On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 13

The last post set the scene for the permaculture design and development process I’ll continue to share here.

We got as far as this base map of the area to be designed and developed further:

In what follows I’d like to get as far as the whole-area concept design. Then, in the next post, we’ll be ready to go through the design and development process for the homestead gardens with more of a fine-toothed comb. For that is where we’ll find an example of designing in what I’m calling the hybrid fashion.

Articulating Intentions

On December 29, 2014, the extended family threw in words capturing things they’d like to be true of the broader project:

  • Fun
  • Sanctuaries
  • Diverse
  • Organic
  • Welcoming, inviting, comforting, nurturing (family/friends can come anytime)
  • Safe haven
  • Productive
  • Alive, full of life
  • Bountiful
  • Abundant
  • Model of a different way of feeding people
  • Adventure playground/mystery
  • Managed forest
  • Wonderful treasure hunt
  • Respectful of owners
  • Seasonally responsive
  • Structures/systems/spaces that follow the seasons
  • Fresh consumption (corn)
  • Feels like Christmas all the time
  • Well thought out
  • Considered and planned
  • Educational venue
  • Adaptability to any occasion (Devonshire teas)

I then supported the clients (my mum and dad) to start articulating an evolving vision statement for the place:

Desired Areas

We then tuned into the different areas desired. As we went along, we were both massaging these areas into a nested holarchy pattern and considering a sensible implementation sequence (indicated by the numbers):

Here is one of the earlier takes, with 20 top-level areas:

And here a later one, which has four (or with the private – public distinction, just two):

In the last post, alongside the to-scale basemap,  I showed a graphic loosely indicating the layout of the stuff that was already on the place:

Focusing instead on what was to come, we had a very rough play hinting at the obvious aspects of the layout in space of the four main areas (for example, details aside, the productive gardens and lawns etc were going to wrap around the house):

Now here’s a the same diagram with both what was there and what was to come, right down to the higher-resolution areas-within-areas:

here zooming in on the left…

here on the right…

Site Analysis and Assessment

We next turned our attention to the site, starting with sectors…

…existing access flow and frequency patterns… 

…lines of site wanted and not wanted…

…and finally the way different areas were currently patterned across the site (sometimes these are called microclimates or land units):

Here’s the design team, hard at it:

Unfolding the Larger-Area Concept Design

Having articulated a high-level vision for the project, tuned into the areas desired, and immersed ourselves in getting a feel for the site, the day came when three of us each picked up a different-coloured crayon. It was an exciting, suspense-laden moment!

Take One

It was time to start unfolding a sensible configuration for the three high level areas left standing (the communal camping area had in the meantime found a better place to live outside of this central area):

  • The homestead gardens (mum grabbed this crayon)
  • The barn and utility areas (dad grabbed this one)
  • The village green (my wife, Manda grabbed this one)

Here is the actual shapes that emerged…

…and here are some overlaid versions clarifying what happened. First, Manda outlined a provisional spot for the village green like this…

…Dad then outlined an area for the barn and associated utility area here (obviously including the barn)…

…then mum drew in a line enclosing the rough location of the homestead and gardens (obviously including the house)…

“ohh” she exclaimed happily, editing her first line a little to introduce a dip by the lake there, “its a heart shape!”1

Take Two

Before our next design session we all spent much time walking, feeling, and looking for ways in which the above sketch was wrong. Ways that it could better grow out of the site and take it toward the vision that had been articulated.

Quite a few issues with the foregoing layout came up, including:

  • the right-hand side of the barn was already set up as accommodation for guests, meaning it didn’t belong in the utility area.
  • same for the cabins

Here is where the second round got us:

This diagram brings out the high-level pattern:   

Where the spaces in between became vegetated “connective tissue:”

From this…

to this…

Now by this stage mum was itching to start planting out her homestead garden, meaning we left the other areas for the moment to focus in on the homestead garden design process…

…which we’ll start sharing in the next post. Good on you if you made it this far, and catch you then!


On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 12

Following on from the last post, I’ll here start sharing a design and development process I helped facilitate in New Zealand several years ago.

My main aim is to share one example of what I’ve come to call a hybrid design process looks and feels like in practice. This is where, as discussed previously, one completes a concept design and then starts implementing, letting the details emerge from inside the implementation process. I’m not aware of a clean example of this in the permaculture literature or online, so want to try and start filling the gap.

A secondary aim is to get into the swing of finding suitable formats for communicating what actually happens inside design process experiences. These details are usually lost1 in the prettied-up after-the-fact accounts we see in the literature, and I’d like to be part of seeing that start to change.

I’ll start with the backstory and some context before sharing the key phases of this particular design and implementation experience.

The Oakdene Forest Farm Homestead Design & Implementation Process

To start, and for the time-poor folk out there who can’t read the whole story, here’s a video clip that shares the earlier stages of the process. Keep in mind it stops short of the real juice we’ll come to focus on below, namely how and when we eased into implementation, and how this was related to design.


My parents purchased a seven-acre property some nine years back. Fertile river flat, about 1400mm rainfall, hard frosts in winter.

The property is a funny shape – long and skinny – the lighter green strip running from left to right in this aerial photo. North is to the upper left.

Whilst there was some winging it2, a little hybrid action, and perhaps even a weeny early hint of generative unfolding, the centre of gravity of my design process approach at that time was fabrication – fleshing out the details on paper before implementing. Yes, I was a good student and had listened to my teachers carefully and read the books thoroughly!

Sometimes stuff was happening, such as a bunch of trees arriving, where we would lay them out and plant them, designing as we went. But it felt a bit naughty, and I was sometimes racing to try and make sure the details were being designed ahead of time.

I don’t have the original diagrams to hand, but this screen shot (taken from around 2m into the above video) gives a good feel for what I mean:

This sketch, while including some stuff that had already happened, includes many, many decisions made arbitrarily and ahead of time.

As a few more specific examples here I remember sitting on a computer agonising over to-scale gate, water trough, and shelter belt placement and dimensions3:

Or here my wife and I detailed up a house design for ourselves:4

In summary, my first attempt at designing the place was very much a fabricating approach, where I tried to draw up a detailed design before anything much had happened.

Mum and dad followed some of these sketches a bit, and mixed the process up with a fair bit of winging it. Kind of like salt and pepper (winging it) on a meal (fabricating it). Spiced it up a bit. Freaked me out a bit. And at times it wasn’t that clear which was the meal and which was the salt and pepper.

After a few years had gone by we came together for another round of design, focusing in particular on the area around their house and barn.

In what remains of this post I’ll share where this area was at when we commenced this new round of designing. Here is a to-scale base map of the focal area:

To give you a rough feel for where this area sat within the property as a whole, let’s start with a rough indication of the whole property…

…which mostly looked like this, a big empty paddock without a single tree…

…and which over time had distinguished itself into three main sub-sections…

…let’s now zoom into the middle region…

…which had by now again distinguished itself into two sub-areas, one more public, one more private…

…making for a transitional space in between these two…

…there was a pre-existing creek running through the area…

…and mum and dad had completed a barn that had been started before they purchased the place…

…they put in a driveway, and we planted some shelter trees around the perimeter, to the south…

…and north…

…and mum planted out what we’re now calling the communal orchard…

…dad and my brother-in-law built a few little cabins…

…dug a massive hole both to build an elevated platform for their house (this is a river flat, after all!) and dug a pond to its north…

…for reasons including this5

above photo taken the morning of May 13, 2011 from the future house kitchen site

…they then built their beautiful little redwood-clad house…

…right about here…

…bringing us back to the to-scale base map of the area.

Having hopefully oriented you to the site and where its development was up to, in the next post we’ll start reviewing the fresh round of design that then commenced. We’ll start with the process of tuning into the people involved, tuning into the place more deeply, and then unfolding a concept-level design for the whole area. I know, I know, isn’t it exciting to be getting into the nitty gritty of what different flavours of design process look and feel like on the ground!


On the Relation between Designing and Implementing in Permaculture – Part 11

After a six-post review of an advanced design course, we now return to our current inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing in permaculture.

First, a quick recap of where this inquiry has taken us so far:

Part 1 shared nine clear, well-thought out permaculture design process break-downs:

Part 2 reviewed each of the nine in detail, concluding that:

A core idea integral to how permaculture design process is understood and communicated in the permaculture literature is that of completing a design to some satisfactory degree of detail and only then implementing it.

