When you start on the journey to bring your life more in line with nature, it can be difficult to decide on the best way forward. Which technique best suits you, your house/site, and your context? How to place and prioritize the myriad of interdependent elements?
It would help to have some kind of framework to inform these decisions. It turns out a couple of Australian gents formulated just such a system: permaculture.
Permaculture aims at providing for the needs of the inhabitants, whilst increasing natural capital. The shape of the house/buildings and site, as well as the strategic placement of the elements within them, are keyed into the flow of elements, such as sun, wind and water through them. Another mayor consideration is how often the inhabitants frequent the various zones of the place. Finally the inputs and outputs of the various elements are listed and ideally connected to other elements to form circular flows.
The core ethics of permaculture are:
EARTH CARE 💚 PEOPLE CARE 💚 FAIR SHARE
EARTH CARE is the building of natural capital such as top soil, biodiversity, forests, also known as regeneration.
PEOPLE CARE is about nurturing self, kin and community (those who are going to do the work).
FAIR SHARE is about limiting consumption and reproduction and redistributing surpluses.
These originate from the common values of traditional cultures that were connected to the land and nature, and who survived in relative balance with their environments for much longer than any of our more recent civilizations.
Along with the fields of “ecological energetics” and “systems thinking”, these indigenous cultures also informed the 12 design principals.
These design principles are brief statements or slogans, which can be used as a checklist when considering the inevitably complex options for designing ecological support systems.
The permaculture design principles are:
1. Observe and Interact.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Read the land across the seasons. Be the tree. Try small things, don't be afraid to make mistakes. Learn from them. Designs should emerge from what already exists. Nowhere is a blank slate and sometimes the problem is the solution.
2. Catch and Store Energy at its highest possible use and recycle.
“Make hay while the sun shines.”
Catch solar energy, rainwater, wind, but also “waste" and knowledge. Invest in fertile soil with high humus content, trees, seed banks, water bodies/tanks, passive solar buildings and books. Preserve seasonal abundances.
3. Obtain a Yield.
“A hungry man is an angry man.” & “You can't work on an empty stomach.”
A yield is a reward that encourages, maintains and/or replicates the system that generated the yield. It is a positive feedback loop. Also mind “soft” yields such as knowledge, inspiration, human energy and techniques.
4. Apply Regulation and Accept Feedback.
“Live within the biological constraints.”
For example, mowing/weeding until a balance is reached. You can use animals and plant guilds to reduce workload here. Aim to create as many self-regulating/maintaining systems to be more robust. Use tough local, semi wild, self-reproducing over dependent GM hybrids. Primarily applied to ourselves, our family and community (in that order).
5. Use and Value Renewable Resources and Services (e.g., shade, microbes, animals)
The equivalent of using your income instead of your capital.
Animal tractors, plant and animal pest control, (hu)manure, nitrogen fixers and dynamic accumulators to chop and drop.
6. Produce No Waste.
“Waste not, want not” & “A stitch in time saves nine.”
Think circular not linear. Always try to make the output of one element the input for another.
7. Design from Natural Patterns to Detail.
“Big picture first. To prevent not being able to see the forest for the trees.”
Using forests as design models for agriculture is the idea that initiated permaculture.
What would nature do?
8. Integration and Co-Operation not Segregation.
“Many hands make light work.”
Each element performs many functions. This is called stacking. There is also vertical-, time- and over-stacking. If your home is not just where you go to sleep, but also gathers the energy you need and grows your food, this makes you less dependent on the economy, transport systems, utility companies, etc.
9. Favor Small and Slow.
“Slow and steady wins the race, the bigger they are the harder they fall.”
Aim for human scale techniques. Growing a veggie garden, building your own house and maintaining your health, are powerful and effective uses of this principal, as are cycling and buying local.
10. Use and Value Diversity.
“Don't put all your eggs in one basket.”
Each important function is supported by many elements.
Spread your risk when it comes to basic needs such as water and food.
Polycultures over mono cultures.
11. Use and Increase Edge and Value the Marginal.
The earth's crust, mangroves, the edges of forests are examples of all the ecological action concentrating on the border between two elements. Key-hole gardens are a classic practical use of this principal.
12. Creatively Use and Respond to Change.
“Vision is not seeing things as they are, but as they will be.”
Resilience (or better yet, anti-fragile). For instance, accelerating ecological succession by planting sacrificial, fast growing, nitrogen fixers to shade slow growing fruit trees as they come up. Remember, the problem is the solution!
To summarize then, to arrive at a design that will provide the needs of the inhabitants, whilst increasing natural capital:
First, we need a scale drawing of the building/site.
We then analyze the elements acting on the site and their strength direction, etc., over the seasons. These are sun, wind, rain , etc., but also things like view, (foot) traffic, fire danger, knowledge (from people passing through), etc.
Secondly, we stipulate the zones where the inhabitants spend the most/least time as follows:
Zone 0: Self/home
Zone 1: Doorstep
Zone 2: Garden
Zone 3: Farm
Zone 4: Semi wild woodland & food-forest
Zone 5: Wild conservation
Thirdly, we list all the elements we want and need in the design, and all their respective inputs and outputs. The aim being to make every input be the product of another element and every product to be the input for another element. In this way forming circular flows (this is also the basis of the circular economy idea). This is called a functional analysis.
Now we can use the above information and the 12 principals to guide us in placing these items in the building/landscape always keeping the core ethics of earth care, people care, and fair share, in mind.
You will most likely need to do a few iterations of these steps before arriving at a design that you (and any other stakeholders) are happy to implement.
As you start putting your plan into action there will be feedback from the system which you can use to do further iterations, learning and better tuning your design to the context. In fact, this process never really stops and can continue to be used to improve the site, and creatively use and respond to change.