Amanda Gunawan cover

What is sustainability? Amanda Gunawan is an architect who is dedicated to sustainable development, inspired by Japanese culture. In this episode, Amanda tells us about her perspective on sustainability and how architects can build spaces that last through their design choices. Although she does not design tiny homes, there is a lot of crossover in ideas with the tiny house movement that we can learn from and incorporate into tiny house design.

In This Episode:

  • Amanda’s design philosophy
  • Wabi-sabi and sustainability
  • Minimalism and designing spaces to evolve
  • Designing for mental health

Links and Resources:


Guest Bio:

Amanda Gunawan

Amanda Gunawan

Amanda Gunawan is the founding partner of boutique architecture and design firm OWIU studio. Known for her signature Japanese-inspired design ethos, Amanda is dedicated to sustainable development, which she believes is twofold: preventing construction wastage and creating spaces that last. In 2022, Amanda was included in both Architectural Digests’ 10 Asian American Creatives to Watch and Design and Architecture Magazine’s Architects to Watch respective lists. Amanda is originally from Singapore and obtained her bachelor's degree in architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, receiving the prestigious merit thesis prize.

Amanda Gunawan on Instagram

OWIU Design on Instagram

This Week's Sponsor:

Tiny House Summit

The Tiny House Summit is an online, completely free event happening the weekend of November 4th. The Summit includes 30 expert speakers, many of which are some of my favorite past podcast guests. Each speaker talks to me in a 30-minute, laser-focused session to help you plan, build and live tiny. While the event is completely free over the weekend of November 4th, you do need to register in order to attend. Make sure to head over to to register!


More Photos:

Why should we go on vacation to relax?

Building spaces to withstand change is sustainability

These bricks wanted to be bricks


How people will use the space is a huge consideration in designs

Minimalism and sustainability go hand in hand

Amanda leaves room for the occupants to decorate to their own tastes


Amanda Gunawan 0:00

The whole process of building the house was evaluating the past, and then looking at the future, and then now in the present. How do we meld those things together? And given the technology that we have, how do we bring these materials and innovate?

Ethan Waldman 0:14

Welcome to the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast, the show where you learn how to plan, build, and live the tiny lifestyle. I'm your host, Ethan Waldman, and my guest this week is Amanda Gunawan from OWIU Studio. Known for her signature Japanese inspired design ethos, Amanda is dedicated to sustainable development. And in this conversation, we talk about designing minimalist spaces, Designing Spaces that last, what that means to her and just keeping sustainability in mind when you design. Amanda doesn't design tiny houses, but I think that there's a lot of crossover and things that can be learned from just hearing conversations with other designers who incorporate different design aesthetics into the work that they do. I hope you stick around.

But first I want to remind you that my free Tiny House Summit is fast approaching. The Tiny House Summit includes 30 expert sessions, many of the speakers are past guests on the podcast - some of my favorite past guests - and these are 30 minute lightning focus sessions to help you plan build and live tiny. The whole thing is happening the weekend of November 4 and registration is completely free. The catch is that you need to be registered in order to attend so make sure to head over to to register for the free Summit. Again, that's I can't wait to share the Tiny House Summit with you. I'll see you in November!

All right, I am here with Amanda Gunawan. Amanda is the founding partner of boutique architecture and design firm OWIU studio. Known for her signature Japanese inspired design ethos, Amanda is dedicated to sustainable development, which she believes is twofold, preventing construction waste, and creating spaces that last. In 2022, Amanda was included in both Architectural Digests’ 10 Asian American Creatives to Watch and Design and Architecture Magazine’s Architects to Watch respective lists. Amanda is originally from Singapore and obtained her bachelor's degree in architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture, receiving the prestigious merit thesis prize. Amanda, welcome to the show.

Amanda Gunawan 2:43

I'm so glad to be here. Thank you for having me.

Ethan Waldman 2:46

Yeah, you're very welcome. And and as we were talking before we started rolling. You know, we'll put it right out there. You don't design tiny houses. And, and that's okay. Because I think that there's a lot of crossover and a lot of things that we can be inspired by and learn from, in terms of of the design work that you do.