Part 3 interviewed an acorn who showed us that nature doesn’t roll this way – which is to say that permaculture design process doesn’t mimic the processes living systems use to create themselves, even thought it is supposedly about mimicking living systems.

Part 4 shared a taste of Christopher Alexander’s powerful critique of the conventional architectural practice of detailing a design before implementing it.

Part 5 introduced Alexander’s distinction between fabricating (detailed design up front, full of mistakes) and generating processes (details come out in the wash, relatively mistake-free):

Part 6 showed how Bill Mollison, David Holmgren, Dave Jacke and Ben Falk have all shown or at least hinted at their preference or lived experience of design processes that consciously avoids premature detail, concluding that:

This a striking internal contradiction within permaculture. Evidently thousands of people are being taught an approach to permaculture design (based on what is in the books) that some of the most considerate permaculture design thinkers in the world reject on the grounds that it doesn’t work!

Part 7 left the confines of permaculture-world to discover a highly relevant parallel discussion on wikipedia’s design entry contrasting rational and action-centric design approaches.

Part 8 then dipped into the action-centric Agile approach to software development,1 concluding that:

In at least one important respect,2 many modern software designers are using design processes that are more sophisticated, more throughly researched and crash tested, more adaptive, and in some ways even more nature mimicking than the processes used (or at least publicly taught and communicated) by permaculture designers, who ostensibly are all about mimicking nature!

Part 9 summarised our discoveries and got ready to try them out on the ground.

Part 10 took a moment to clarify the different ways designing can be related to implementing inside design process, the upshot being this diagram:

Along the way there has been some fantastic conversation and commentary (see for instance here, here, here, and here for a few personal highlights).

In the next post I’ll get on and start sharing a clear permaculture design example of a hybrid process. I hope to catch you again then.


The Alex Bayley Podcast, Agile Permaculture, and latest news

The Alex Bayley podcast

In case you hadn’t noticed, Making Permaculture Stronger now has a podcast. So far have recorded conversations with Rosemary Morrow on permaculture design process…

…Bridget O’Brien on design process and her game Adapt

…and today I’m excited to release the latest Making Permaculture Stronger podcast – a discussion the topic of Agile Permaculture with Alex Bayley:

Agile Permaculture – Alex’s Blog

Not long after we recorded the podcast, Alex started releasing an ongoing blog series exploring the topic of agile permaculture in detail. This post has some background and lead in, then the series starts here. Great stuff, well written, and well worth checking out.

Making Permaculture Stronger News

Much as I enjoyed documenting and sharing the experience, I’m stoked to have finished the advanced course write up. I am now gearing up to hook back into our current inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing in permaculture.

Meantime there have been a few Making Permaculture Stronger themed gatherings recently, and others planned, so let me quickly fill you in:

New Zealand

The New Zealand permaculture community had its third weekend gathering on the theme of making permaculture stronger recently. The first two gatherings respectively explored permaculture design process and permaculture education. Then this most recent gathering on July 1st & 2nd was about permaculture professional practice. Though I have only attended the first event in this series, my NZ friends have shared that all three have had fantastic energy and I see that the fourth event (or “hui” as they are known in NZ) looking at making social permaculture stronger is booked in for early 2018. Go NZ!

Actually, whilst I think of it, here is a short clip in which David Holmgren experiences his support for these discussions in NZ:


On July 4, 2017, eight of us gathered for a day in Castlemaine, Victoria, for Australia’s first making permaculture stronger gathering. It was a rich dialogue where, amongst much else, I was delighted to have input into the making permaculture stronger blog projects next six months or so. Thanks so much to Linton, Alex, Anthony, Tom, Sharn, Greg, and Mark for coming along. Let me know if you’d like to join the informal email discussion group in which the discussions from the day have been continuing.


This coming November David (‘Phoenix’) Hursthouse will be representing making permaculture stronger at the international permaculture convergence in India, where he’ll lead a session on the topic. Go Phoenix and all the best for a wonderful session and convergence.


So to give you a heads up, next steps from here involve picking up where we left off in our inquiry into designing and implementing (which there probably is around another nine or ten posts in). I then look forward to bringing together the findings of Inquiries One and Two and unveiling where it is feeling like this little project is going to head next.

My intention is to release a new post at least once per week on a Saturday morning (Melbourne time).

Along the way there will be more podcasts (with Morag Gamble among others), and I’m hoping we’ll also start seeing some guest posts by others starting to flow in too.

Right then, onwards!

Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process 2017 – Part Six: The Fourth Day

Having shared the inception, preparations, and days one, two and three of the Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process course David Holmgren and I ran in April of 2017, in this post I share the fourth and final day along with some post-course reflections…

First, however, here are the fine group of folk that spent these four days together:

Back row: Florent, Blake, Antonio, Mark, Orlando, Dan, Kinchem, Anthony, Rayna, Brendon, ___, Stu.
Middle row: ___, Elja, Mellisa, Su, Brenna, Anthony, David
Front row: Seb, Bec, Angela, Su, David, Keri
note – apologies for the two forgotten names!

Day Four

Session One – Open discussion and a theme that arose

We started the day with an open discussion, where everyone had the chance to share where they were at and heading with their own projects, and their reflections on permaculture.

Seb shares a few reflections1

Participants were involved in a really interesting range of projects. I picked up on an eagerness to break permaculture out of the confines of being a landscape-focused discipline. To apply it elsewhere.

In retrospect, this resonates with the talk I hear about the need for a social permaculture, a spiritual permaculture, a permaculture economics, and so on.

Indeed, if permaculture has a sound, coherent and comprehensive system for effecting lasting change, it only follows that our focus ought to be pushing it out far and wide, right?

I shared a concern with this idea: My opinion that the design process at the core of permaculture currently lacks soundness and coherence. As a result, in spreading permaculture (which is above all else a design system), we are unintentionally spreading ideas that are unsound and incoherent. Ideas that will, if inadvertently, undermine the ability of permaculture to deliver real solutions in different domains. To deliver on its incredible promise.

Yes, let us spread permaculture more widely. But let us also get on the same page about the core of the ideas we are spreading. Let us then deepen the quality and coherence of those ideas. Indeed, this deepening work can only benefit from happening in a wide diversity of contexts: places, cultures, domains, and disciplines.

Breadth, yes. A broad range of amazing people doing permaculture in a broad range of contexts. Great! But not at the expense of depth.

Later in the day we had reason to pick up on this theme. Here David shared how he makes sense of this issue in the context of his permaculture flower.

Here, the red line spiralling out represents design process. Arising from ethics and principles, it cycles through all the seven domains. David pointed out that all of us are involved in all seven domains. Indeed, it is probably fair to say that not a day goes by when all of us don’t have something to do with all seven.

David I believe making this very point

This gives us all the opportunity to deepen our own practical, lived experience of the design processes we all use, every day, in the context of these inseparably related aspects of our lives.

The resulting process understandings will be deep enough, general enough, to serve us wherever we go with permaculture.

Rather than developing only domain-specific tools or taking some process we perceive others as having developed in one domain and then seeking to copy and paste it sideways, let’s develop a shared vocabulary of design process at a deeper level. Then let’s share (and continue developing) that, not to mention joyously beholding the unique and beautiful solutions it generates in different domains.

Sessions Two-Four – Visiting Mayberry Woodend

After morning tea we packed up our tents and things and car-pooled our merry way to the Mayberry Woodend project, where I’ve been acting as a design process facilitator with Anna, LJ, Tom, Menno (big people) & Ren & Rhys (little people).

To give you a flavour of where the landscape development aspect of the project is up to, here’s Flo’s sketch of one of the Mayberry design diagrams…

…the clay model the crew crafted as part of the design process (That’s Menno tweaking a tree)…2

….and a recent bit of drone footage of the property…

I was excited to be able to share a real example of the process approach we’d been exploring on the course. It was also great to explore a living-scape (as in both people and place, together)3 that, in contrast to Melliodora, was just beginning its development journey. The starting state of the landscape was still easy to make out amongst the fresh earthworks and just-planted trees.

We used the new driveway as an example of an adaptive move within a generative design process

One of the most striking examples of the nature of the design (and creation) process at play at Mayberry concerns the driveway in relation to human feeling.4 As a group we walked into the property via the old driveway. I asked participants to verbalise how they felt as we approached the homestead – to articulate their feelings. There were about ten aspects of the driveway which made folk feel tense as they imagined driving in that way. One was the feeling of being thrust straight into the private area behind the houses – a feeling of suddenly entering an intimate space prematurely. Another was the feeling of confusion about where to park.

