Well, here we are, having arrived at post six in an inquiry into the relation between designing and implementing in permaculture. Let me recap what’s come so far, using some acronyms1 that make it much easier (for me at least) to understand what is actually going on here. Turns out to be pretty simple.
The first and second posts established that, despite a few sometimes subtlety worded concerns, cautions, and disclaimers, the literature of permaculture design process advises/endorses/models completing a concept & then a detailed design up front (CDDUF) as in before you start implementing.
The third, forth and fifth posts consulted an acorn and then Christopher Alexander’s critique of the CDDUF approach. Alexander characterises CDDUF as an inherently mistake-prone fabricating process and instead recommends a generating process where the (presumably concept and detailed) design emerges as you go (CDDAYG).
To condense everything we’ve covered so far into two bullet points…
- Permaculture literature gives impression that CDDUF is cool (and that subsequent feedback can sort any issues)
- Nature (as represented by an acorn) and Christopher Alexander counter that CDDUF is not cool (regardless of subsequent feedback) implying or saying that to the contrary CDDAYG is cool
…or into a simple diagram:
Now the idea for this sixth post came from this question: Out of all the experienced permaculture designers out there who have taken the time to share what they have gleaned through years of design practice, if this CDDUF vs CDDAYG stuff really is an issue, surely some must have already considered it? I mean why reinvent the wheel if we can find some in-house clues and paths toward resolving all this, right?
Of course they have! Pulling a few volumes out of my (limited) library, and dialling up a few relevant podcasts, let’s look over what a few of them have to say, starting with the big man himself.
In his epic Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison (1988) focuses on a bunch of different design methods as opposed to the design processes such methods sit within. This has lead some (otherwise sympathetic) commentators to say things like:
While I agree,3 I would add that he didn’t go completely silent. There are helpful whispers, even if a little bit of reading between the lines is required to draw them out.
Consider his Methods of Design chapter. Under the heading The Establishment and Maintenance of Systems (pp. 65-68), we find some at-first-glance contradictory emphases:4
On the one hand, Bill says things like:
Because impulsive sidetracks are usually expensive, it is best to fully plan the site and its development, changing plans and designs only if the site and subsequent information forces us to do so
and, as a first step…
Design the site thoroughly on paper
On the other, he says things like:
Instead of leaping toward some imaginary end point, we need to prepare the groundwork, to make modest trials, and to evolve from small beginnings. A process of constant transition from the present to the future state is an inevitable process…
Thus, our design methodologies seek to take into account all know intervening factors. But in the end it comes down to flexibility in management, to steering a path based on the results of trials, to acting on new information, and to continuing to observe and to be open or non-discriminatory in our techniques
In all of this, design methodologies plus management is involved, and it is therefore far better to train an owner-designer who can apply long-term residential management than to evolve a roving designer, except as an aide to initial placements, procedures, and resource listings
To me, these latter statements strongly support more of a generating than a fabricating approach, given that, one more time, in the end…
…it comes down to flexibility in management, to steering a path based on the results of trials, to acting on new information, and to continuing to observe and to be open or non-discriminatory in our techniques5
These seemingly contradictory emphases are complementary on a closer reading. Bill suggests that yes, it is essential to complete some kind of whole-site plan up front, and to think through a sound starting point and sequencing of subsequent stages of development. But then, you get the development/implementation process underway, where you complete more detailed nucleus designs for different areas in the process of developing them, the prior broad-strokes plan ensuring all the little areas evolve as threads in a coherent larger fabric:
Break up the job into small, easily achievable, basic stages and complete these one at a time. Never draw up long lists of tasks, just the next stage. It is only in the design phase that we plan the system as a whole, so that our smaller nucleus plans are always in relation to a larger plan
I believe this treatment is in some ways more sophisticated that the default idealised (and ultimately linear) presentations of permaculture design process we reviewed at the start of this inquiry. There, a common theme was the recommendation that you craft a concept and detailed drawn design before commencing implementation (CDDUF). Yes, feedback then kicks in, but the flavour I get (or maybe extrapolate is more accurate) from Mollison’s words above, is know your clients and the site, get the big picture layout and staging sequence sorted, then figure out (or even better empower the owner-residents-managers to figure out) the details as you go along.
This is an exciting development! Thanks to Bill Mollison, we have found the beginnings of a potential resolution of the fabricating/CDDUF and generating/CDDAYG dichotomy. It is a hybrid we might call concept design up front then detailed design emerges as you go or CDUFDDAYG.
