A Core Process for Permaculture Design

After freaking out, being overwhelmed, and frustrated with all the hurdles I’ve got to work around, and then finally getting a chance to talk about this with some people on a forum, I’ve got some focus back.

I had been going through Holmgren’s Permaculture Principles book. Going through one principle at a time, figuring out what questions and problems the Principles are designed to answer or solve.  But it was kind of annoying me because while the principles are good, and even some of the different permaculture principles found in other places on the net are all good…none of them really help a beginner actually apply them.  It’s all great for theory, and tossing ideas around, which I love to do.  But in this case, I also need to be able to apply the stuff.  I think that that frustration, that chaos, helped lead to the overwhelming and frustrated feelings.  (not the only cause, mind)

So last night I went through my more recent notes and started setting aside the portions that were more theory and less ‘how-to’ or ‘next-step’.  The following is what I was left with.  The portions that seemed like they’d actually let me know what to do next so that I’m less scattered (than normal).  It’s four short sections.  I’ll list what’s on my working note page, and then describe any part of it that might need some more info to make it clear to others.

Design Ethics

  • Design for the Earth
  • Design for the People
  • Design for the Future

Explanation: Permaculture has their ethics “Earth Care”, “People Care”, and “Fair Share/Surplus Share/Future Share”.  That last one goes by different names, but it was only recently that I came across the Care for the Future version.  While I can see the Fair Share one being preferred in some situations, it’s also one that might turn a lot of people off from delving further into anything dealing with Permaculture.  And frankly, the first two pretty much cover Sharing the Surplus already.  But a significant part of the focus of permaculture principles is regenerative, rebuilding soil and providing resources for the next generations.  So I found that I prefer the Future focus for that third ethic.  Plus, it fits in well with the 3rd basic need of co-evolve, which also puts the next generations into mind.

I woke up in the middle of last night with the realization that permaculture is about the designing process, not the actual how-to’s.  A permaculture song had helped put that in mind before, and helped my daughter understand what we were going to be learning and working on.  But the ethics as normally written didn’t really give that thought.  Which is probably why I kept ignoring the ethics and principles when I first started looking into permaculture.  And, it’s possibly one reason why quite a few people think that permaculture is a religion or a cult, and don’t get that it’s a design process.  But with a slight rewording, changing “care of” to “design for”…it makes that a little more clear while also providing a “this is what you are designing towards”.  And frankly, that also makes a number of the tossed around principles superfluous in stating, imo.  Oh, and I felt much clearer headed after the change and promptly fell back asleep after writing it down. This morning’s wake up didn’t alter that feeling, either.

Physical Systems

  • soil
  • food
  • water
  • energy
  • material resources, ?value adding?, and “waste”
  • shelter and built environment

Explanation: Holmgren’s Principles book has a set of domains that permaculture can be applied to.  I had come across a couple of places online that narrowed the physical systems down to the above.  There are other groups that are working towards the social, economic, etc domains.  But my personal primary area of influence is my home, my family, and my friends.  As such, I feel I could best ‘serve’ and ‘be served’ by putting my initial focus onto the physical systems.  And, well, frankly, this is the area I’ll get to save money through…instead of waiting around for someone else to change things to fit another ideal.  It would take years and years to even get the education system here to reconsider their methods, at which point my daughter has already graduated from high school.  But by learning how to design the physical systems in her own home, she’ll get the benefits for a lifetime, and may even be able to help others redesign their own homes as needed.

“Value adding” is surrounded by question marks because I’m not sure if it is important enough to be included here.

“Waste” is in quotations because in permaculture, a waste is an unused resource.

Core Design Process

  • Cycle: Observe -> Integrate -> Apply -> Observe …
  • Observe the elements and interactions in a system
  • Integrate an understanding of the interrelationships observed, with the core ethics and principles
  • Apply the understanding towards redesigning the system to better reflect the core ethics and principles
  • Observe the changes created, both within the system itself, as well as the influences it has outside of that particular system.
  • Repeat as a cycle of redesigning

Explanation: The very first permaculture principle most places list is “observe and interact”.  If you don’t spend time observing the elements, interactions, or system you’re working on, you risk wasting a lot of energy, time, and resources that could be used elsewhere.

The way most principles are listed isn’t very user friendly, imo.  One has to jump around from this to that to another and back again and then to another, etc.  In some situations this level of flexibility is great.  But for me, when I’ve got to actually apply the ideas to something concrete, it leaves too many options to sort through, with little idea of how to figure out which one to focus on now or next.  I had come across the Observe, Integrate, Apply sequence on a site somewhere.  It’s such an obvious sequence when worded that way.  But it’s simple and doesn’t send my head spinning into all sorts of directions.  And it’ll be a lot easier to show my daughter as we go through it step by step for a given Physical System.  Meaning, instead of spending a few more weeks going over all the principles without being able to link them to something concrete for her, we can just jump in and get to observing and integrating.

Core Design Principles

  • Multiple Functions (per Element)
  • Multiple Elements (per Function)
  • Self-Regulation (of the System)
  • Relative Location (with zones and sectors)

Explanation:  These core design principles are worded in a variety of ways on various sites.  Often there will be a list of principles with 2 or 3 that basically mean the same thing as one of the above.  A guy named Ethan Roland of Appleseed Permaculture spent time mindmapping various permaculture principles that he’d come across.   This mindmap can be found at



That ‘s it.  Those are my guidelines.  Things may change, but I think it’s basic enough and clear enough that I’ve minimalized chances of muddling my head with too many ideas and options to choose from.  It’s simple enough that my daughter will greatly appreciate it.  And it fits neatly on half a page.

Next step?  Restarting our observation attempts regarding our water inflow, usage, and outflow in this house (our Zone 0).  But instead of just observing, we’ve now got a way of developing and integrating our observations with the design principles and design ethics.  So we’ll have a clearer idea of what to change, and how to change it.


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