Amanda Gunawan 3:08

Totally, totally, like, that's kind of what we believe in with architecture and design as well. Like, I don't think it's that specific, you know, like, maybe to just start off like people always ask us like, "Well, what kind of aesthetics do you guys do? Like, What style do you do?" But the thing about style is that we're we're not trying to coin ourselves in a type of like, aesthetic look, like we don't design based off of a physical outcome in mind, okay? Like, we're always we, we embody, like philosophy, and as long as something is built with that philosophy, then to us, that's our design. And that's how we're going to approach things. And that's something that's way more like everlasting, like, that's something that we can grow with, versus, yes, putting yourself in this box and saying, "This is the kind of style that I want." For us style is always changing, like a physical outcome, like our projects, as you can see, they like very in terms of aesthetics, but at the end of the day, we very much embody still thoughtful design and careful craftsmanship, which is exactly what we believe in as a firm.

Ethan Waldman 4:27

Nice. So can you talk about some of the elements of Japanese design that that inspire your work? Because I think I definitely know that there, there are tiny house folks out there who are also really inspired by Japanese design, and I think it would be, it'd be interesting to just teach people about what some of those principles are.

Amanda Gunawan 4:48

Absolutely. So I would say the most pivotal moment for me was somewhat in 2016. It was a trip and 2016 or 2015. I went to Japan for the first time and actually wasn't for the first time. It's funny because before this, before we started recording, we had talked about how every travel experience like would, it's how much you take away from it, right? Like traveling is amazing. If you are able to, like look not just see, like, if you're in that state, then you are able to absorb a lot from it. And so I was in that state. Finally, I think I was definitely old enough to do that. 2015. And I was probably in my third year of college architecture school. And so I was able to really, like I had done all of the theory work. And so I went to Japan, this was probably like my fifth time, but that was the one trip where, the first trip that I was able to really appreciate everything that I was seeing. And so like, I was just in awe, by the way that people operated. Like I went to all the spaces, architectural spaces that I had learned about in textbooks, but it really could not hold a candle to seeing them in physical form. Because there's only so much that you could read about the theory of these things. But when it comes to careful craftsmanship, right, it's about seeing it in person, it's like understanding that the architects did not scrimp on any type of detail.

Ethan Waldman 6:32


Amanda Gunawan 6:32

It's knowing that, like, they had the choice to take a shortcut, but they did it. And it was with that amount of respect that I really delve deep into, like the philosophy of Japanese architecture, and just Japan in general, like how they operated. And so I saw this in not just architecture, but in every single thing, right, and packaging, and food in the way that they presented all of their items just in their way of life. And so like just talking to the locals and just reading up on this and like, like doing my own research and like, I just figured that, like people in Japan, like they're, they're never like, when they do something, it's always because it's like a duty, you know, it's like, it's like when they're designing something, they want to design the best thing to the best of their ability, versus try to do it for profits, or try to do it for any other reason, except for like the duty as a designer. So like, it's someone gave me this example of like, people and all over the world, like, when they work at a coffee shop, like they want to be manager, they want to be the boss, they want to do their own thing or something. But people in Japan when they work at a coffee shop, all they care about is to make the best damn cup of coffee. And that's their job. And so, like, I really respected that. And I really respected like, like, I guess the sense of responsibility to the act of doing. And with that, like we kind of like we took that philosophy. And that's exactly how I wanted to live my life, how I wanted to operate the firm, how I wanted to just operate as a designer. And so with that we came in and we applied that philosophy to everything. And I would say that that is the most quote unquote "Japanese" thing that we took away from Japan and brought and made it our own. Of course, there are other things that were inspired by it's more aesthetic and more physical that you see, like light wood and clean minimalist, like design, not trying to populate with things that you don't need. I'm trying to stick to raw and organic materials. There is an aspect to Japanese design that is very, like it's about they really value the negative space, they value emptiness. They see that as like a form of possibilities versus like, there's no personality.