A continuum now emerges, and based on the above statements from Mollison, I’m putting him in the middle:6
In terms of the fabricating vs generating diagram in our last post, CDUFDDAYG entails a little run of decide-draw-decide-draw up front and then jumps across to decide-draw-do-decide-draw-do for the bulk of the journey. The idea being that you do just enough fabricating to make sure you’re not about to get yourself in trouble, and then it’s generating time. Here’s an update adding CDUFDDAYG to the diagram from the last post (click to enlarge or here for PDF version):
Check out this gem of relevant insight7 in David Holmgren’s 1994 (republished as ebook 2006) Trees on the Treeless Plains. In the chapter titled The Planning Process, David writes:
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)8
Here we find an unambiguous rejection of CDDUF. One more time:
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…
Furthermore, David’s strategic planning in the above passage comes dangerously close to what Alexander might call a pure generating (as opposed to fabricating or part fabricating / part generating) process. Dangerously close! Indeed, in stressing getting the “desired processes moving” as an initial step and “processes of development which are on-going and respond to changing circumstances” he appears to leap-frog right over CDUFDDAYG into CDDAYG territory! To repeat (for the emphasis it deserves):
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 done9
Now it would be disingenuous of me to go ahead and pop David into the CDDAYG spot (alongside Bill) and leave it at that. For David does elsewhere discuss and model the process of getting at least a concept design together before starting implementation. Consider these statements from Melliodora: Hepburn Permaculture Gardens (1995, republished as ebook 2005), which is by-far his best documented design project:10
I can design, or help design the skeleton or framework within which clients may develop permaculture as a living evolving system. However, I cannot apply myself to someone else’s design, the way I have to our own. Clients could not afford the cost and I would not be prepared to devote the time and creative energy required. The living, evolving system which we call permaculture can only come about as a result of the continuous interaction between the client as designer/practitioner and the elements of climate, soil, plants, animals, buildings and people (p. iii)
A general design concept had been worked out prior to the earthworks but this was modified following exposure of resistant sandstone reefs… (p. 17)
Although there are great dangers in designing a house in isolation from site factors, a conceptual design can help in selection of land and siting within that land. Being owner/designer/builders makes modification to design details during construction also possible. Moving into the house before it was fully finished allowed further refinement of design details. (p. 23)11
…finding the appropriate pattern for that design is more important than understanding all the details… (p. 127).
The implication of this last batch of quotes for our current inquiry is crystal clear. David is speaking from CDUFDDAYG land. He is explicitly referring to the idea of completing a “general design concept” or “conceptual design” before commencing implementation/development as a “living, evolving [i.e., generated] system.”
The upshot is that, taking a sort of average of the above quotes I’m placing David Holmgren until further notice with a foot in both the CDUFDDAYG and CDDAYG camps:
In a hyper-relevant recent email comment he’s kindly given me permission to share, design process powerhouse and ubermentor Dave Jacke explained that his statement in Edible Forest Gardens (2004, V.2 p. 313) starting “Implementation is the next phase of your work, and the last piece of the design process”…
…is spoken from the place of assuming a linear process, which almost never actually happens! But in the linear model, that quote is the idealized flow. In reality, I design the overall pattern, implement key pieces after designing them, then redesign as more parts of the system get implemented. I have never had a client where I could implement all at once as a grand expedition! It’s always been piecemeal implementation with design along the way, responding to changes in goals, site and emergent reality as the design goes into place. But having a big picture view, that is, an overall site design to at least a schematic level, is critical to help one work out where to begin the implementation. Then I would design the relevant patches, including their site prep and implementation strategies, and then proceed on the ground. Staking out is a critical part of the process! Field testing the design in reality, essentially (from a personal email communication received January 28, 2017)
This is an important comment, particularly given it comes from one of the most influential (if not the most influential) permaculture/ecological design process thinkers on the planet right now. For my current focus the most signifiant parts are:
having a big picture view, that is, an overall site design to at least a schematic level, is critical to help one work out where to begin the implementation.
