Man digging with spade in autumn or spring garden,

Permaculture Design in 5 Steps


Permaculture design is essentially a multi-faceted, integrated and ecologically harmonious method of designing human-centred landscapes.

By human-centred what is meant is that an ideal permaculture design is able to supply many of the needs of a human family or community within it’s localised environment in as efficient and sustainable a manner as possible.

Integrated design refers to the inter-connectivity of elements within a system. Basically we work to align the outputs from one element to the inputs of another such that there is no waste, high efficiency and work is ideally reduced.

In all Permaculture design we also strive to work with natural principles, learning from nature and attempting to harmonise in a way such that we are able to regenerate degraded land and create natural systems that support us as human beings on planet earth.

Permaculture as a subject is vast and spans many disciplines as an understanding of a myriad of areas is needed to grasp how a design is able to function.

Permaculture covers soil science, hydrology science and engineering, biology, animal husbandry, climate, architecture, geology, geography and so much more. As Permaculture designers we are often somewhat of a generalist with basic, practical and relevant, understandings across a wide range of disciplines. It is this broad view that allows us to see the big, or meta, picture in an interconnected system.

At this point in time in the field of Permaculture this is what is necessary. I, however, have no doubt that as this field opens up and becomes increasingly utilised and prioritised as the overarching design science for all human habitation that we will be able to form teams of highly skilled specialists that will work effectively to understand and create design possibilities that will far surpass than what we are achieving now. To me this is incredibly exciting.

Permaculture, at this stage in it’s development, is taught as a 72 hour training which covers the theoretical concepts and scientific underpinnings that form the premise for Permaculture design. I am certain that in the future it will be taught in universities and even schools. I believe that it is absolutely critical that humanity move towards ecological sustainable food production methods as well as rethink our settlement designs both at an individual personal dwelling level, and also at collective levels in the areas of city, urban, suburban and rural planning. I don’t think we truly have an alternative long term than embracing these intelligent, integrated and wholistic design principles.

In the following sections I will endeavour to outline some of the major methods we use to construct Permaculture design along with some of the features we might find in such a design.

The following elements of design will be discussed:

1. Mainframe Design
2. Sector Analysis
3. Zone Planning
4. Workflows
5. Analysing & Connecting Components 

1. Mainframe Design

Mainframe design is often our starting point when it comes to Permaculture design as it looks at the big picture. The mainframe consists of identifying and designing for the major features of what will be a human landscape. These features are, in order of the important in which we approach them: water, access and structures.

1.1 Water

Water is vital component of life as we know it on Earth. Every facet of our existence as human beings depends on water. The plants and animals we consume have water needs, as do we. We use water for washing and cleaning and many other domestic purposes.

Too often in our current societal make-up we are somewhat indifferent and unknowing as to where our water comes from, we simply turn on the tap and there it is.

Clean and potable water, however, does not exist in infinite supply and at our current level of human activity we are both consuming and polluting our water supplies much faster than they are being replenished. Water exists as a cyclical phenomena and is interdependent with life on earth, particularly plants, algae and phytoplankton.

The water cycle of planet Earth is actually a lot more complicated than this diagram illustrates and involves many biological processes, much of which we still do not fully understand.

What is important to understand is that it is cyclical and in Permaculture design we use that understanding to maximise our interactions with water as it cycles through the landscape. Water is constantly in flow and, regardless of what we do with it, will eventually leave our system in some form or another.

A Permaculture approach to water design can be summarised as: slow, spread and sink.

Slowing water down is usually concerned with water storage techniques. Technically this is not a ‘stopping’ of the water flow, as eventually we will want to use the water and then it will move through our system and finally be released. We can, however, hold water for long periods of time until we need to use this.

Generally this is done through the use of above ground water storage as dams/ponds as well as catching rainwater from hard surfaces into tanks.

Placement of dam sites in a property, as well as calculations involving tank storage and roof water are essential features of Permaculture design, and often one of the first things a good designer will look at when applicable.

