What is Permaculture - Part 3: Design

Wednesday, 6th February 2013

In the third part of our 'What is Permaculture' series, Aranya demystifies the permaculture design process so that we can all design systems 'that meet our human needs, and at the same time support the eco-system as a whole'. He explains why permaculture is a powerful tool for creating sustainable human societies.

Design is the conscious assembly of concepts, materials, techniques and strategies for a particular purpose. Yet seeing all the exciting possibilities that permaculture offers us, it’s easy to forget this and just end up throwing together a collection of ‘green’ technologies and techniques, only to be disappointed by the result. There’s now no shortage of these ‘green options’ for us to choose from and we’ve been given the impression that as long as we behave in certain ways and buy the right products, we’re doing the best we can.

But permaculture and design is about more than just choosing the right things, it’s also about how we connect them together. Nature abounds with examples of beneficial relationships, showing us the value of this strategy for long-term sustainability. So as permaculture designers, our role is to place components in the best places relative to each other, to create self-sustaining systems that also meet our needs. However, such relationships are often site-related, so we need to be able to consciously design; to become a ‘permaculture chef’, rather than simply learning to follow a recipe. While perfecting this can be a lifelong journey, it’s also not so hard to learn the basics.

While it’s easy to worry these days about our impact on the environment, it’s perfectly natural for us to be shaping it to meet our needs, every species that lives here does just that. The important question that Biomimicry advocate Janine Benyus asks us is whether our choices are well-adapted ones. Permaculture gives us the tools to create systems that support not just ourselves, but future generations too and Life as a whole.

In Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison suggests:

  • That the systems we construct should last as long as possible, and take least maintenance.
  • These systems, fuelled by the sun, should produce not only for their own needs, but the needs of the people creating or controlling them. Thus, they are sustainable, as they sustain both themselves and those who construct them.
  • We can use energy to construct these systems, providing that in their lifetime, they store or conserve more energy than we use to construct them or to maintain them.

These design considerations provide us with clear criteria for how any permaculture design should perform. If we can design systems within these guidelines that meet our human needs, and at the same time support the eco-system as a whole, then we will be well on our way to a sustainable human society.

We should invest most time and energy in the establishment a good design, so inputs decrease as time goes on. Conversely, yields may start off small but then increase steadily. At a certain point, the total energy yielded from the site exceeds the total amount invested and the system goes ‘into profit’. One more thing worth remembering is that biologically we’re simply an eco-system living within a larger eco-system. And that whatever we do has consequences.

Ethics, Principles and Directives

Permaculture advises us that when we design to meet our needs, we should do so in a way that supports the ecosystem as a whole. The permaculture ethics, often abbreviated to Earth Care, People Care, Fair Shares, are our primary guidance in this process. Any ideas that don’t fit with these ethics just aren’t permaculture. 

Bill Mollison and David Holmgren also provided us with a set of principles and directives, which have since been adapted and added to by others. The principles of ecology guide us in applying successful natural patterns to design gardens and farms. However, we can be even more creative and apply many of these same principles to people-based designs too. There are also principles that address how we think, helping us to see the gifts in every situation.

You’ll find many more and different versions of these principles on your travels. It’s not so much a matter of which ones are ‘right’, but rather which of them you find useful in your life.

Design Frameworks

Permaculture has borrowed many useful thinking tools from different places, including several design frameworks from other disciplines. One commonly used is SADI, which comes from Landscape Architecture; the letters standing for Survey, Analysis, Design, Implementation. The value of a framework is that it can guide us through the process of design, reducing the chance that we might overlook something. While each of these stages can be quite detailed in themselves, for us the main things to remember are:

Survey ~ of both the needs of the client(s) and the landscape that will be meeting those needs. This might well include some mapping. The more focus given to this observation stage, the better a design is likely to be. Bill Mollison suggests observing a system for at least one whole cycle, which for a land-based design is a whole year. This shouldn’t prevent us from making changes though, just don’t, as Bill would say, do anything you might find difficult to reverse.

Analysis ~ this is the stage where we take all the information we have gathered and use the ethics, principles and appropriate design tools and methods to help us decide the best elements to choose and how best to connect them together into resilient low input, high output systems.

Design (or as I prefer to call this part Decisions, as the whole process is about design) ~ this is where we commit to our ideas, producing maps and lists that communicate our ideas to our client(s). While attractive maps are helpful at this stage, including your reasons for decisions can help illuminate the design process and increase the likelihood of the clients understanding the bigger picture of how it is intended to function. A design proposal should also include suggested implementation and maintenance plans.

Implement ~ at some point we have to take our ideas and put them into practice. However much time we take to deliberate, we’ll still be surprised by some things that don’t work as planned; so we shouldn’t be afraid to take action. Only by implementing a design do we learn how well it performs in the real world. Mistakes are great opportunities to learn, but good attention to the survey and analysis stages should limit them to smallish ones.

Maintain / Monitor ~ this wasn’t included in the original acronym, but maybe Landscape Architects just implement and walk away. Without knowing how to care for the system (and particularly unfamiliar technologies like composting toilets), it can fail to perform as intended and perhaps be abandoned as ineffective.

Design Tools and Methods

Throughout the design process we can make use of many different thinking tools and methods. These can for instance help us to make client interviews fully inclusive, especially when working with larger groups or community designs. They can help us with our decision making processes to ensure we create effective designs and also help us to produce a realistic implementation plan. Here are just a few examples from the many outlined in my book:

Permaculture is neither a specific recipe, nor an end point. Rather it is an ongoing process of harmonious adaptation to nature’s changing conditions. The design process is a gift to us all that can help us to find and stay on our desired path.

Adapted from ‘Permaculture Design – a Step-by-Step Guide to the Process’ by Aranya

Read 'What is Permaculture - Part 1: Ethics' by Maddy Harland

Read 'What is Permaculture - Part 2: Principles' by Maddy Harland

Further Information

Read Aranya's excellent introduction Permaculture Design: Step By Step

To find out more, why not also do a 'Full Permaculture Design' course or the shorter 'Introduction To Permaculture course'

Or pick up a copy of Permaculture Magazine: www.permaculture.co.uk/subscribe

Looby Macnamara's People and Permaculture is the first book entirely devoted to the People Care ethic

Online Resources

Permaculture magazine online



Kit Veerkamp |
Sun, 14/12/2014 - 20:37
You made a statement under Maintenance / Monitoring that "maybe Landscape Architects just implement and walk away." As both a Landscape Architect and Permaculture Designer, it is usually the case that the design contract entails only that - Design. Occasionally, the client will also hire the Landscape Architect to assist with implementation. But almost never will a client continue to pay consulting fees for ongoing maintenance and monitoring. So this is a challenge to ensure that design intent and implementation have some resemblance to each other and more of a challenge to see that the intent is continued in years to come. Ultimately, it is the clients responsibility to both implement, maintain and monitor any project and this often exceeds their desire to be so intimately involved. With Permaculture clients, there seems to be more desire and more involvement but ultimately the success relies hugely on their commitment and involvement.