But before these, David articulated another aspect of how the layout of the old driveway induced felt tension. One that I hadn’t consciously noticed before. One side of the driveway was flanked by a cypress hedge that on the one hand was dense, but on the other had regions of partial visibility where you could make out the neighbour’s house and activity. This created a subtle feeling of sort of seeing into their space inappropriately, like the idea was you shouldn’t be able to. But perhaps even more significantly, tension was induced by the fact that the other side of the driveway was wide open (apart from the trunks of several large eucalyptus trees5 This gave a feeling of asymmetry that was distinctly uncomfortable when you paid it attention.

The new driveway you can see in the above photo or drone footage completely resolved and dissolved all the tensions induced by the old driveway, not to mention helping resolve other tensions on the property such as inadequate water diversion into the main dam and the feeling that the dam was unconnected to the rest of the property.

Wandering around aside, the best bit of the visit for me was having the four lovely clients6 sharing the experience of the process from their end, along with tree planting contractor David Griffiths sharing his experience of being part of the process.

Menno, Tom, Rhys, David, Anna & LJ

In the bottom right of this context diagram, crafted by the Mayberry crew using the holistic decision making approach, you’ll see the words “we are welcoming.”

These words were so very true of our visit, and I’m so grateful to LJ, Anna, Tom and Menno for so warmly taking us all into their home and sharing so openly and honestly what they are up to.

Su Dennett saying hi to young Rhys whilst everyone tucked into Su’s delicious cooking

Here’s a few more photos from the day the Mayberry crew kindly took and gave permission to share:

An aspect unanticipated…

There was one aspect of the visit I hadn’t really thought about until we arrived. David Holmgren was visiting the site of a significant design project I am involved in! It is one thing to talk about design process, but another to share with a senior colleague how what you’re talking about actually pans out in reality. It is another thing again when that senior colleague happens to have co-originated the very field you are working within!

So when David pulled me aside to share his reflections on the project, I suddenly felt rather nervous. Was he about to point out some major oversights, mistakes, wrong turns? Was he about to suggest that what was underway at Mayberry had no relation to the design process understandings I’d been sharing on the course? Was I about to find myself humiliated in the presence of the mentor?

Well, tough luck, because I’m not going to tell you what he said. You’ll have to pry that out of me by asking very nicely in a comment below ;-).7

Closing circle

The day and thus the course ended at Mayberry. We found a sheltered spot and, sitting in a circle, each shared reflections on the experience and where we were each heading from here.

In this moment of lovely vibes, I was delighted to hear that participants felt as if they had been part of a conversation. For me at least, this made the whole experience real, made it exciting. Neither David nor I or anyone else knew what was going to happen, where we were going to end up.

David, Angela, Dan and David Griffiths

One thing I shared was my experience of the whole thing being an eight-day intensive inquiry into permaculture design process. Consisting initially in dialogue between David and myself for the first four days and then with a lovely larger group for the second four days.8 I was feeling extremely grateful that the thing had happened.

Post-Course Reflections

Here, again, is the post-course reflection conversation David and I had a few days after the course.


“Great,” you might think. “David and Dan enjoyed the workshop.” “But it was a workshop!” – “what did the other participants make of it all?”

For completeness, I have decided I will share the answers to two high-level questions on the (anonymous) feedback forms we handed out at the course’s end.9

One of the questions was:

On the proverbial scale of 1-10, how much value do you feel you received from the workshop / how useful will what you learned (from everyone) be in your future?

The average rating here was 9/10.

Another of the questions was:

If someone considering this workshop in future asked you about it, what would you say to them?

Here’s everything that was shared in response:

I highly recommend this course for anyone seeking a deep understanding of permaculture design. This course is perfect for designers, educators, practitioners and theorists wanting to understand the role permaculture will play in transforming our world

Great to absorb from David in and out of his zone

Get plenty of rest before you start – I’m exhausted!

Do it! This course reaffirms and gives permission to take action.

Really deep provoking course with challenging concepts. Great holistic design process. Lots to think about!

Absolutely recommend if you wish to extend your permaculture design skills, especially if the design process hasn’t sat all that well with you. You will come away inspired and enthusiastic.

The process was powerful and inspiring beyond expectation

If in a perma-crisis it could be for you

Transformational, intense, deep, reflective work to move permaculture forward

I would advise a big yes

Yes definitely. Its a good complement to a PDC, or for someone designing properties.

Definitely worth it, empowering!

I arrived with a lot of questions and I left with more questions

If you’re serious about applying permaculture on projects or more broadly , you shouldn’t hesitate to do this course. It was a game-changer for me.

Oh yes, one of the participants, Seb, also wrote a few words of post course reflection here.

The Small Matter of the Drowned Bus and the Christopher Alexander Volumes

Several days before the course a friend in New Zealand let us know that my parent’s seven acre property had been seriously flooded. Here’s a photo of our two-story 1964 Bedford house bus at the peak of the flood. Yikes!

For a day or two I considered pulling out of the course to return to NZ to help with damage control. It was the incredible group of friends in NZ, organised by Louise Shaw & family, that made my decision to stay possible. During the actual workshop they put in days and days of work not only helping my mum and dad with the first round of cleanup (with a house and barn also under water) but retrieving, washing and drying my family’s possessions (we had only just arrived back in Australia to live). Gratitude to all of you!

Now there is another reason I mention this. For almost my entire permaculture library got destroyed. A permaculture book compost pile was started.10 This included Volumes 1, 3 & 4 of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order series. Volume 2, The Phenomenon of Creating Life, I had brought with me, along with The Timeless Way of Building, The Pattern Language, and The Battle for the Life and Beauty of the Earth. These, at least, were saved.

Now I alluded to the three Nature of Order Volumes I lost earlier in that when I first walked into David’s study I saw different copies of them sitting on his desk. Just over on the right of this photo:

I mention this because during the closing circle David gifted them to me. This was a moment I’ll long remember. David Holmgren, a significant mentor and the co-founder of permaculture, gifting me three of the four Christopher Alexander volumes I am drawing on extensively to critically advance permaculture. Two of my favourite worlds coming together.

What had happened was that, in some part due to my going on about them, David had purchased the volumes. But given how much he has going on, he realised it was unlikely he would ever manage to read all four. He had volume two yet to arrive, so figured he’d gift me the other three and just read volume two, which I obviously thought the most important, given that was the one I had chosen to bring back with me.

We’re Done, Folks. Show’s Over

So, that is that. Course review done. Tick. If anyone happens to find themselves interested in future iterations of this course then please check out the Holmgren Design Services website, where they will be listed. Given we had ourselves a fine time, David and I anticipate running the event again on something like an annual basis.

Thanks for reading, and in the coming posts I look forward to getting on with our current inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing inside permaculture design process.

Cheerio for now,

Dan Palmer.

ps. Please do leave a comment – would love to hear what you made of this event report and whether is something you’d find useful in future.


Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process 2017 – Part Five: The Third Day

Continuing from the previous post, here I continue a leisurely re-walk through the Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process course David Holmgren and I ran in April 2017

Day Three

Session One – Slowly moving through what is into what might be

In the morning we slowly transitioned our focus from observing or being present to what is, to the process of letting new possibilities arise.

We emphasised the importance of not rushing. Authentic design solutions, directions, or configurations are not something you grab from somewhere else and tack on to what you’ve observed. They arise from within the fabric of what you have observed.

David shared maps of geology, contours, and landscape patterns for the area around Melliodora as well as Fryers Forest. Here is a simple breakdown of different folds and patches in the patchwork fabric of the landscape Melliodora sits within.

I shared an example of one technique I used to bring out topographical patterns in a NZ landscape. Here, the dominance of the existing fence lines made it very hard to discern the underlying mosaic of (deliciously complex) land units. We used different colours to differentiate ridges, valleys, saddles, etc. This way of mapping the place helped both myself and the clients to see and appreciate the actual shape of the place. It brought into the foreground patterns any subsequent design and development work would have to harmonise with if the distinct character of this place was to be honoured and accentuated.

Session Two – Sharing a few insights from Christopher Alexander

In this session I shared several concepts from the writings of Christopher Alexander that have been an enormous influence in my design work.

