A couple months ago I read about a concept called wabi-sabi and it struck a chord. I hadn’t been aware we needed a philosophy for our project aside from permaculture principles, but the idea of wabi-sabi resonated with both of us so much that we’ve begun to adopt this concept as a guiding philosophy for Tiny Roots. It has helped give us much needed perspective on many occasions and will continue to do so even after we’re done with Tiny Roots. We are not experts on wabi-sabi by any means. In some ways it feels like a parallel journey, learning about wabi-sabi and tiny house building together.
Wabi-sabi is a Japanese concept, actually two concepts that have been melded over time into one. Like many Japanese concepts, the translation into English language or culture is a little lost, but I still think it is beautiful. Essentially, wabi-sabi is the appreciation of the impermanence, imperfection, and incompleteness of life. Most commonly it is referred to as a purely physical aesthetic, as exemplified in interior design trends towards a more rustic look: aged wood, asymmetry, tarnished metal. However, the Japanese worldview of wabi-sabi encompasses much more than the physical. Life is imperfect. Your best laid plans can be upended at any moment and your reaction may not be ideal. Everything doesn’t always line up perfectly and nothing is permanent. Yet with wabi-sabi, there is as much beauty in this messy imperfection as there is when everything does line up. With imperfection there is a story, there is character, and it is beautiful. This deeper meaning of wabi-sabi was exactly the message we needed to hear, exactly when we needed to hear it.
Travis and I both tend towards perfectionism. It is something we have each struggled with our entire lives. Consequently, entering into the challenge of building a house within a limited timeframe has been a major undertaking for us. It is very difficult for us to accept imperfection in ourselves and our creations, but the process of building our tiny house absolutely requires that we reevaluate this tendency. From the beginning we have had to tell ourselves repeatedly that it isn’t going to be perfect, we are going to make mistakes, and that is okay. It is one thing to say that and another to accept it over and over every day. Naturally, we have good days and bad days.
Since learning about wabi-sabi, we’ve latched onto the concept and try to weave it throughout our build on a daily basis. When the plywood sheathing shifted because of slippery construction adhesive and we didn’t notice until after it was nailed in place: wabi-sabi. When I used the wrong grit on our orbital sander and made funky grooves on one of our loft beams: wabi-sabi. We are trying to rely on reclaimed materials as much as possible, so not all fixtures will match, and some of our furniture will be repurposed from other items. These are the kinds of things that make our house uniquely ours. These are the stories our house will tell. We will look at those grooves on the loft beam as we cut vegetables in the kitchen and smile. Learning about wabi-sabi has not made the frustration of our mistakes go away, but it has given us a wonderful tool to help refocus when we do get frustrated or disheartened. We can sigh and say “wabi-sabi”, and some of the tension sloughs off.
As a design concept, wabi-sabi tends towards natural simplicity. We have tried to maintain this as well. When we begin to feel stumped by an element of our house, usually the best solution is to simplify. We can both get attached to a certain way of thinking or a design element, but then when we go to build it or find the materials, the complications pile up. That’s the point at which we have to step back and reassess our original goals for building a tiny house. The point is to simplify. We are going tiny in order to reduce our attachments to things, to debts, to a lifestyle with unnecessary complications and wasted resources. When we get tied up in a certain look or stain color or light fixture, the concept of wabi-sabi, natural simplicity, is what we keep coming back to.