functions of a typical home with off-grid capability. You may remember her building this home on wheels in front of her downtown workshop. Or perhaps you had a chance to tour it at its debut in the 2016 Maritime Parade? From that day on, Brett’s tiny home was featured in tours and magazines in Gig Harbor, Tacoma and Seattle. A perfect showcase of what an alternative home looks like; with its plethora of natural light, ample kitchen, sleeping lofts, storage and on/off-grid capabilities, people would walk through and say, “I could live here.”
Like any good leader, Brett recognized that if something was going to change it would have to start with her. She began to take a good look at her own home and the life she was living. She recognized that her lifestyle didn’t quite mirror her personal life and business goals. While it was wonderful to see others open their eyes, hearts and minds to an alternative lifestyle, Brett wanted to start hers. She decided to retire the home that she designed from touring so that she could begin to live a life that she was ready to explore: a life full of many intentional experiences.
It takes a leap to get rid of most of your stuff and live differently than mainstream. While scary, moving into her tiny home did not disappoint. It freed up space in her life for intentional living both in her home and outdoors. Brett whittled down her life to what was most important: family, friends, community and connection with the outdoors. Surprisingly, instead of her world getting smaller, it expanded. With this new knowledge, Brett began to take bigger steps to make tiny and small housing more attainable and feasible, the hope being that alternative housing options would create better lives for our community.
Her goal was obvious: Make housing attainable. But how? Her first step came with her ability to be resilient. After building a few tiny houses on wheels, tiny housing codes changed, now allowing them on foundations, and zoning changes followed suit. This enhanced her business model to support a diversity of small housing types: small footprint and compact designs, detached and attached accessory dwelling units, cottages, mother-in-law houses, tiny homes, basement apartments. All with off-grid/on-grid capabilities. These homes focused on occupant comfort, aging-in-place, excellent indoor air quality, durable low-maintenance materials, maximized storage and usable space with low monthly utility costs. More recently, Brett and her team were honored to renovate Gig Harbor’s Chamber of Commerce. Because it is one of the first buildings that visitors see when coming into Gig Harbor, it was a project that was especially close to Brett’s heart.
Brett began to adventure more in her personal life as well, from training for triathlon races and learning new sports like sprint canoeing to even picking up a new instrument. By far the best part, with less space to care for, she has time for day trips with her family hiking, biking and enjoying paddlesports.
With her unique qualifications, her innovative spirit and her people first mindset, it’s no surprise that Brett serves on a variety of community boards. She is a Gig Harbor Rotarian and the Chair of the City of Gig Harbor’s Design Review Board. She serves on the Codes Advisory Board, Harbor WildWatch, the Downtown Waterfront Alliance Design Committee and the South Sound Collaborative of the Cascadia Green Building Council. She has spoken at the NW Green Building Slam, South Sound Sustainability Expo, Envirohouse, as well as other PNW sustainable events. She also happily contributes to local events such as the Gig Harbor Film Festival and Paddler’s Cup. Brett readily admits that her intentions are not entirely altruistic; she confesses that “the feeling of being connected to our community is life-sustaining.”
And as for the future? Brett has plans of course! She is currently working on a handful of custom stock small house models for different lot sizes and shapes. She hopes that these new models will lower first costs as well as operating costs to make healthy housing accessible while keeping high quality design. The largest priority being healthy and sustainable regional materials. Eventually, Brett would love to build toward communal “pocket neighborhoods.” The focus being affordable living, sharing of resources, intergenerational community and a feeling of connectedness and well-being.
Brett builds with the person in mind; her future hopes rest on continuing to meet needs wherever she finds them. Everything she does she does with purpose of creating solutions for everyday living. It’s something that she does now and will do in the future—no matter the project. If you’re curious to see some of what Brett Marlo Design has dreamed up already, feel free to visit the Welcome Plaza in Skansie Brothers Park.
Regardless of what’s next on Brett’s list of “things to do,” I think we can rely on it being intentional and new. Brett is a person who learns as much as she gives; listening and responding as she goes along. People like Brett remind us that what works for one person may not work for another, and that is perfectly alright. Variety is exactly what makes life so interesting! If the result is beauty, happiness and an abundance of love, then perhaps we could all use a little more intention in our lives.