Distinguishing Context & Form

In Alexander’s 1964 words:

The form is the part of the world over which we have control, and which we decide to shape while leaving the rest of the world as it is. The context is that part of the world which puts demands on this form; anything in the world that makes demands of the form is context. Fitness is a relation of mutual acceptability between these two. In a problem of design we want to satisfy the mutual demands which the two make on one another. We want to put the context and the form into effortless contact or frictionless coexistence (pp. 18-19)

spontaneous context-form exercise

The Constructive Diagram

I also shared Alexander’s concept of a constructive diagram as a diagram that creates a conduit between context and form:

The constructive diagram can describe the context, and it can describe the form. It offers a way of of probing the context, and a way of searching for form. Because it manages to do both simultaneously, it offers us a bridge between requirements and form, and therefore is a most important tool in the process of design.

In all design tasks the designer has to translate sets of requirements into diagrams which capture their physical implications. In a literal sense these diagrams are no more than stages on the way to the specification of a form, like the circulation diagram of a building, or the expected population density map for some region under development. They specify only gross pattern aspects of the form. But the path from these diagrams to the final design is a matter of local detail. The form’s basic organisation is born precisely in the constructive diagrams which precede its design (Christopher Alexander, 1964, p. 92)

Here’s Florent’s sketch of an example of a constructive diagram example I gave from a current project of mine, where the configuration of a piazza area arose out of the process of constructively diagramming the core pedestrian and bike flows through the area:

Here’s the actual image I shared:

Sequence Matters

We now moved on to the second volume in Alexander’s The Nature of Order Series, entitled The Process of Creating Life. First, we explored the importance of getting one’s design process sequence right:

The crux of every design process lies in finding the generative sequence for that design, and making sure that sequence is the right one for the job (Christopher Alexander, 2002, p. 317)

How do you determine the steps which must be taken, and their sequence? What steps do you take, in what order? The most basic instruction I can give you as a guide for living process, is that you move with certainty. That means, you take small steps, one at a time, deciding only what you know. You try never to take a step which is a guess or a ‘why don’t we try this?” Large-scale trial-and-error, shots in the dark, simply do not work. Rather, you move by slow, small decisions, deciding one thing, getting sure about it, and then, moving on

As far as the scale of the decisions is concerned — that, on the contrary, should be rather large. At the beginning, especially, you need to work mainly with the largest questions. Many of the issues you need to settle, in the early stages of your work, have to do with the whole, the global quality of the design.

It is always crucial to take a good first step. … In the same breath, we must realize that the main problem is to avoid taking any of the many possible false steps (Christopher Alexander, 2002, p. 317)

At this juncture we hopped outside and did an exercise around P. A Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence. As I’m sure many readers will know, the scale of permanence,1 is a design process sequencing meta-heuristic.

I gave each of ten folk a sign. Eight with Yeoman’s standard scale items. One each for crops and animals (which we have found useful additions over the years).2

The ten were invited to organise themselves in a line from most permanent (or hardest to change) to least permanent (or easiest to change). Much advice and opinion was forthcoming from the rest of the group (who were observing).

After some discussion and rearranging into Yeoman’s default sequence, we first made up an example of someone starting with an animal the group suggested, coming up with a crop suited to the feeding of that animal, and then one by one up the scale in reverse order. What we found is as we got up to water, landform/geology, and climate, is that the decisions we made earlier were hopelessly unadapted to their context and hence doomed to fail.

We then repeated the exercise moving in the other direction, and find (surprise surprise) that everything magically just fell into place.

Sequence. Matters.

Gradually Transforming what is

Moving back inside, we touched on idea David had been independently emphasising of always working with and gradually transforming a pre-existing whole. In Alexander’s words:

In a living system what is to be always grows out of what is, supports it, extends its structure smoothly and continuously, elaborates new form – sometimes startlingly new form – but without ever violating the structure which exists.

When this rule is violated, as it was, far too often, in 20th-century development, chaos emerges. A kind of cancer occurs. Harm is done. All in modern society succeeded, in the last century, in creating an ethos where where buildings, plans, objects…are judged only by themselves, and not by the extent to which they enhance and support the world. This means that nature has been damaged, because it is ignored and trampled upon. It means that ancient parts of towns and cities have been trampled, because the modernist view saw no need to respect them, to protect them.

But even more fundamental, it came about because the idea of creativity which became the norm assumed that it is creative to make things that are unrelated (sometimes disoriented and disconnected just in order to be new), and that this is valuable-where in fact it is merely stupid, and represents a misunderstanding, a deep misapprehension of how things are. Creativity comes about when we discover the new within a structure already latent within the present. It is our respect for what is that leads us to the most beautiful discoveries. In art as well as in architecture, our most wonderful creations come about, when we draw them out as extensions and enhancements of what exists already.

The denial of this point of view, is the chief way in which 20th-century development destroyed the surface of the earth (Christopher Alexander, 2002, p. 136)

I had touched on this idea in this clip from the session on the school oval on Day Two:

The Relation Between Designing and Implementing

I also presented the table from this post, which we worked through and discussed. I then shared this humorous snippet from the VEG website written by my colleague, friend and co-designer Adam Grubb:

You might think that our next level involves another layer of detail and masterplanning. But masterplanning — indeed, any overly-detailed on-paper design — tends to go wrong one of two ways:

  • It’s not implemented according to plan
  • It is implemented according to plan

What?  Well on our journey, what we’ve discovered is that the best design is done iteratively, always one step ahead, but alongside implementation.  The adaptive process allows us to grow the design in appropriate stages.

Session Three & Four: The Melliodora Design and Development Process over Three Decades

In what for me was, hands-down, the highlight of the course, we spent the afternoon moving around Melliodora unpacking and re-travelling through the 30-year design and development process that continues today.

Florent’s sketch of David unpacking and revisiting the early phases of designing Melliodora

Photo of the same scene.

It was downright thrilling to see David uncovering, literally dusting off, and sharing the initial sequence of Melliodora design diagrams. The number of cameras clicking at this point were testimony to the feeling that this was an important moment, both for the course, and, I believe, for permaculture as a whole. David was putting design process on the table, when in my opinion it has been far too long hidden away in the cupboard (or in some cases swept under the rug!).

Melliodora’s first design sketch. Note the central road/diversion drain that turned out to be unnecessary (given the sheer size of the natural uphill catchment to the main valley in which you can see the two dams). Also at this stage David was exploring the main driveway to the house coming in from above (the eastern boundary), where in the third diagram below you can see this driveway ended up coming in from the southern boundary.

Melliodora concept plan after house plans and earthworks complete, before dams (circa March 1986). Note road around dam rather than over dam wall (as ended up happening) and shed on boundary (at top of diagram) rather than slightly lower (where it ended up being built) to allow site drainage to flow behind rather than below shed.

David shared how Melliodora has arisen not form any one process but from a rich constellation of different process flavours all weaving in and out of each other, including:

  • Design up front (house earthworks, main dam and house, orchard, house platform shelter plantings)
  • Emergent /generative (shed/barn complex, blue gum & internal shelter, red soil garden, gully plantings, goats, sharing the abundance and work load)
  • Stuff ups (mineral balance – being a more-on)
  • Fine tuning (dam earthworks, garden stone wall, studio site, food storage)
  • Retrofitting (house insulation, tea house, house water systems; orchard design)

David outside the Melliodora barn which, in contrast to the house design process, emerged very organically and iteratively. It started when they noticed they were stockpiling stuff in a particular spot then one day built a structure over the stockpile!

I love this gate. In so many details its form has been honed and refined over decades of daily use toward a state of frictionless co-existence with its context. To me it is equally beautiful function and functional beauty.

In the orchard system at Melliodora. David is refreshingly honest about what has worked great as well as what hasn’t. As an example, Cockatoos have proven an unexpectedly formidable obstacle between humans and a decent fruit harvest (hence the netting you can see in the background).

David shares a joke as Nick Ritar from Milkwood Permaculture enters another job into his little black book. Nick and Kirsten are so active at Melliodora (where they now live) that their main walking track to and fro has inadvertently started diverting water from rather than toward the main dam!


In many ways I feel like the evening we then spent around the camp fire next to the ancient pear tree made the course. It was magic to have Oliver Holmgren sharing freely on his experience of growing up at Melliodora. Not to mention my good friends Nick and Kirsten of Milkwood Permaculture (now living onsite at Melliodora and very active in its daily management) sharing their perspectives on permaculture, life, and the universe.

Melliodora’s ancient pear tree (which now includes a kick-ass new tree house built by Nick & Asha)

Chestnuts were roasted. Local cider was imbibed (thanks Rod May!). Exceptionally good vibes were experienced all around.