Slowing water also entails how we efficiently cycle the water through many locations and functions on our site before it finally leaves. A good designer is able to see many opportunities to utilise water through interconnectivity of components within design.

Through our understanding of the landscape, gravity and water flow we are able to design a ‘source to sink’ system that will use the life enhancing properties of water many times in the one system.

Spreading water expands on this concept and allows us to utilise water as effectively as possible throughout a site. Often as designers we will work with contour due to its nature of running perpendicular to the natural flow of water. Through skilful design with contour, from large scale, such as swales, all the way down to small scale garden bed, we are able to spread water more effectively to cover a whole site including ridges where water tends to naturally flow away from.

Another application of spreading water is in the design of irrigation systems. All sites, if we are wanting to be working with growing crops, will need well-designed irrigation. This can be gravity fed from high dams, or working with header tanks and pumps. Regardless it is the appropriate and intelligent initial foresight of irrigation design that will save many headaches and complications in the future.

Sinking water comes through the understanding that in order to achieve true levels of sustainability, we must be returning water into the soils and aquifers. Currently our global trend is to continuously pull water out of ground storages and this is heading towards great catastrophe. In Permaculture design we utilise strategies to sink water into the soil where it acts as long term reserve for tree and perennial plant focused systems as well as ongoing preservation of the environment.

We can quite rapidly rehydrate degraded environments and even eventually alter local climate through the use of Permaculture strategies such as swales (on contour ditches utilised for growing tree systems and soaking huge amounts of water into the soil), planting more trees (which massively facilitate the water cycle, especially inland from coasts) and, especially in dry climates, gabion dams and infiltration basins.

Water design comes first because ultimately it will be the primary limiting factor on a sites ability to support life. Water design also lends itself to revealing, and interacting closely with, the opportunities for access and structures on the site.

Topographic maps are often incredibly useful in the design of water features on a site.

1.2 Access

Access is briefly described as how we get in and around a site. This is an important planning feature as our access can often be a limiting factor. Roads are costly to create and can need ongoing maintenance, especially if poorly placed.

A common mistake is to choose a house site before strongly considering both the access and water features and then to have costly or awkward roads put in just to get us to that house.
Access also comes in to play in how we consider access around the different areas of a site and includes not only roads, but also a consideration for fencing and gates.

Basic rules of thumb for access design are to cross valleys, whenever possible, along dam/pond walls, to traverse a landscape on contour as much as possible, and to ascend and descend the landscape along ridge lines. Utilising these opportunities for creating our roads leads to the most efficient water interactions and least erosive road surfaces.

Nowhere near enough consideration is given to access in the world currently and rather billions of dollars are constantly thrown at the consistent needs for road repair. If we were to begin considering access as an integrated feature of the human landscape and how this interacts with water flows, as the hard surface runoff from roads can be a massive beneficial feature, as well as appropriate placement of our structures in relation to access. Commonly our houses are orientated towards roads with little to no consideration for the solar aspect and by intelligently and thoughtfully applying road design on larger city and regional scales, our ability to increase abundance as a society could be immense.

1.3 Structures

Lastly in our mainframe design we consider where and what type of structures we wish to have placed. Our house, and other buildings, are placed in relation to smart water and access design. This efficient approach to design saves many difficulties in the future. The site does not necessarily have to be constructed in this order as the house might come before some of the water features, or access across the site, has been constructed.

Designing in this format, however, with a consideration for the entire site provides foresight that enables expansion to happen intentionally and consciously. We do not just place our house where the best view is, as is so often the case where we see houses perched precariously on cliff-tops, or on mountain tops. These houses inevitable become incredibly inefficient as they must rely on mechanical sources to bring pressure water to the top of the hill. The cost of placing and maintaining a road up a hill is also incredibly inefficient and a huge suck of resources.