Ethan Waldman 9:12

Got it. Yeah. And one kind of I believe it's a Japanese design principle that that the person who helped me design my tiny home, taught me about as it's called wabi-sabi, which is kind of like, imperfect. It's kind of like embracing imperfection or totally perfection through imperfection.

Amanda Gunawan 9:32

Totally. Absolutely. I think it's also very forward thinking, like people think that wabi-sabi, there's like this whole thing of like, is that like an abstract philosophy, but it's not. It's actually very forward thinking. It's future oriented, sustainable. Like when you think about the word sustainability, right, like, everyone immediately relates the really tangible things like, the solar panels or like ventilation and stuff like that.

Ethan Waldman 10:00


Amanda Gunawan 10:00

But really what is the word sustainable? It means to plan for the future, that you are basically thinking about the future. And so, in Japanese design, like it's about that, right, it very much is sustainable, because they are building for the future and wabi-sabi as well. Like they are accounting for the imperfections, or the growth or the aging process. And they're embracing that and taking that into consideration, when they are designing like, that is actually part of the, like, the uniqueness of the product, like you and I can get the same product and in years to come, our products will look completely different because of this aging process. And when when we choose raw materials, when we choose organic materials, like we were embracing that we love, we love that element, we love that aspect to it, we're not trying to, like perfect things in that sense.

Ethan Waldman 10:56

And, and I think that, that there is definitely our strong ties to the idea of minimalism. And that's, you know, people who come to the tiny house movement are, they're not always doing it because they want to become minimalist, but it definitely involves some level of minimalism. How, how does that, how does minimalism you know, factor into your your design work and some of the kind of ethos of your, of your firm.

Amanda Gunawan 11:27

So, what we believe in is we care about building designs, putting designs out there that are built to evolve, and not just built to last. And again, what that means is that we are basically where we're thinking about the future, right, we want a space that is, is not narcissistic, where it's kind of like, oh, this is our design, and it's going to stand the test of time. And it's going to stay that like this. And that's it.

Ethan Waldman 11:53


Amanda Gunawan 11:54

And so that's not our ethos, like our ethos is about already planning for the future, leaving things somewhat empty, so that somebody can come in, like these inhabitants who come in and inject their personalities, the way that they, like, interact with this particular space, to basically turn it, like add new life to it, turn it into a new thing. And then the next person can do the same, and so on and so forth. So that's us accounting for growth. And so that's how we view minimalism as well. Like, we don't leave things, we don't decorate things, we don't over decorate. But we also don't decorate to the maximum Right? Like we're leaving, like emptiness, we're like, we're allowing the space to grow and blossom together with the person who's actually going to use the space.

Ethan Waldman 12:47

Nice. You... I really like this thread. And this this idea. Can you give some, like maybe specific examples of how that has, like played out in in some projects that you've worked on?

Amanda Gunawan 12:59

Yes, of course. So we have, like a, like, one of our latest projects is this house in Mount Washington. And so what happened was that the so this was like, our project, like we developed it from start to finish.

Ethan Waldman 13:16


Amanda Gunawan 13:17

And so we saw this house, and it was an old house, like it was a mid century modern house, beautiful, but like completely abandoned, right? Like, just not taking care of, it looks as if like, like, when you're in LA in the property market, like you're fighting with developers who are just looking at profits. So they're coming in, and they're already like, they're putting in numbers that you know, like, okay, they probably want to tear this whole thing down. And for us, like we saw so much potential in that we're like, we're so tired of people doing it that way. We're so tired of people just like not being able to embrace like, what, what, what was happening in the past and what has been done, because things I mean, there are things to be said there are things to like, appreciate about these things, especially with good mid century modern design, which it was. And so we fought hard, we got the house, and then we have our own like in house construction team. So we started working on that. And they already know how we work right?