So concluded the third day. In the next post we’ll review the fourth and final day.


Alexander, Christopher. Notes on the Synthesis of Form. Harvard, 1964.
Alexander, Christopher. The Nature of Order: An Essay on the Art of Building and the Nature of the Universe: Book Two: The Process of Creating Life. Vol. 2. of 4 vols. The Center for Environmental Structure, 2002.



Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process 2017 – Part Four: The Second Day

Building on the previous post, in this post I continue a leisurely re-walk through the Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process course David Holmgren and I ran in April of 2017.

Day Two

Session One – David Holmgren’s Permaculture design Process Journey

We started the second day with an exploration of David’s journeys with permaculture design process.

In the lead up to the course I had taken notes from David and then refined this timeline diagram:

I found it intensely fascinating to hear David’s stories and adventures with design process over the years. Here is some of what stood out for me.

Reading Landscape is a keystone skill in permaculture design

David emphasised his early appreciation of the critical importance of cultivating our ability to read landscape. Refining and attempting to share this skill, you might even say, forms the backbone of David’s permaculture design process journey.

Haikai Tane’s huge significance in David’s journey

Haikai is a mysterious, wizard-like character that David describes as his second mentor after Mollison. Interestingly, David learned design process from Tane, not Mollison (or, ironically from his earlier studies of ‘environmental design’). For David, Bill was at heart an ecologist rather than a designer.

Haikai introduced David to strategic planning and the land systems approach, which they collaboratively refined into a joint approach to permaculture farm-scale development projects.

Strategic Planning

In a nutshell, strategic planning (which contrasts with master planning) comes from the military and emphasises the ongoing process of planning over the idea of creating then following a plan. In Trees on the Treeless Plains (1994/2006), David put it this way:

There is a role for input from a large range of professionals including landscape designers, but it is the landholder who must become the lead planner. Only the landholder can consider and balance all the strategic, technical and practical elements which make a whole farm and develop a plan which can grow and change over time.

General Eisenhower once said “plans are useless but planning is essential”. In other words, planning is a process rather than bits of paper, or put another way, strategic planning rather than master planning.

Master planning, (where detailed plans are implemented producing a final fixed state which is a copy of what is on paper) has been discredited in the planning profession due to its failure to deal with complex evolving systems such as cities. Many attempts at farm planning by consultants, including soil conservation officers and landscape architects, have tended to be master plans which encourage the notion of a final state for the landscape and farm. It might be noted that the final state for everything is death.

In strategic planning, the emphasis is on processes of development which are on-going and respond to changing circumstances. It recognises that complex systems can never be completely described, predicted or controlled but that forces can be identified and worked with to develop a more balanced and productive system. Most importantly, strategy planning can help pinpoint the initial step to get the desired processes moving without later having to undo what has already been done. (p. 21)1

Land Systems

The land systems approach emphasises reading or tuning deeply into the patterns of pre-existing differentiations in the landscape (based on ecological and geo-spatial information in a way similar to how indigenous cultures map land) and then basing subsequent design moves on these patterns.

Bringing Strategic Planning and Land Systems together

Haikai and David’s approach to integrating strategic planning and land systems mapping in the context of whole-farm design is summarised in this diagram, where part of the point is that you are working on all four streams simultaneously:

David crash-tested and refined this approach over the course of long-term, in-depth projects (his mum’s place as documented in Permaculture in the Bush, Melliodora, Fryers Forest ecovillage) as well as a lot of shorter consultancies (usually one day) in the period 1983-1994.

Now David explained that something interested happened with strategic planning over time which is that it entered the universities and so on. In becoming institutionalised it became sterilised and impotent and effectively just another variation on a ‘waterfall’ or step-by-step linear process.2 In David’s words it became “degraded into a formula.” This was one of the reasons that David quit teaching design process on PDCs in the late eighties (he has only very recently started again).

Limitations of Site Planning Approach

David also covered his critique of permaculture becoming over-reliant on the site planning approach which (with its zones & sectors) is useful for small scale nucleated development, but falls short when imposed on larger and more complex sites (where David finds land systems mapping and strategic planning are much more helpful).

Iteratively retrofitting our way into and through an uncertain future

Toward the end of this session David made this insightful comment which combined some of the flavours of the emerging approach to permaculture design process we’d already started hinting at, with what he considers an imminent global financial crisis. The beginning of this clip was cut off, but I think he was sharing his intention to pick up on (the recording started here):

…the process that Dan’s talking about, this sort of iterative process where we are going in steps and seeing what happens next, a more organic process, and also to highlight that a lot of what we are doing is not working with blank slate planning – that we’re actually retrofitting something that already exists, and that it’s actually a different paradigm when you say everything already is a whole place, it all has a history, there’s no such thing as starting from scratch anyway. But on top of that, the point we’re at in history, when this property bubble bursts, and historically it’s right on the verge, this year, next year, it doesn’t matter. This is not just for this country, but for the globe. In financial-economic terms this is unprecedented in the 5000-year history of money, and it’s certainly unprecedented in the 300-year history of modern central banking. That will change everything and because it is financial, it’s not like climate change or peak oil, it can change very very fast. And so we’re moving into a world where this idea that development occurs and buildings go up… and people are moving capital from here to there, that will just grind to a halt. And people will be left with where they are and what is available and what is possible. And so it doesn’t actually take away from the learnings from planning and design, but how we actually apply them will be quite different (David Holmgren, 2017)

Session Two – Dan’s Permaculture design Process Journey

It was a nice day so for the next session we grabbed a cuppa then headed up to the school oval and found ourselves a nice spot to gather. There was something magic about that particular spot and the energy at this moment on the course which many people commented on afterward.

As you’ll hear in the below clip from this actual session, some of what I shared was how, a few years ago I reached a fork in the path of my personal journey with permaculture design.

So what was the fork? Well, I’d come to realise that permaculture has some pretty deep issues, and that my previous strategy of merely putting band-aids over the symptoms (or ‘cracks’) was not enough.

As I was preparing the above video I happened to read this line in Otto Scharmer’s (2016, second edition) book Theory U, which helped me make sense of the ‘cracks’ I talk about in the video:

Those thresholds, or doorways, usually begin to appear when our conventional ways of operating no longer work, when we hit a wall. We have to drop our old tools and redirect our attention to the field that is unfolding around and within us. It’s as if a crack appears in our reality; suddenly the crack is right there, in your face. The you have a choice: you can patch the crack, or you can stop: drop your tools, attend to the crack that is opening in front of you, tune into the crack, and redirect your attention to it. Then, go with the flow. The capacity to see the crack–to stop and look at it closely, is a key discipline of our time (p. 111).

Details aside, I realised that that permaculture’s rapid horizontal spread at the surface was not being balanced or complemented by a deepening at its core. Further, if this pattern continued, I felt that permaculture’s incredible relevance to the future would likely not be realised. Hence the flavour of many of my most recent projects, including Making Permaculture Stronger.

Florent’s amazing sketch of this session.

One of Keri’s photos of the session (that’s Florent holding his chin to the right)

Design Process

Moving from my story to focus in on design process proper, we used a very recent update of the VEG process diagram as one coherent process example:3

I then shared a few gateways I’ve found into systems thinking / holistic observation. One I’ll save for another time, but the other fed nicely into the following session on reading landscape and involves a different take on the word aspect.

Aspecting, inspecting & side-specting

Years ago the American philosopher John Dewey had alerted me to how the word aspect can be used as a verb as well as a noun.4

Since then I have come to personally understand and use aspecting as a mode of observation that contrasts with inspecting. If inspecting is observing or looking at something by focusing in on its component parts, aspecting is seeing something as part of a larger system. When we inspect we move from whole towards parts. When we aspect we move from part toward whole.

Inspecting has become our culturally default way of seeing the world. We tend to approach things by ‘breaking them down’, identifying those parts, then looking at how they fit together.

It was actually watching David read landscape in the past that helped me realise that a huge part of permaculture is sort of reclaiming aspecting as a legitimate and indeed an essential part of healthy, holistic observation.