In reality, I design the overall pattern, implement key pieces after designing them, then redesign as more parts of the system get implemented … It’s always been piecemeal implementation with design along the way, responding to changes in goals, site and emergent reality as the design goes into place
In terms of our shiny new continuum, while Dave’s book would, on a superficial reading at least, land him over on the left hand side, this more recent sharing of what he actually does in practice lands him squarely in the concept design up front then details emerge as you go or CDUFDDAYG camp.12
Earlier in this inquiry we shared Ben Falk’s statement that:
Master plans are not solid, set-in-stone documents–although everyone wants them to be. Heck, I am hired many times largely because people want a plan that’s solid, unwavering, and something they can follow now and in ten years. Sorry-they don’t exist. Most plans are iterative. And despite the authoritative sounding name, master plans are no exception. A good ‘master’ plan is a working plan-in other words, it’s the latest version of good approaches. It will change: that much is guaranteed. The important part to remember is that it’s a guide for next decisions, not an ultimate life map or site oracle. Land and the lives unfolding for them are far too complex, unpredictable, and mysterious for any vision of a ‘way’ to hold up year after year. (The Resilient Farm and Homestead, 2013, pp. 72-77)
Consider now his statement, in a 2013 podcast with interviewer Scott Man, that:
Although I make most of my living as a planner and site designer I am learning more every year the limits of that planning process and how inherently limiting it is. It carries a lot of power with it, carries a lot of weight, but most of the time too much weight. It’s easy to just take paper too seriously and have too many decisions based on what is or isn’t on a piece of paper. It can be great to guide overall decisions and to know starting points and know general steps but if it’s not coupled with the active hands on that constantly changes what’s on that paper master plan/site design it can be very misleading and very dangerous.
Ben’s words here display remarkable resonance with those we’ve shared of David Holmgren’s. Like David, Ben voices strong concerns with any kind of fabricating or CDDUF (concept and detailed design up front) approach. In particular, he hones in on CDDUF’s dangerous tendency to then influence implementation decisions such that the much more important reality of what is actually unfolding on the site gets overruled.
More and more every year I rely on the planning process as identifying general steps and starting points and trying to visualise … an idealisation of what a place might be in 10 -20 – 50 years, but really using the planning process to identify starting points and letting those starting points then organically drive the actions following those starting points.14
Let’s face it, Ben. You are an anti fabricator. You are at heart a generator, and you’re living and designing dangerously close to crossing the line and diving into pure CDDAYG:
Well this has been a bit of fun, I tell you. It is quite gratifying to simplify some aspect of complex reality into several pigeon holes then to casually slot respected senior colleagues and teachers in here or there.15
The upshot is this. Despite the idealised, linear CDDUF approach presented and modelled in all the published presentations of permaculture design process16 I am aware of (shown clearly in my review starting here), at least four of permaculture’s most well-known and/or cutting-edge design thinkers (including both co-originators) on examination either explicitly criticise this approach or don’t use it in practice!
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!17
The design process authors and practitioners we’ve considered in this post, with a bit of extra research (David Holmgren, Ben Falk), email correspondence (Dave Jacke), and reading between the lines (Bill Mollison), advocate and/or practice entering the realm of implementation and active doing before a detailed design is completed.
We started this post with the seeming dichotomy between CDDUF or fabricating processes and CDDAYG or generating processes. Thanks initially to Bill Mollison, we found a middle path in CDUFDDAYG.18 At least in the sources we consulted, Bill Mollison and Dave Jacke espouse CDUFDDAYG (a fabricating-generating hybrid approach). So do David Holmgren and Ben Falk, though these two also show definite sympathies for CDDAYG. Hence the relative location of the four authors in my evolving little diagram:
So with CDUFDDAYG or a CDUFDDAYG-CDDAYG blend (namely the space inside the red line in the diagram) have we have arrived at a happy ending? Maybe. Maybe not. My feeling is we’d best let the dust settle and look around a little more before holding hands and dancing in a circle. I for one would like to see what others make of all this before getting too carried away.
That said, we’ve without doubt happened onto a promising development. With CDUFDDAYG (or this plus a dash of CDDAYG) we have an approach with scope to avoid both the rampant mistake making Alexander claims is unavoidable in CDDUF and the blindingly obvious concern that if you leap straight into CDDAYG that you’ll land in a mess of conflicts, major mistakes, and dead ends.19
Hmmm. Food for thought, hey? In the next post we’ll zoom out and see if we can find any guidance on these matters from the wider universe of design thinking and practice.