And so we kind of call it like the sweet spot between preservation and renovation. And that it's like a much more thoughtful process. It's definitely not something that developers love or like want to embrace like the typical developer because it's not efficient at all like it there's no like it actually, like you actually need to be a human being to to like, figure out what you want to change what you don't. Like, these are decisions that can't be like, they they're aesthetic decisions, like they're not and they're not they're not like decisions that you quantify, you know what I mean? Like, they're not like, yeah, it's not something you'd put in a spreadsheet and you're like, "Oh, economically, this makes more sense", which is how developers operate. And so for us, it was really coming in with the architect cap. Right? We, of course, were developing this. But we could find the middle ground between that. And so that's what we did. Like, we come into every single thing. And we're like, figuring out, like, how do we preserve it?

And some of these things actually, like, was like, like, it would, it's not like a decision that people would make, right. Like, for example, there was this wall, this wooden wall, so beautiful, but it was painted on multiple times. But we got our construction team to sand everything down and restore it back to its original state, which to us, like, we could have been, like another developer would have come in either painted another layer on it, or like, just pasted like some wood over it. But we don't want to do that, like we wanted to, we're just thinking about the future. Everything's always about the future. Like if we preserve this now, and we make this more difficult, quote, unquote, "more difficult" move. And it was. Economically, it was more expensive. And it's like more tedious to do something like that. But we chose, we chose to make decisions like that to like, plan for the future. Right? And that, that is an example of something that we did.

But like other things that we did was also to kind of come up with like to preserve like to understand that this is a mid century modern house. So we're not coming in. And we're like creating like some life, like raucous in this house, right? Like, like ostentatious design, by any means. Like we're actually bringing in elements and qualities from mid century modern design and trying to find a new way to innovate. And like, bring these materials that are already outdated to create, like a new typology in like, what we did was kitchen counters. And so we kind of use glass blocks, which was some like a material that was prevalent during those times, but then it kind of died down a little bit and will somehow give it like a bad, bad reputation, or like being kind of tacky. But we wanted to find a way because it's a beautiful material, like it's like it's great. It's basically bricks, the same, it's used in the same way as brick. But then it's transparent. It allows light in well, it's not transparent, translucent, and it allows light in and it has all these like qualities that were still so good about it. And there is a reason why people in the mid century modern era use that a lot. And so we tried to like figure out a way to basically okay, how do we the whole process of building the house was evaluating the past, and then looking at the future, and then now in the present, how do we meld those things together? And given the technology that we have that those people didn't have in the past? Like how do we bring these materials and innovate? And that is, that, that in itself is that forward thinking mentality of preparing for the future, preparing for evolution, that we like talked about. Yeah.

Ethan Waldman 18:22

You mentioned mid century modern, and I really like mid century modern, myself. I'm curious, why do you think it's so popular right now? Or maybe it's maybe it's never gone out of style? It but it seems like mid century modern is a very sought after aesthetic.

Amanda Gunawan 18:38

I think when things like there are things in the past that, like if they stand the test of time, there must be like good things about it. Right?

Ethan Waldman 18:48


Amanda Gunawan 18:49

And again, like with mid century modern like it, like it definitely has, like it evolved for one thing, and then it became what it is today. And like, I think that it's having a moment right now because probably like the design, like mid century modern design itself is it's it's so good that it has stood the test of time, but also like the architects of our time has like, like they they've managed to basically evolve that right. Like they took mid century modern design and somehow made it cool again.

Ethan Waldman 19:26

Yeah, I like that. You've spoken about sustainability a bit. And I know that a lot of a lot of tiny house enthusiasts and people who are wanting to live this lifestyle are also very concerned about the environment. And I'm curious if you have any thoughts on materials choices, when you're designing with sustainability in mind, are there materials that you try not to use? Are there material materials that you do try to use? Can you speak to that?

Amanda Gunawan 19:56

Yeah, yeah, ultimately, like we want like to ask what's sustainable is obviously what will be built to evolve. And so with that said, like with just that ethos in mind, like we are always making materials that we feel like could evolve with the owner. And so we don't follow trends. We never, we never advise our clients to be like, "Oh, this really trendy, like, you should get this." Like, it's always really understanding our clients first and foremost. And then from there, it's about like, like we are always suggesting, like materials that are organic. So things that like what we talked about, like it has that wabi-sabi element, where it's going to age, and it's going to age nicely.