An example of what I’m talking about: one day a few years back, David lead Michael Jackson of Yandoit Farm and I on a seven-hour reading-the-landscape walk that left my spinal cord quivering with information overload for several days afterward. David’s ability to read landscape, particularly in his native habitat (he lives just around the corner), is mind-blowing and takes you from the tiniest gum nut or stone right here and now to the massive basalt plateau that flowed down over the sedimentary base layer 4 million years ago all within a couple of minutes. It is like one second, you’re looking through a magnifying glass, now from a hot air ballon 1000 metres up, now you’re lying on an ancestral gold-lined riverbed 40 feet underground, and now you’re 400 million years in the past under a kilometre-deep ocean watching the future sedimentary soils get laid down as floods seasonally spew materials out from the river ends. I’d better move on. My spinal cord is starting to quiver again.

I realised how David so deeply unpacks a landscape: the key is that he uses his observational skills in a constant iteration between inspecting and aspecting. Both are critical, and I’m pretty sure from my own experience that you can’t do both at once, at least not consciously.

It was quite recently that I realised sometimes you are not going upwards in scale from a part toward the whole or wholes that part is part of (aspecting), or going downward in scale from a whole toward its parts (inspecting). Quite often you simply go sideways in scale, as in the scale stays the same and you take in similarly scaled wholes (or part-wholes, or holons) adjacent to what you were just looking at. An example would be look from tree to tree along a riparian strip. I call this sidespecting.

So, as we observe and interact, on the one had we move constantly between inspecting, sidespecting and aspecting. Constantly.

Observe, Hypothesise. Repeat.

In addition to inspecting, sidespecting and aspecting, whenever we read landscape (or anything else), we move constantly from direct observations to hypotheses about what we are observing. David later put in this way:

you can see reading landscape involves hypotheses, guesses, question marks all the time – much more than it involves answers (David Holmgren, 2017)

Here is a simple example from a design consultancy I did several days ago. As you can see from the aerial photo there is a perplexing tessellation-like pattern going on in the paddocks.

I directly observed this and was instantly theorising about what it might be and what might cause it. This process then continued on site as shown in this video:


Reading Landscape

We spent the afternoon on reading landscape with David. The bulk of it was taking a stroll in one of four groups where the goal was to:

  • Observe (using all senses if possible)
  • Be aware of feelings and emotions that arise but avoid dwelling on judgements about good and bad
  • Look for signs of water flow, wind or fire,
  • Use road cuttings & earthworks that show the soil and geology.
  • Look for signs of recent or past human activity including land management
  • Where possible identify rock types, plants, animal dropping, bird calls etc
  • Take samples and/or photographs where appropriate
  • Look for signs of hidden, subtle or past;
    • natural and seasonal processes
    • animal and human activity (including design and management)

Meandering down into Dr’s Gully

Those clear signs of past events in the landscape fade over time from hours through to centuries and millennia. But in a sense all of the things that have happened in a place are still there. And that’s of course what indigenous and spiritual perspectives say anyway, that it’s all still here. (David Holmgren, 2017)

Reading People

That evening I led a session on reading people after dinner, sharing the approach I’ve developed drawing on holistic management decision making, Dave Jacke’s goals articulation process, and my own experience with what works best.

I guess the take home point was that I find it crucial to spend some good time here and to go deeper than initial replies to fathom at least something of the essence (distinctiveness) of my clients in helping them articulate what it is they really want. The process at this stage results in both a true north for the project and a list of the different main areas or activities that will support that vision.

I explored the parallels with reading landscape in that you are not only iterating between inspecting, aspecting, and sidespecting as you get to know your clients, but you are iterating between what you observe or feel and guesses about what this is indicating, which you then test with further questions and so on. As you immerse in the parts of the clients being shared with you, you slowly build up an increasingly complete and coherent picture of the whole. This process is integral to sound design process and has traditionally not been a strong point in permaculture.

Here is an example of the (actively used and evolving) context created by the crew at Mayberry Woodend. This both defines the big-picture true north of the project, and translates it down into the actions enabling traction toward that true north and future resource base those actions depend on (learn more about this approach here). We were lucky to have Tom and Menno from Mayberry come and sit in for this session and share the people-reading process I was talking about from the receiving end.

So concluded the second day. In the next post we’ll review Day Three.


Holmgren, David. Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for the Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria. Holmgren Design Services, 1994 (republished as Ebook 2006).

Scharmer, C. Otto. Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges. 2nd ed. BK, 2016.


Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process 2017 – Part Three: The First Day

Building on the previous post, in what follows I’ll continue a leisurely re-walk through the Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process course David Holmgren and I ran in April of 2017, pulling out and sharing key content as I go.1

Here was our draft programme:


  • Session One (8:45am-10:30am) – Introductions, housekeeping, course context
  • Session Two (11am-12:30pm) – History of Design Frameworks
  • Session Three & Four (1:30pm – 5pm) – Ethics and Principles
  • Session Five (7-9pm) – Free-form social time


  • Session One (8:45am-10:30am) – Check in & recap, history and evolution of permaculture design process understandings
  • Session Two (11am-12:30pm) – Segue into moving through permaculture design process in detail
  • Session Three & four (1:30pm – 5pm) – Reading Landscape
  • Session five (7-9pm) – Reading people


  • Session One (8:45am-10:30am) – Distilling, evaluating, synthesising observations
  • Session Two (11am-12:30pm) – Moving toward concept design / patterning / overall strategy
  • Session Three & four (1:30pm – 5pm) – Melliodora walk and case study
  • Evening meal and then fire at Pear Tree


  • Session One (8:45am-10:30am) – TBC
  • Session Two, Three & four (1 pm – 5pm) – Mayberry Woodend field trip

Day One

Session One – Introductory

Before we kicked off the first day, David, local permaculture teacher Beck Lowe, Keri Chiveralls from CQU and I checked in. Bec had come on board to both sit in and help facilitate the whole workshop and along with Keri (not to mention Su!) was an integral part of the event.

After opening the event, acknowledging country, getting to know each other, and such like, we started by articulating a whole-group shared intention. Here was the first draft:

Having warmly and happily connected with our peers, we’ve been inspired and re-energised by knowledge that provokes us into confident action

I won’t refer back to this but we revisited it throughout the course both to improve it and to continuously adapt our trajectory toward it. We also developed and wrote down several statements around what we wanted to be true along the way.

Session Two – Permaculture as Framework

It was now time to enter the flow of the course proper. We started at the most general level by looking at frameworks for understanding permaculture as a whole, and the place and significance of design process within such frameworks.

After co-originating permaculture with Bill Mollison, David shied away from the limelight. He continued to test and refine his skills and understandings for some years before re-entering the scene to:

…see what this permaculture movement was that Mollison had created through this process of bringing people together for two weeks and doing all sorts of stuff… and anyway it was pretty inspiring and I found myself drawn back into it. And when I started teaching on this permaculture design course in ‘90 they said ‘well you’re the co-originator – why don’t you teach principles’ and I thought ‘oh shit.’ …this lead to a ten year process of learning how to articulate principles that ended up being distilled in principles and pathways beyond sustainability…

…but I was always intensely aware in that period that this is not an adequate way of dealing with design – you can’t use these [principles] as direct tools very well or in a very concrete way to design – that these are deeper down in the foundations (David Holmgren, April 2017)

David then talked about how the ethics and principles fit within permaculture as a whole, sharing this framework diagram:

…the idea that where we might be wanting to go is the solution we’re after and often that’s very specific – in permaculture it turns out to be often unique – there is actually no other example which is exactly like what we need. But we’re working from universal conceptual foundations and ethics are the most fundamental layer. And then design principles sit above those, and these are really thinking tools for how we understand things… and then I used Mollison’s term which he uses in the Designer’s Manual – ‘design methods’ to say well there’s actually lots of different ways to design, but in a way I was thinking of that being both methods and process. Then for me beyond that strategies and concepts. For me strategies comes out of strategic planning, concepts comes out of architecture – the concept plan, bubble diagram, the general idea. And then as the design comes toward something more concrete, we have to get into the techniques and specifications. The difference between an architect’s bubble diagram and actual construction drawings.

But of course we need to remember that the architect relies on the fact a building industry exists that knows how to put up buildings and in a lot of cases with permaculture design we’re trying to do this process where there isn’t the equivalent of a building industry – that no one actually knows, in a technical detailed sense, how to do the thing we’re talking about.

And then hopefully we arrive at some design solution.