Meantime do tell me what you make of the continuum. Is it any use to you? Where do you sit in your design work, and are you on the move? If so, what is your trajectory? Do you agree that almost all publicly accessible presentations of permaculture design process are, on the surface of things at least, over in CDDUF land? Or can you share any documented examples of something different? Do you have any relevant quotations you’d be happy to share?
I really, really appreciate your comments. This stuff is written and shared in service of the global permaculture community, and in your comments I get valuable feedback as to how to that might be done better in future (not to mention motivation to continue!).
Once again a big thanks to James Andrews for feedback on this and all other posts in this inquiry.
- Thanks for the idea Paul!
- Dave Jacke has, in our private correspondence, and I’m sure publicly in at least one podcast somewhere (probably this one?), made the same observation. Indeed, that’s why he went on to develop a coherent design process and why it has been so influential in permaculture – it filled a gap
- And in doing so note the grand irony in Bill’s neglect of design process, given that the core of permaculture is design, and design is a process! This of course is not to in any way detract from the value of all the phenomenal topics Bill didn’t neglect
- Especially if plucked out of their context like this!
- In other places Bill has emphasised his preference to support owners in entering their own ongoing process, where design and implementation co-involve in a close embrace (rather than playing the expert consultant coming in from outside and laying it all out on paper up front). Here I invite any relevant quotes where Bill speaks to this matter. Please send them through for me to add or include in a comment below. I’m positive I’ve seen Bill somewhere saying something like “I sometimes think that the point of a design is just to get people started” – I would so love to know where that appears as for the life of me I can’t find it!
- The more perceptive of you might notice I’ve slipped contemporary mainstream architecture and landscape design in the CDDUF or fabricating camp (just to flesh things out a bit), which I can’t imagine anyone finding controversial.
- Which I was stoked to, at the eleventh hour and quite by coincidence, happen across while researching tree species for a design project a few days ago
- In terms of the review with which we started this current inquiry, it is interesting that David continues in the text immediately after this passage to note: “The planning process can be considered as a sequence of five steps:
- Inventory; the collection of relevant data.
- Evaluation; organising the data into comprehensible patterns.
- Strategy; the general direction and framework for development.
- Design; the particular forms which express the strategy.
- Management; processes of implementation and operation
Feedback at every stage is essential. Without this planning becomes a rigid ritual of no particular use. In fact, all steps occur to some extent simultaneously. For example, we usually have some notion of the strategy and even the management before all the data is in. Thus the planning process in practice involves the ordinary skills of responding effectively to the unpredictable and chaotic nature of reality.” (p. 21) – as we’ve seen (and will see more of below) this echoes a pattern we’ve seen with authors (such as Dave Jacke and Ben Falk), where there is a subtle disjunct between the earlier comments about master and strategic planning and then the presentation of an idealised linear sequence (despite the standard disclaimer re feedback). That said, David’s comment that “all steps occur to some extent simultaneously” does a lot to soften the ‘hardness’ of the linear example sequence
- Not to mention a bit later in the text saying: Thus the planning process in practice involves the ordinary skills of responding effectively to the unpredictable and chaotic nature of reality.
- namely that of the place he developed and continues to share with his partner Su
- David goes on here to note, interestingly, that “This does not mean that detailed plans and designs for houses or landscape are a waste of time. They are as essential as the preparedness to respond flexibly to new facts.”
- yes, to be exact he says get to a schematic design first but this doesn’t change the point – I’m using the phrase concept design broadly enough here for it to include what Dave means by schematic design – basically any whole-site design scheme, pattern or layout short of getting into details
- As does “site planning should be continuously fed by a never-ending process of analysing, interpreting, and acting” – The Resilient Farm and Homestead, p. 24
- Compare this with David Holmgren’s “Most importantly, strategy planning can help pinpoint the initial step to get the desired processes moving…. “
- I should stress, for the record, that these classifications are exploratory, tentative, playful, and based on the shared statements from each of the four permaculturalists reviewed. That is to say, what I have really been doing is placing their statements, not their entire (complex, multifaceted, and some times contradictory personages!) Right or wrong I trust those three of them still with us would agree this exercise has been a step toward clarity, even if that comes via this post prompting them to show how I have them all wrong!
- When explicitly or officially presented as permaculture design process
- See for instance this comment on the previous post or look around online to see examples of detailed permaculture designs being spat out in all directions as, presumably was recommended in the courses or books that got the designers started
- see diagram below for a reminder as to what the heck these acronyms all mean
- An example being Bret who had to move his shed after siting it prematurely