Assessing a Property Before Designing It

For the purpose of this article and the scope of which I’m looking to explore, we are going to begin by assuming a hypothetical property is already bought and paid for. In short, we won’t be going into all of the legal assessment ideas that might be involved when buying a property, though many of these thoughts could help in choosing one to buy. Instead, we’ll be looking at assessing properties from a design perspective, gathering a checklist of things to identify when implementing a permaculture project seems to be in the near future.

Obviously, at the foundation of all permaculture design, we rely on the famous three Permaculture ethics of earth care, people care, and return of surplus, but when assessing a property, we need to focus more on the minutiae of maintaining these ethics. This is the time we pay attention to the less easily packaged permaculture principles. This is the time when we observe and interact, when look to utilize natural patterns, when we discover opportunistic edges, and when we sniff out ways to integrate things rather than segregate them.

As amazing as all that sounds, we’ll also need to start whittling these principles down from grand theories to applicable data. Once we step into a project or onto a property with the intention of designing it, all the good ideas and positive ethics become a matter of physical application. This is the moment just before the pencil goes to drawing board, before the shovel plunges into the soil, the moment before the hammer hits the nail, and we need a good start. So, in terms of assessing a property, where do we begin?

Before the First Footprint

Photo: Courtesy of USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Even before we first step onto the property, there is a lot we can learn, and that starts both with the intentions of the client, the infrastructure surrounding the project, and the general climatic information of the region. These are things that the property itself can’t tell us but that are, nevertheless, integral to what is going to happen in our design.

What the client wants, even if that client is the designer, needs to be fully realize. Goals need to be establish, be them grand or small, and they need to be prioritized. Limitations, such as budget, ability, and regulation, have to be realized. It doesn’t make sense to be in the mindset of animal husbandry or rice production if that doesn’t work towards the desired effect of the design, nor does it serve the design to work outside of realistic financial means.

The infrastructure surrounding a project both includes what is there, which becomes more relevant in the observation phase, and what is meant to be there. It’s important to know what the client wants—roads, dams, home, etc.—prior to getting onsite and imagining it there. There’s no point in considering where to put the glasshouse if there isn’t going to be one, no point in plotting out an access road to the back of the property if a footpath suffices.

Finally, there is a lot of information to be gathered before visiting the site. We need to know about the climatic zone, the coordinates, the boundaries, the size, and the contour, all of which can be accessed via the internet. We need to know about weather averages as well as the extremes. We need to know about the location itself, particularly what’s around in terms of settlements, landscapes, and large bodies of water, not to mention its history.

Gathering this information puts us in the right frame of mind for looking at what is actually there and needs to be accomplished. Before we arrive, we already know things that are and aren’t possible, and we are able to focus on what tasks are actually at hand. To assess a property without knowing these things can be a serious waste of time and lead to a lot of frustration, both for the designer and the client.

What to Look for When Observing

Photo: Courtesy of Malcolm Carlaw

Once on site, the game changes from conceptual to actual. Trees are or aren’t there. We can feel the slope underfoot, spot animal tracks, hear the wind through the grass, smell the soil, and sit in the shade. This is where we see what is really there to work with and compile lists based on reality of the space rather than general information. Both of these things—the specific site and the regional data—have to factor into the design.

The land itself is going to be hugely important to what is possible. We have to figure the slope and all of its changes, and we have to do the same with aspect, which will tell a lot about the way the sun interacts with the land. We have to look at how water moves across it, as well as where that water congregates, if it does. We have to get to know the soil, its content and pH balance. We have to be aware of what native plants and animals are there and how these behave on the property.

We also have to be aware of what infrastructure exists and in what state, including both that which is on the land itself and that which is near it. Obviously, any existing structures, including buildings, roads, and smaller things, will both create designing opportunities to improve them, as well as eliminate the need to invent them anew. Buildings and roads near the property are also relevant, as they may come with pollution, be that noise, chemical, or visual, and they may provide opportunity, such as harvest rain runoff from streets.

Energy flows, too, are going to really factor in to design choices. These flows include the angles of the sun, as well as elements that create shade. They include the aforementioned movement of water across the property, both during rain events as well as permanent waterways. The wind, too, will factor in, so we need to know its direction, where it’s at its fiercest and perhaps where it peters out. We need to be aware of other energy that might affect what we are doing: mudslides, volcanic activity, human interaction, etc.

Gathering all of this information puts us in the right mindset for designing based on site specific information rather than the general data alone. Before we design, it’s important that we become personally familiar with a space, and only then will we be able to take advantage of what is already there and address any obstacles. To assess a property without meeting it in person will surely result in incomplete information that could cause lapses in judgment when designing.

Why We Do All of This Assessing

Photo: Courtesy of Erich Ferdinand

So much assessing will later lead us to design possibilities and solutions we wouldn’t otherwise be aware of, but it can’t do that if we don’t take the time to research and observe. Even if some of the information seems too minute to be concerned with at such an early stage, it is precisely because we are aware, even at the early stages, that we can create a more effective design. This attentiveness is how we begin taking advantage of what nature has to offer, working with the planet rather than imposing our blind will upon it.

Feature Photo: Courtesy of Kim Carpenter

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3 thoughts on “Assessing a Property Before Designing It

  1. Thanks for this article. It comes at a perfect time for me, and reminds me if all the information I need to collect in the next few months.

  2. We have moved to a much smaller suburban property, with lots of existing infrastructure. This is relevant for us as we start to plan our productive garden.

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