Then David looked at what happens when a design solution isn’t working. Often in our culture we either give up or only adjust the techniques and specifications that we use. (e.g., trying a different species or seed source for the same species). More rarely we revisit the actual strategy/concept level (e.g., maybe a food forest just isn’t appropriate for the climate and geology). He then pointed out (to my delight) that even:

more occasionally we go back to what are the methods we’re using in design, where professionals mostly inherit these from their training, occasionally in their careers they go through a ‘holy shit – maybe we keep making the same mistakes – maybe there is something in the processes we’re using, the methods we’re using, that are actually not accurate’.

The framework diagram above describes an ideal sequence in what David characterised as a more masculine (outward looking, logical, linear, goal oriented) design pathway to design solutions. It illustrates an ideal patterns-to-details motion from fundamental ethics and principles through design methods resulting in high-level strategies and concepts that in turn lead into techniques and specifications ultimately delivering design solutions.

What I like most about the above diagram 2 are the two red dashed lines. The upper line gets across that most conscious planning and design these days rarely goes any deeper than revisiting the relevant techniques and specifications. One example that comes to mind is that when industrial agriculture runs into problems the first step is to go buy another product. Try a different ploughing technique. Have a higher dose of fertiliser specified.

But it is rare to go back to the level of strategy and concept, let alone our design methods and processes, let alone our fundamental principles and ethics (the lower dashed line)! A big part of why permaculture is radical is because it invites or challenges us to go that deep in redesigning the whole way we think, act and live relatively to the culturally entrenched norms of modern industrial society (and suggests this is required if we are to transition past a fossil fuel production peak).

But now consider a second diagram, which David construed as in some ways a critique of his own framework. This way of construing matters is more feminine in the sense that rather than stressing a sort of linear, general-to-specific sequence, it stresses the embeddedness of everyday life in larger cycles and flows, of being present to “living breathing daily actions” with a more diffuse awareness of a larger field that influences us. In the foreground for all of us are our daily routines of work and play, which we sometimes tweak, tune or do some maintenance on, and more rarely make decisions about changing. But all this exists in a larger context of seasonal and life patterns themselves nested within ecological, economic and cultural realities that we have extremely limited agency to affect (though this can change at times of cultural turnover when for example a small group of people can make or catalyse a significant cultural change).

Together, these diagrams prompted group discussion around on the one hand what conscious redesign looks like, and on the other, not forgetting that the world comes with constraints that we need to acknowledge and fit within. For me, I can see the thinking behind the first diagram having a let’s start from scratch feel, whereas in the second it is more about starting from where we already are, and weaving our way forward from there. It also reminds me of a point I sometimes find myself making toward the end of permaculture design certificate courses where I recommend moving gently in permaculture directions, being gentle with one’s new-found enthusiasm on family and friends, and asking not so much how am I going to fit my life into permaculture, but how is permaculture going to fit into my life?3

Moving on, David then spoke to his permaculture flower, which I’m sure anyone reading this will already be familiar with.

After giving participants time to share and digest this first round in pairs, I shared my permaculture tree take three, which I originally published here. I came up with this diagram toward my goal of clearly communicating the critical importance of design process in being the only thing that can get us from the situation-general ethics, principles, and other foundational aspects of permaculture to situation-specific solutions (layouts, strategies, techniques etc) that are authentically adapted to their unique situations while reflecting and delivering on the permaculture ethics and principles.

One point I emphasised (which isn’t yet clear in the diagram) is that the tree drops its leaves which then enrich the soil below as the break down – as in the successes and failures of the design solutions our design processes generate should continuously feed back into and enrich the foundational levels. In other words nothing in this diagram should stagnate, it should all be continuously alive and evolving.

We then explored this very tentative path-destination diagram I’d been mulling over and with David’s input had sketched up as a rough first draft for the workshop:

The ideas it explores are:

  • Key definitions of permaculture mention both aspects of an amazing place to be heading (nature mimicking systems providing for human needs locally) and a way of getting there (conscious design process). There is a destination, and there is a path to that destination.
  • Permaculture ethics and principles are injected into reality to the extent they inform and are manifested by the pathways or processes we use toward where we want to head (as per the permaculture tree take three)
  • As David pointed out, all this applies equally to industrial civilisation, in the sense that there is also a (very different) destination, an established pathway or set of processes toward that destination, and (very different) ethics and principles that inform and guide that process. David in an earlier session had mentioned “the idea that industrial modern society does actually have design principles. They are not taught, they are deeply culturally embedded, and they’re mostly dysfunctional for the world that we’re entering”
  • So permaculture is in some ways an exploration of what path we need to be on if we want a future worth having, along with the ethics and principles that define that path and help keep it on track.

Conscious vs Intuitive Design (and a story about a coin)

I was very grateful that at this point someone4 asked a question about the use of the phrase “conscious design” in the diagram (and I guess in permaculture more generally) and what this meant for the role of the intuitive, creative, imaginative subconscious in design. David’s answer was well worth me taking a moment to transcribe it from the video footage:

The issue of conscious design and whether that incorporates intuitive aspects, for me coming from a background of growing up as a child of what I call a super rationalist, and that being very much in line with the culture around me, the process of starting to include intuitive aspects in your own design process has been quite a long one.

I’ve been very sceptical of when people say “the property just felt perfectly right for me” – yeah it was spring and a lovely sunny day and you could feel the warmth – that what people sometimes talk about as intuition is actually a superficial emotional reptilian brain response in some situations, which is a deep part of our survival (and in some ways better guides us than this bloody over-thinking top bit).

So I’m critiquing what people sometimes call intuition but there is another level up where we are somehow integrating or distilling so many things that we can’t hold and deal with it in a rational way and getting some higher intuition and higher designing capacity that I believe really exists, but it’s very hard to say that’s what that is in any situation, and much less to be able to give a recipe for it.

I remember one story of relevance. When I was working with Haikai Tane in New Zealand, where he was really my main teacher in design process. There we were, two designers laying out a site for the first workshops run by permaculture in New Zealand in 1979, laying out the site in this remote rural valley. We went through all of these different things (‘that can go there’, ‘this can go there’) and then we got to this blockage where it was this big decision pathway – should that be there or there, and it critically effected everything else on the site (I can’t even remember what the thing was), and he said “oh this is a case for the coin” and he pulls out a coin, and throws it up, and I’m flabbergasted – this is just like ridiculous…

…and then he gave me a long lecture on the I Ching and partially how our response to the decision we made tells us a lot for a start about where we were actually more deeply feeling about that blockage, and also that maybe there are processes by which intuition bypasses some of those things that might cause blockages – they are definitely there, but to allow the space for those to emerge, and to be able to distinguish from those other things that are just more superficial emotions, that are valid in themselves, but I wouldn’t call those things intuition

Surfing the Sweet Spot

In the ensuing discussions David made another important point about the dangers of the two extremes of either:

  • ploughing (ahem) ahead blind to issues with the overriding conceptual framework we’ve imbibed from our culture (where you end up being an unwitting endorser and enforcer of the status quo) and
  • trying to unpack and completely rework our conceptual framework, where nothing gets done

Where the key is yes, maintain a self-aware, self-critical attitude to our guiding assumptions and frameworks, but stay active, and retrofit as you go forward. I mentioned here the idea about repairing the ship, plank by plank, on the open sea, getting across the idea that it is impossible to take off our conceptual framework as if they are a pair of glasses and casually choose a new pair. Bootstrapping bit-by-bit is the only way forward.

Another side to this is the agile programming concept that unless you are constantly putting your theories and ideas to test in the world of practical action, you lack the feedback critical to be sure they are any good, and can spend a bunch of wasted energy marching toward a dead end.

Session Three – Ethics

The rest of the day we spent exploring the permaculture ethics and principles. For the ethics David had breakout groups discussing several questions then coming back to share with the group as a whole. The questions were “to what extent do we as permaculturalists:

  • Lack a deep understanding of our ethical framework?
  • are confused with ethical dilemmas that arise from that framework? and/or
  • know what is ethical but fail to behave according to our ethics?

Here are three slides for the three ethics David shared each with a little supporting caption:

Session Four – Principles

With David’s presentation of his 12 design principles the workshop started to enter previously uncharted territory.

For in the last few days of preparing for the event David had a radical idea. Usually, he shares his principles by showing how they apply to the dynamics of natural (including human made) systems. So for instance in catching and storing energy he might discuss photosynthesis, then give an example of a firewood pile, or a water tank.

His radical idea was what about we explore how the 12 principles might apply or be injected directly into design process? I thought this brilliant and so we effectively threw participants into the deep end (during the first day when still getting to know each other, what’s more!) and after David briefly introduced each principle, we invited everyone to consider and speak to the question of “How can we apply this principle to the process of design?”