When we allow the pattern of a site, as we investigate the topography of the landscape and the natural water features, access patterns and, in the next section, or important sectors to consider then the house site will reveal itself to us rather than us needing to search for it. Then we will have a well-placed, efficient, effective and naturally harmonious dwelling. Imagine if our town planners considered housing expansion with these kind of principles in mind?

Lastly is the Permaculture house itself. This is a huge topic and beyond the scope of this mini-report. In summary though, Permaculture designs houses to climate-specific protocols. When we understand our local climate, our orientation to aspect, our local wind patterns and we have a good sense of how our water and access features are to be planned then we can design incredibly beautiful and functional houses. It is absolutely possible to design houses that require very little input for heating cold winters or cooling hot summers if we understand natural principles.

House design by principle is not difficult. Our ancestors had no choice but to design effective housing because pre-fossil fuels, a poorly designed house in an extreme climate could very seriously mean death. We know these things, they are within our genetics and contemplating in this manner can become a highly enjoyable use of our applied, realistic imagination.

2. Sector Analysis

Sector analysis deals with the consistent incoming energies to our site. These energies are unavoidable, meaning they are not controlled on the site and rather occur from outside or are forces of nature.

These types of energies include sun, wind, rain along with flood zones, fire danger, noise, chemical pollution from neighbouring sites, unpleasant views, pleasant views, wildlife areas, and so on.

As intelligent designers we design with all of these in mind. We consider which direction our prevailing winds come from, we understand the summer and winter sun angles, we have awareness of which direction potential natural disasters may occur, we observe the interactions with neighbours and wildlife. In short we pay a lot of attention to what is going on around us both from nature and other human interaction.

Sometimes it might take quite a long time to assemble this data especially the most valuable direct observations that come from living on site. A lot of it is available though as historical records with council, online and… if possible… a friendly cup of tea, or curious chat with local neighbours who have lived in the area for a long time. Often these long-standing residents, particularly those whose families have lived in an area for generations, have a very good understanding of the local weather and disaster patterns. As humans we are naturally attuned to thinking about the climate. It is, after all, probably the most widely talked about topic around the world and the greatest influence of our day to day comfort and survival.

Once we have identified the different energies that may be present on our site, often starting with sun angles and prevailing seasonal wind directions, we can place these on a concept map of our site as it is emerging. We will absolutely have to design strategies for working with all these energies.

The sun aspect is of considerable importance as it will determine much about our design possibilities. In most climates it will determine where we wish to situate our house as well as grow the different varieties of crops or trees we may wish to produce.

Prevailing winds in some areas are going to be a huge factor influencing our comfort levels and Permaculture includes many windbreak strategies to mitigate or redirect these cold or hot winds.
Our position on a slope will also determine much about the movement of cool night air and is another inevitable factor we should be prepared to design for.

Other elements may require design features to mitigate or create safety buffers from. For example we may need to design fire breaks, or an assembly of fire retardant plants in a sector that is particularly prone to fire dangers.

We may need to create living privacy screenings to shelter from unpleasant views, or as buffers from neighbours. Earth berms or dense guilds of trees can offer relief from noises such as highways, cancel views and redirect winds. When these guilds of trees are selected for multi-functional capacities, such as animal fodder, stick firewood, bee forage or simply just chop’n’drop mulch, then we really start stacking the functions together.

Sector analysis comes high up in the list of design importance due to the unavoidability of the energies we are dealing with. If we are planning for long term sustainability, these factors must be considered, designed for and need to be contemplated long before we get down to the details of our design. The working knowledge of as much of these energies that we can assemble will provide a deeper layer of patterning that will, as we continue with our design process, begin to reveal the details to us. When we understand that design is not a whimsical process of imposing our will on the landscape, that rather we engage in a responsive interplay with the environment, then true creativity begins to emerge. It is in the adapting to essential limitations on a design that will cause true novelty to emerge, and this is where design gets really fun!