Ethan Waldman 20:43

Yeah. Yeah, that's, that's one that I think is is crucial to remember when you're like, building something that you want to live in for a long time, that it's nice when you pick materials that when they age, they look nice, rather than when they age they look bad, and then need to be replaced.

Amanda Gunawan 21:03

Totally, totally. And at the same time, it's like, think about it, right? Like, what, like, what do you want? Like, what what do you consider sustainable? Like, what do you consider something that you would want for the rest of your life? If I was to say, "Okay, let's say, let's just say in a partner, like, pick a partner that you want for the rest of your life, right?" You want somebody who's able to grow with you, like, you don't want someone who's going to stay the same forever. Like that like, that's like, like someone that is just, like, for example, plastic, like a plastic chair, that's going to stay the same forever. And you don't want that either. That's not sustainable. How do you know, you're not going to get bored of that? How would you know that? Like, you know, as like, like, you may I don't know, like, being able to pass that down to people like, is that possible, right? Like, or like, it's, it's always like, or like the house that you have, like, you are always going to meaning like, the environment, right? You are always going to have to shape shift according to that thing that never changes, versus something that grows with you, you guys are able to grow together. And so, yeah, like that, in itself is sustainable, like that. That type of ethos is what is sustainable. That's why you should look for materials that have or furniture pieces that have that quality to them.

Ethan Waldman 22:25

Got it. Got it. Interesting. When, I think when we had booked the interview, I always ask guests, you know, what are one or two questions or topics you'd like to talk about? And one thing that you said is that you'd love to touch on the mental health aspect of being in architecture and design and, and I want to hear about that, but I also want to hear if, if there's anything that you take into consideration when you design for the mental health of of the people who will be using and living in that building?

Amanda Gunawan 22:56

Absolutely. Yeah. I think that mental health is like a, like a big thing for me. Like, I mean, I think everybody has like their, ultimately, I strongly believe that all disciplines are related, right? Like, I don't think that I could be an architect, if all I was doing was studying buildings, like by theory, like, I have to talk to people, I have to engage, I have to know all the disciplines around me and how the world works in order for me to design for the world. And so, like, I think my my, like, strong thing that drives me is mental health. Like, it's like that. Like, like, basically, like, I think everything starts from mental like, I think that yeah, like, with me, like when when we went to Japan again, like in 2016. Like on that one trip. Like I stayed in this place called like a ryokan. And it's a it's very, it's like a thing, people in Japan, they go there like they travel out of the city and they go into like the countryside, and then they stay at this place called the ryokan and it's this entire hotel hospitality experience where you go in and you're escaping the city and you're kind of there and it's like, the whole place is designed where it's like, it makes you feel so calm, so centered, and the whole experience like the itinerary, everything is the same.

And like I like really, like I don't understand why that had to be like a vacation. Like why can't we feel like that every single day? And there's always this idea that like people put where it's like, "Oh, if you're working hard, you can't like, it's like it is mutually like exclusive where hard work and like, like doing what you love and like, like putting putting in the hours is like it's somehow can't coexist with like, feeling centered, feeling happyor like content." And like so so why is it with spaces? It's the same way where you have to like separate like your workspace from like a space that makes you feel centered and grounded. Like that makes no sense. Moreover, your residential space, right? Like, why is it that Japanese people have like, a house of a certain look, and then they go to like the ryokan, and it's completely different, like, but okay, like you have to escape in order to relax, but then your own home can't have that kind of aesthetic or that kind of feel. And so, like, I definitely wanted to, like I wanted to bring that into all of the spaces that we're designing, especially residential spaces, starting with residential spaces, because that's ___ right, like, why should you feel like that at home? And so in our work like, primarily, like Biscuit Loft, when I was designing that for my own residential space, it's just like, you would not expect it because it's a loft in the middle of like, the busy arts district. And it's an industrial building. And it sounds so so like, just completely opposite from whatever I just mentioned, right? Like a ryokan makes you feel centered, that's like that makes you feel like you're in a sanctuary. But that in itself, I believe, even increases productivity. And like it, it's like, it's like a space that's meditative.