While this is self-explanatory for some of the principles (observe and interact, design from patterns to details, apply self regulation & accept feedback) let me share a few examples using some of the other principles that hopefully convey why I think this is an exciting and promising direction to be exploring.

I’m also working with Anthony Briggs to transcribe the rest of what was discussed so hope to share more along these lines in a future post.

Principle 2 – Catch and Store Energy

Thanks to a related comment from Mark Mathieson it occurred to me that when in a design process we go through a goals articulation process one thing we are doing is catching, clarifying and storing the energy of the client in a high-level vision statement. Throughout the process we can, as needed, ‘turn on the tap’ in the sense of revisiting that statement to re-inject energy and enthusiasm into the process (as well of course of checking to see if we are on track and/or if the statement needs to be further refined).

Principle 3: Obtain a Yield

One way of obtaining a yield inside a design process is to hone in on something you can implement early and fast in order to obtain feedback that then guides subsequent phases of the process, not to mention the benefit of starting to immediately use or enjoy that thing.

This is related to the minimal viable product (MVP) concept in product development circles and also a cornerstone of the lean startup methodology. As I mused in a past comment:

the process seeks to uncover or clarify what an implementable ‘first chunk’ might be where there will be some kind of viable value add as in actual progress on the ground that can be used to then guide (based on people using it and seeing how it feels) the figuring out of what the next MVP might be

Principle 5: Produce no waste

To me this principle clearly applies to the idea of not wasting time and effort perfecting and drawing up prematurely detailed designs or “master plans.” This relates directly to this earlier discussion of the distinction between fabricated and generated designs.

Principle 9: Use & Value Diversity

As David put it in his notes for this session, “use a variety of complementary and even contradictory design methods to arrive at more evolved designs.” I guess this is another take on David’s idea of avoiding design cul-de-sacs, in being open to finding the right design method for the job (and dropping methods that aren’t working).

I’m grateful for how everyone rode out this session, which as you’d expect had a tentative and exploratory feel. It also broke with any expectation the course was going to be about David and I simply sharing stuff we’d already worked out in the past, and was a direct taste of actually exploring new territory together.

However  I knew then and know now that this session was a first step for a way of integrating design principles and design process that I feel in time will have great potential to help strengthen permaculture’s design process weak link.

It was also a chance to hear each other’s voices and get a feel for our respective experience with and orientation to permaculture design process, which as a facilitator I found invaluable.

So concluded the first day. In our next post we review Day Two, and there’s even a video, with subtitles and everything!


Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process 2017 – Part Two: Preparations

Note: This post builds on and continues the last.

It was mid-morning, April 6, 2017. It was four days before the event was scheduled to start. Having freshly arrived from NZ, I knocked on David Holmgren and Su Dennett’s door.

Preliminaries such as hugs and pleasant catch-up chats behind us, David and I sat down at Melliodora’s dining table with a notepad. Beginning with the end in mind, we co-crafted a joint intention for the workshop (which we by now had renamed “Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process”):

This workshop is an accessible yet deep exploration of permaculture design process as a living, unfolding reality.

We also made a note of some of the things we’d like to be true along the way:

  • happy participants receiving real value
  • actual real progress on ideas
  • medium is message / walking the talk
    • food, environment, infrastructure, nestedess in community, that the kinds of processes we’re exploring have created all this.
    • course is designed in the fashion we’re sharing
    • feedback heavy
    • works from patterns to details
    • reflects other pc ethics and principles where applicable
  • we have fun collaborating and are left keen to collaborate more in future1
  • results in a writeup about the course and the ideas developed
    • Make David’s take on design process more widely known
    • Some kind of documentation about how the ideas being explored apply at Melliodora2

The very first step we took in our face-to-face preparations

Having established this context we used it as a criterion to refine the draft schedule we’d put together in a couple of prior skypes. David’s partner Su Dennett feeding into the conversation too.3

Early draft of course program

The resulting draft worked from patterns to details and after kicking the event off and exploring permaculture design frameworks and process as a whole, we planned to move through ethics and principles to reading place and people, to the processes by which observations give rise to actual design solutions.

David and I fleshing out the course structure. Note the three blue books to the right of the photo – Books 1, 3, & 4 of Christopher Alexander’s The Nature of Order series which I was pleasantly surprised to find sitting on David’s desk when I arrived. More on them later

We worked up a handout and we also drafted then refined several new diagrams to help communicate key ideas during the course.

We walked some of the tracks David was to use during the reading landscape portion of the course.4

After the best part of four days of preparation, I was feeling ready, and, given the feel and depth of the conversation that was already unfolding between David and I, starting to realise that this event was likely to blow the ‘worst-case’ scenario I painted earlier right out of the water.

So much for preparations. In the next post I’ll start reviewing the event proper.

Note: Big thanks to Anthony Briggs for proof reading and editing assistance.


Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process 2017 – Part One: How it came about

This post commences a little intermission from the current inquiry. For, while it is fresh, I’ll pen a report of the four-day Advanced Permaculture Planning and Design Process workshop David Holmgren and I recently co-presented. I’ll cover the experience with a post for each of six parts: how it came about, the four days of preparation directly before, and then each of the 1, 2, 3, 4 days of the event itself.

First though, if you’ve not the time or interest to read the full report,1 here’s a short clip of David and I sharing some post-course reflections:

Part One: How it Came to Pass

Not long after Making Permaculture Stronger started, I sent a draft version of this previous post to David, hoping for his feedback. To my delight, a lively email conversation ensued, excerpts of which were posted here. Details aside, I was grateful for David’s interest and participation in a conversation following and building on my earlier claim that design process is a problematically weak link in permaculture.2

During the decade or so in which David grew from acquaintance then teacher into the mentor, senior colleague, and friend he is today, we had never really discussed permaculture design process. I’d been fortunate enough to observe David in process on several rural properties over the years, where I got to read him reading landscape, but we hadn’t much talked about what was going on.

After that email conversation, however, things had shifted. The topic was on both of our radars as a shared interest. Though we enjoyed several face-to-face chats, which for me put some rather deep scratches in the surface of the topic, I was left with the feeling of wanting to break right through the surface, to dive in deep, and see what we found. Of wanting Making Permaculture Stronger to further benefit from David’s 40 years of grounded experience and deep thinking about permaculture design.3

Now if anyone had approached me at this point and said “well why don’t you just ask David whether he’d be up for an eight-day full-time intensive discussion going deep into all this stuff?” I would have laughed. Something like that simply wouldn’t have occurred to me as being within the realms of possibility. David leads a full life and I knew was busy working on getting his latest book project across the line, re-tweaking an upcoming re-release of his permaculture principles, co-managing Melliodora, and so on and so forth. I was more than grateful for the shorter conversations we were able to have, and hoped/trusted our conversation would continue to evolve slowly and opportunistically in small increments over the coming years.

You can imagine, therefore, how low my jaw dropped when in late September 2016, David asked whether I’d be interested in co-facilitating a four-day “advanced permaculture principle and planning” workshop during April of 2017.4

Though I tried to play it cool – “yeah thanks for the thought, let me think about it” sort of thing, my decision to accept the invitation took about three seconds. I was excited at the prospect of an opportunity to co-evolve some of this stuff together, knowing from past experience that co-teaching is about as good as such opportunities get.

I learned after the event that David, though excited, was also somewhat nervous about how it might play out. As he put it in the post-event video I shared above:

I thought going into it the uncertainties of unpacking so many things that I’ve been uncertain about in permaculture design, and the first time directly collaborating on something like this with you, and building on all the stuff you’ve been doing on the making permaculture stronger blog, I was really excited but nervous about how it was going to work and whether we were going to get into runaway, abstract, philosophical discussions that would leave the students, even the more advanced ones, struggling.

From my end, I was telling myself not to set my expectations for the course too high. I know from experience that such events often don’t turn out quite as magnificent as the picture my mind tends to paint in the lead up. I was also conscious that we had no idea who would show up, and how it would work to be exploring the depths of permaculture design process with a bunch of, well, goodness knows who. I also really wasn’t sure to what extent David’s and my own design process understandings would actually gel or complement each other. Finally, I knew David had a relatively well-rehearsed and refined program from his past advanced principles and reading landscape workshops and I half-expected I would end up simply sort of tacking on some of my stuff around that.

So much for expectations!

In the next post I’ll go through the process of preparing for the event.