3. Zone Planning

Zone planning is a locational approach to elements we may wish to have in a Permaculture design. The following delineation of ‘zones’ is not fixed, rather it is simply a way to consider the energy needs of components that allows us to place them in relation to one another and, in particular, in relation to our main habitation areas.

This comes somewhat later in the design process as it is considerably more flexible in approach than mainframe or sector design. Here in a zone plan we are free to choose what we wish to include or not once we understand the important limitations our design faces due to mainframe and sector analysis.

Generally speaking the zones radiate out somewhat from ‘Zone 0’ which is the central habitation area, usually the main house. Each subsequent zone is rated in terms of it’s energy and maintenance demands. Zone 1 has the highest consistent need for attention, and Zone 5, often thought of as the wilderness zone, has very little to no requirement for our attention.

3.1 Zone 0

This is our main living space. It is where, as humans, we are likely to spend the majority of our time. Usually we will be sleeping, eating, relaxing, and perhaps engaged in different forms of work here. This is our ‘locus’ from which all other zones lie in relation to. Our days will generally start and end here, and all our work on the site will originate from this position. Zone 0, however, needs to be considered as the origination of work energies so if we are not the major worker on our site then perhaps this might be instead staff housing as it is their energies and attention which will permeate the site providing the functional interactions needed for flourishing sustainability.

3.2 Zone 1

Zone 1 is usually thought of as our energy intensive gardens and is likely to include a mixture of frequently used herbs, salad and kitchen gardens, well pruned and prized fruit trees and perhaps some ornamental plants for smells and aesthetics.

Zone 1 gardens are usually located in direct contact with our Zone 0 and the gardener will invest considerable time, proportionally, to the rest of the site. Full mulching and spot composting techniques will be utilised as well as dense and diverse plantings.

Zone 1 gardens can be very beautiful locations with assortments of circular, spiralling and waving patterns throughout the space.

Our Zone 1 area may also include greenhouse and/or shadehouse structures attached to the house for climate appropriate plantings, as well as a frequently visited nursery, rainwater tanks, trellises, small and beautiful ornamental fish ponds and other relevant features.

3.3 Zone 2

In this area we expand out locationally from our centre of focus. Our Zone 2 areas will still receive daily attention, yet percentage wise will often occupy a broader area of land and require less direct maintenance. These areas may include more extensive kitchen gardens, diverse multi-species layered orchards (also called ‘food forests’ in Permaculture), chicken coops, a milking shed for dairy animals, aquaculture dams and fish/duck ponds, and so forth.

Generally speaking areas that still require consistent daily monitoring and attention, such as animals (for egg collection, feeding, milking, etc) and prized fruit trees are locationally ‘placed’ in this zone.

3.4 Zone 3

As we extend our attention and energy further away from our centre of habitation we might wish to include, and not all sites do, a zone for more commercial scale production.
This zone may include pasture for free-range grazing animals, main-crop production for bulk starch or vegetables (such as corn, potatoes, sweet potato and grain crops), and more extensive fruit or nut orchards.

Ideally the attention given here can be a little ‘rougher’ in that if the cropping or orchard strategies are done right it may only need investments of a day or two of labour at peak times of the year such as planting or harvesting.

3.5 Zone 4

Our last major zone to be considered on a Permaculture site is Zone 4, often thought of as ‘farm forestry’. This Zone is often placed, locationally, the furthest from our Zone 0 habitation area and once set up should require minimal yearly maintenance and attention. These areas may even receive attention only several times a year.

Components included in a Zone 4 area may be more extensive, minimally maintained pastures for grazing animals, and/or areas of forestry planted to timber or trees for fire wood. Many of the trees selected for this area will be left to grow for years, even for future generations, before selective logging. An intelligent designer plans for the possible expansion of years, or even future generations, in advance.

Again not every site will require or have space for a Zone 4 and it is not essential to have all of these zones in a design for it to be Permaculture. More so that the understanding of these broad categories allows us to plan the placement of components in relation to our personal habitation and energy capabilities.

3.6 Zone 5

Lastly is Zone 5 or our ‘wilderness’ zone. Once again a site may or may not have a wilderness area and this can be naturally wild such as an untouched native or native regeneration area on the site, or a small constructed wildlife habitat in a more urban site.

Here as designers we give space for nature to teach us. These places are for observation, relaxation and meditation. We do not expend energy to maintain these areas, rather we allow ourselves to be the student and learn from the possible gifts nature may have to offer us if we are still enough to see.

It is important for the designer here to not get caught up in the delineation of zones, debating where the imaginary lines between them are drawn. Zoning is a conceptual framework and, ultimately, it doesn’t really matter that much. Zoning is simply a design process that we use to spatially place elements within our system relative to our centre of attention, and determined by their energy and maintenance requirements. This is all. The zones themselves are arbitrary and imagine and there are no ‘lines’ in the landscape that determine what makes one area a particular zone. Zoning organisation can also be laid out any which way we want. For example; right outside the front door of our house may actually receive very little attention even though we walk past it every day and be planted to beautiful natives, whereas our back door might be close to the kitchen and makes much more sense as our ‘zone 1’ because it fits better with the natural flow of how we want to interact with our garden.

If we understand all of this then zoning becomes a relatively easy design process and ties in with the next design process, that of understanding workflows.

4. Workflows

This, in the authors opinion, is an often overlooked and misunderstood area of design yet one that if designed poorly can make daily life interacting with our site a burden rather than a joy. I actually prefer to call these ‘lifeflows’ rather than workflows. To me when we implement Permaculture design we are actually creating an entire lifestyle. We need to feel at ease and in harmony with our landscape. We need to feel that we are a living, breathing, functional element within the design and that it is an effortless and highly pleasurable investment of our energies to interact with our landscape.

In short: designing for workflows requires us to turn an imaginative eye to our site, to see the stage-wise development and contemplate how we might interact with this site in a daily, monthly and yearly manner.

When we design a workflow we are understanding how we are going to move through a site and we are placing elements relationally, using our zone planning as a guide, so that we can maximise our efficiency and reduce the amount of frivolous, unproductive or unenjoyable time. We might create a pathway or loop that passes all the most important morning tasks in one single flow. For example our path might take us to the dairy for a morning milking task and on the way there we pass our chicken house to collect the eggs and deposit the food scraps from the previous day, on the way back our path takes us through the kitchen garden and/or orchard where we can collect fruits and/or vegetables for our breakfast, and finally we may pass a herb garden before entering the kitchen now loaded with everything we need to cook a delicious, nutritious and enjoyable morning meal.

Workflows can also be extended to a site that has a larger amount of human interaction, and can even be, in fact must be, strongly considered within commercial production sites.

Poor workflow planning can cost many hours of potential labour as well as to make an unpleasant work environment. Integrated workflow design, however, can dramatically increase the efficiency and enjoyment that interacting with a site can bring for staff. Poor placements of tool sheds and storage spaces will absolutely guarantee that tools are left in the field and neglected, and I’ve seen almost every farm I visit struggle with this. To me this is not a people issue, this is very much a design issue. Naturally as humans we will tend to do what is easiest. If it takes an extra few minutes out of our natural pathway to return a tool, it will be a lot less enjoyable to do so and as such it will easily be forgotten or simply hurriedly thrust at the storage space rather than considerately maintained and placed in its right spot. When tool sheds, just as an example, are designed in relation to the areas where they are utilised, and when each tool has a specific space where it is left and easily accounted for it becomes easy and effortless to return these tools especially when we must pass the shed on our path to and from the work space. If we have to deviate significantly from our easiest path, it will eventually become an unpleasant chore to do so and it will be neglected.

This kind of understanding about how we flow with the landscape can be applied to just about any interaction we have. The easier, more efficient, more harmonious with our natural rhythms and patterns of movement that our elements are placed, then the more pleasurable will our experience of working the landscape be.

5. Analysing and Connecting Components

The last major design feature to discuss is the most detailed lens of consideration we have in design, which is why it comes last. Broadly we have been designing from major site patterning down to, now, the small details of selection of the specific elements we will include.

Analysing components is how we select specifically the ‘what’ of what we are going to include in our site. We have a sense of where, locationally, everything is going to be placed and we have a sense of how we are going to interact with these features on a daily basis. Now we must consider the types of elements we want to include which can be as detail focused as investigating specific breeds of animals or types of crops.

This part of planning and design may also come slightly earlier in our design process when we are planning out our zones and contemplating specifically which elements we might want to include. Design is not an exactly linear process and in all likelihood we will shift back and forth between all of these design strategies in the construction of our overall design.

Analysing components is, roughly, a process of listing all the features of each component and, as such, being able to weigh them up and compare to find which might best suit our needs.
Secondly, by listing the needs and products/behaviours of each component in a system we begin to see possibilities of how different components may interact with one another and we can extend this analysis to include connecting components together into a functionally integrated wholistic design.

The common example given in the Designers Manual and often on PDC’s is investigating the characteristics of a chicken. We firstly list out the needs, products and behaviours and it’s intrinsic characteristics. The former two are most considered in how we connect this component, of chicken(s), with other components within our system. The latter information, that of it’s intrinsic characteristics, we utilise in specific breed selection to suit our needs.

As we begin to understand a chickens needs for space and food such as insects and seeds, and it’s behaviours as including scratching, manuring and foraging we might find that an ideal location is actually in our orchard where it is able to maintain the overgrowth of weeds and provide much needed fertiliser to our fruit trees as well as forage in the leaf litter for bugs (chickens go crazy for loose leaf litter as they are, after all, natively forest animals) and clean up fallen fruit and seeds.

In our design process we have likely also done the same listing of characteristics for our orchard and through that process we have connected the two components.

There are many ways we could do this and if we are contemplating a design that is going to last for a long time it can be worth investing considerable time into this process. We might, for example, create a card for every element we want in our system and list the needs, products/behaviours and intrinsic characteristics for each of them. Then with each of those cards we may look for patterns and places where the needs of one are supplied by the products/behaviours of another.

When we are stuck for design, or even if we want to have a little fun family or team game, we could gather all the cards and place a list of prepositions on the ground. These prepositions can include phrases such as: next to, behind, above, below, around, between, adjacent to, under, on top of, near, far from… and so on.

Then we can have fun randomly placing our cards connected by these prepositions and investigate how placing the two components in this particular relationship to each other could serve.

This design process can be expanded out indefinitely and as we do so there are many novel possibilities for beneficial interactions between components on a site.

A good way to understand the importance of this design process is that anywhere that two components are not connected we will inevitably produce both increased waste and increased work. When components are connected intelligently, however, that ‘waste’ actually becomes a resource as an input to another component, and that ‘work’ to fulfil the needs of the component is provided as the output of a different component.

As experienced designers we might become very quick at seeing possible connections and, truly, I believe the possible creativity available here is endless.

6. Conclusion

This breakdown of Permaculture design is just one way of looking at how to design a site. Ultimately our designs are going to be complex, variable and evolving systems. As we are dealing with life there is a complexity and creativity that goes beyond the ability of our rational minds to yet fully comprehend. The best we can do is to harmonise and work with these creative forces in as efficient and intelligent a manner as possible.

The more we work with, rather than against, nature the easier and more productive our systems will inevitably be.

As we design our systems from overarching patterns such as mainframe design, to the minutia of details present in the interactions of our specific living systems, we can come up with incredibly creative, effective, productive and also naturally aesthetic designs.

Permaculture design is, when fully understood and applied, a thing of elegance, beauty and, ultimately, life enhancement. Our designs should feel exciting and inspirational, the construction of places where we would truly love to be.



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