And, like, people have this wrong idea about meditation and being in a meditative space where they think that meditation is doing nothing. And it means you're unproductive, and you're just relaxing or sleeping, whatever. But it's not, it's actually organizing your thoughts. It's giving you that space to kind of like, I'll put it this way, like the analogy that I have is kind of like, you're like a ninja, like you're able to, so instead of just aggressively like fighting, and not knowing where to throw your punches and stuff, you're able to strategize and see everything in slow motion, kind of like a scene from The Matrix. So you're able to really take that and block and attack as you like it. And so that's why I strongly believe in meditation. And I, like I think being in a meditative state is the most productive way to work. And so, yeah, so like, with Biscuit Loft, that was what I wanted to achieve. Like I wanted to bring that whole, like, I wanted to put that into my residential space, which actually ended up becoming our office.

Ethan Waldman 27:38


Amanda Gunawan 27:38


Ethan Waldman 27:41

You, did you know that that was gonna happen when you were working on it?

Amanda Gunawan 27:45

No, I didn't know like, I really wanted that to be my residential space. I designed it for my residential space. And, yeah, that was like one of the first few projects that we designed and built completely. And so it completed, like, right smack in the middle of COVID. And then I still had my apartment at that time. And it was just so difficult to move during COVID. So I didn't try. But I would go over to the new house to kind of like work from there. And then slowly and slowly, I was just really enjoying working from there. And then I decided to just move the office there.

Ethan Waldman 28:26

Cool. Cool.

Amanda Gunawan 28:28


Ethan Waldman 28:29

Well, one thing that I that I like to ask my, ask my guests in one form or another is, you know, what are two or three books or resources or things that that you look to for design inspiration that you'd like to share with with the listeners of the show?

Amanda Gunawan 28:45

Hmm, in an odd way, I like reading cookbooks.

Ethan Waldman 28:48


Amanda Gunawan 28:50

So I'm going to share like one cookbook that I really like.

Ethan Waldman 28:54


Amanda Gunawan 28:54

It's monk. It's titled monk.

Ethan Waldman 28:58

Okay. Like M-O-N-K, monk?

Amanda Gunawan 28:59

Yeah, yeah. And it's a cookbook and it's by this pizza, pizza maker in Kyoto. He owns a pizza restaurant.

Ethan Waldman 29:08


Amanda Gunawan 29:08

The book is like absolutely beautiful. And I really like all the writing and the way he talks about like, why he does what he does, and like, it's just very inspiring to me. And yeah, you feel inspired when you read that for sure.

Ethan Waldman 29:23


Amanda Gunawan 29:25

Yeah, I also, I also like, books and like manifestos by Louis Kahn. So anything by him is good. I would highly recommend.

Ethan Waldman 29:34

Awesome. And can you say who Louis Kahn is, for, for the for the uninitiated?

Amanda Gunawan 29:41

Yeah, he's an incredible architect. He built like the Salk Institute, pretty famous one in San Diego. He built a lot of like, really great things. He was the architect that famously coined the phrase like he asked a brick like what it wanted to be that it wanted to be a brick so he let it be a brick.

Ethan Waldman 30:05

Uh huh.

Amanda Gunawan 30:06

And it's so, it's so philosophical, right. It sounds crazy. And it sounds so simple, but it's also like, yeah, that sounds about right.

Ethan Waldman 30:14

Yeah, that's about right. Yeah. Awesome. Well, Amanda Gunawan, thank you so much for being a guest on the show. It was it was fun to talk.

Amanda Gunawan 30:22

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It was fun to talk.

Ethan Waldman 30:27

Thank you so much to Amanda Gunawan for being a guest on the show today. You can head over to to see photos of Amanda's design work, a complete transcript of this interview and more. And don't forget to head over to and register for the 2022 free Tiny House Summit. It's really a wonderful event and I can't wait to share these 30 inspiring powerful sessions with you. So that website is That's and I will see you in November. That is all for this week. I am your host, Ethan Waldman, and I'll be back next week with another episode of the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast.

Transcribed by

powered by

Subscribe to the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast: