Adventures in Design Process Awareness – Assembling vs Partitioning

Greetings all. This week I share a little video in part because I’ve been so occupied in my design process facilitation work I’ve not had the time to write much.1

Last week David Holmgren, Su Dennett, Brenna Quinlan and I completed the third iteration of our annual four-day workshop on Advanced Permaculture Design Process. It was just the best experience and is always this incredible incubation medium in which making permaculture stronger makes huge leaps forward. The chance to share new ideas then to bash them out with David and the group (which was particularly amazing this year). I feel like I have about six months of new insights and reflections to process, many of which will in time find their way into this blog.

On Day Three I ran a little exercise/experiment aimed at giving people a clear experience of the difference between what I call assembling (Row A and strictly A1) and partitioning (Row B and strictly B2). This video shows you what the exercise looked like:

Now I’m sorry I didn’t record the conversation afterward but it is always just fascinating and in the several times I have run this experiment I’ve noticed similar patterns and participant reflections.

One pattern is that the element assembly team always get a design down much more quickly (then tweak it). One reason for this is that so many decisions have already been made in the shape, size and number of the elements where it seems only logical to chuck them on the basemap and start fiddling around with them. Another is the element-assemblers (all groups got to experience both approaches by the way) approach the task in with any number of different sequences to what they focus on, where the discussion aside from placing elements in sensible microclimates is around their relative location. One thing that is almost inevitable is that the discussion and focus jumps around as someone suggesting the placement of one thing sparks off an idea in someone else about some other thing and so it goes on.

The partitioners, on the other hand, who rather than being given all the elements then being told “go for it!” are given one instruction at a time, which they must follow before moving on. This means they end up focusing on one high level partition first, then the next, and so on. Which means the sequence is the same for each group, and that they are all focusing on just one decision at a time (such as where is the line between the area under roof and the open area).

In terms of participant’s reports on their relative experience, they tend to say that the partitioning approach flowed more smoothly and felt better and less random. That said, it can also be frustrating not to have the clarity of the predefined elements in front of you from the start. There is initially much less certainty about where you are heading, and where you’ll end up, where that uncertainty only decreases slowly and to a particular point as you go along (where in assembling you end up with something that feels clear and finished despite the arbitrariness of so many of the decisions – something I think we feel unconsciously if not consciously).

I love how clearly people feel this stuff, where of course either approach has its issues given any healthy process will move from patterns to details (partitioning) and from details to patterns (assembling) and back again.2 As participant Danny so beautifully put it:

From patterns to details and back again – it’s ping pong (table tennis) – not darts!

Daniel Willmann-Lees, Comment during Advanced Permaculture Design Process workshop, April 2019

Okay I’ll sign out for now with a few photos from the workshop (thanks for sharing Sonja). All the best and lots more is in the Making Permaculture Stronger pipeline, of that I can assure you.


Bringing it all together in one diagram (Part Six) – Mapping the Centre of Gravity and Trajectory of a Project

In the last post I showed how this diagram I’ve been developing can help us map certain aspects of the evolution of our own individual design processes.1 Check out the map I shared of mine, for instance.

Here I want to do the same thing but where the common thread or container of consideration is a project rather than person. Here things get interesting and kind of messy. For inside virtually all permaculture design (or other) projects there will be movement within the diagram. The process will wriggle around. Indeed, often a project will have feet (and possibly arms) in more than one of the nine spaces simultaneously.

The most common example I’m aware of is that a project will start with a fabricated master plan (whether through assembly, partitioning, transforming or some blend) which gradually gets dissolved or loosened up by reality as the project moves along. Fabricating gives way to hybrid and even generative approaches as the reality of actually implementing and living with something reveals previously unavailable information. Let’s take a quick glance at a few examples. First here’s the digram with the space labels for your convenient reference.


Take the permaculture demonstration site Melliodora – a stunningly beautiful permaculture demonstration homestead that has been evolving for over 30 years. An example of the above dynamic started with David Holmgren’s fabricated (column 1) master plan for the original house.

Design for David Holmgren and Su Dennet’s Home Design (from the Melliodora E-book)

When the earthworks started the fabricated (column 1) location for the house was ruled out by the reality of an incredibly hard rock reef that would have required much dynamite to shift. Here an initially fabricating process morphed into hybrid (column 2) process, where the details started morphing inside the implementation process. This is such a common dynamic it will be true in some degree of perhaps every case of trying to impose a pre-fabricated plan onto a landscape inside any permaculture project. So no big surprise or revelation there.

The build…
The house in recent times

To me a more interesting example within the Melliodora project is the difference between the process that resulted in the original house (there are now three homes on the site) and the process responsible for the barn.

As I mentioned above, the house was initially fabricated and then some degree of a hybrid approach entered. I’m not sure where the house process sat with respect to assembly/partitioning/transformation, though I suspect there were flavours of all three.

David telling the barn creation story

The barn, however, was an example of what I mean by generative transformation. What happened was that they decided to build a basic frame and roof on top of the spot where they noticed themselves stockpiling materials! The details then emerged as the went along in using the space, adding a shelf here, a wall there, and so on. Writing this inspired me to make a short video sharing the nested layers of organic complexity contained within the resulting barn. Remind me if you don’t see it on this site soon.

My second-favourite gate in the world and more a product of generative transformation than anything else

During one of the advanced design courses we run together, David gave some other examples of how these two different process flavours recurred in different aspects of the Melliodora project. In his words:

Design up front (house earthworks, main dam and house, orchard, house platform shelter plantings) [What in the diagram is called fabricating]
Emergent /generative (shed/barn complex, blue gum & internal shelter, red soil garden, gully plantings, goats, sharing the abundance and work load) [what in the diagram is called hybrid & generating]

Oakdene Forest Farm

Another example I am personally familiar with has been the ongoing process of developing the seven acre property of my mum and dad in New Zealand. So many flavours have been part of this mix!

When we started I was fastidiously attached to fabricated assembly (A1). I’d be embarrassed to work out how many hours I spent painstakingly measuring, drawing and redrawing a master plan for the site.2

Fuzzy picture of a non-fuzzy early master plan for the Oakdene Forest Farm project…

One dynamic my mum brought was something between fabricated assembly (A1) and winging it (which technically sits outside the nine spaces), getting new trees and shrubs on special from local nurseries then creating err, interesting assemblies in, well, interesting places (love you mum!).

But early on we were also partitioning the place up in the fabricating phase. So initially it was a lot of fabricating with both assembly and partitioning (A1 & B1).

As we started doing stuff we entered more of a hybrid (column 2) space where we relaxed the master plan’s grip on things and let it function more like a concept plan where the details got worked out inside their implementing them.

I’d say there were then phases of hybrid partitioning (B2), before we consciously tried hybrid transformation (C2). I’ve written detailed posts about this and here’s a video about part of a consciously conducted hybrid transformation phase:

Much of what we’re doing these days is generative transformation (C3) peppered with flavours of all the other spaces too.

One crucial point is that it wasn’t a linear sequence or evolution. Often you are moving from space to space and back again rather swiftly, and as I mentioned earlier often the project has a foot in more than one space simultaneously.

In the below diagram rather than trying to take a process signature trajectory snapshot of a specific project,3 I want to hint at the complexity of any project’s dance through these spaces. Here T1 = Time 1, T2 = Time 2 and so on. In this example the project starts in space A1 at T1, then splits into B1 and A2 at T2, and so on.

Now I’m not suggesting that anyone spend the time mapping every project they are part of this way. But I would recommend bringing your awareness to where the process’ centre of gravity does drift or evolve to over time. I cannot stress how important I believe this sort of process literacy is to the future of permaculture.4

I guess much of how this stuff plays out has to do with the process signatures each person within a projects brings along with them, and then how strongly their process preferences get asserted along the way.5 I’m sure many readers can identify with a process experience where things were sitting in one space then a strong personality arrives and drags the whole thing into another space.

Another Extremely Relevant Comment from Jason Gerhardt 🙂

Now once again I’m indebted to Jason Gerhardt who has once again shown uncanny ability to anticipate the focus of the upcoming post with his comment on the last:

I’ve started looking at the nine spaces in terms of the process that gets applied to a project. What led me into this line of inquiry is realizing that I apply the top three spaces in a single project starting with C3 as site and people analysis—a very generative and transformative phase. The trajectory moves from C3 to C2 for concept design and then to C1 for detailed design, and then doubles back on itself with implementation, and sometimes back yet again. The spaces change as the phases of work change. For example, I often do project proposals with a minimum of three phases of design work. This is often required by the nature of my work. This helps elucidate the non-linearity of design process in general. Further, that helps me avoid the better-than concepts and ideas of superiority that trajectory could hint at. I continue to feel that all of the possible approaches in the nine spaces are appropriate in some specific context from a general design perspective. Whether they are Permaculture Design is another question.

Thanks Jason. There is a lot in this. I have made the same realisation on many of my current projects. I don’t leave the transformation layer, but I oscillate between C3, C2, and occasionally, when the context requires it, C1. I’ll come back to this in a few posts time as it highlights an important difference in the two axes.


That’s it for now – I trust it is clear enough how projects really do move about within the nine spaces. Let me know about your own adventures with this if you have any interest.6

Catch ya in the next post when we’ll use this same approach to map the evolution of permaculture as a whole. I know right, I’m excited too!


Dan Palmer talking about permaculture and life and creation and related stuff (e16)

So this episode is a talk I gave on a beautiful farm called Mossy Willow Farm last weekend. The event and the talk were organised by Dumbo Feather and I thank them so much for the opportunity – I had myself a lovely time and the talk led to some awesome conversations afterward.

During the talk I paraphrase this quote from Peter Senge:

It’s common to say that trees come from seeds. But how can a tiny seed create a huge tree? Seeds do not contain the resources need to grow a tree. These must come from the medium or environment within which the tree grows. But the seed does provide something that is crucial : a place where the whole of the tree starts to form. As resources such as water and nutrients are drawn in, the seed organizes the process that generates growth. In a sense, the seed is a gateway through which the future possibility of the living tree emerges.

Peter Senge, C. Scharmer (2011). “Presence: Exploring Profound Change in People, Organizations and Society”, p.10, Nicholas Brealey Publishing

Bringing it all together in a diagram (Part Five) – Mapping the Evolution of your Design Process Signature

Each and every one of us creates things. Daily. Constantly. Humans are essentially creative, in the sense that they are always creating things, bringing new form into the world. Whether you are creating or co-creating a meal, a conversation, a garden, a blog post, a fresh tune on your ukulele, another day of your life, we are participating in creation. I even want to say that we are creation participating in itself.

Zooming up and out a little from all the individual little things we are each creating, we soon bump into these things called projects. We are each involved in a bunch of different projects. Some projects might run for a few days, others a few years, others several centuries.

Here things get interesting. Whenever we are involved in a project, we bring along what I call a process signature. It is not normal to be aware of one’s process signature. To be aware of the specific ways of being and doing that we bring to any project (or indeed, any task). Yet it is there.

Just like your real signature, your process signature recurs. It recurs in the sense that we don’t invent a brand new, completely novel process every time we create a new thing. Over time our processes take on a certain generic character. This character is our recurring process signature. What starts out as a little groove becomes a well worn rut in the landscape of our personal process dynamics.

Here’s the thing: With focused effort and inquiry we can become conscious of the rut our process signature has created for itself.1 This opens a fascinating new option for us. It opens the option of escaping the rut. It opens the option of exploring new or at least less traveled pathways and grooves though the (unexpectedly vast!) universe of process and hence process signature possibilities. It opens the option that our processes become increasingly alive, self-aware, whole, agile, flexible, adaptive, and even beautiful. In other words, it opens the option that our processes and hence our process signatures continuously grow and evolve.

Does this sound like a bit of you? Something you’d be interested in exploring more? Something you’d even be a little bit excited by? If not, well maybe I’ll catch you some other time. If so, read on. In this post, I want to start showing how this diagram I’ve been developing can help with exactly this.

A Quick Recap of the Diagram

In the last post I explained nine spaces comprising the below diagram. Each space frames one way of going about creating (as in designing-developing) anything. The nine spaces fall out of the interaction between two variables, each having three possible states. One is three ways wholes and parts can be understood to be related. The other is three ways designing (or thinking) can be related to implementing (or doing).

Using the Diagram to Map the Design Process Signature Evolution of Permaculture Designers

Everything I said above about process signatures applies to permaculture design consultancy. Permaculture design consultants take on projects. I am a permaculture design consultant. I take on permaculture design projects. Over the last fourteen years I have played a leading role in several hundred of them.

In what follows, starting with myself, I’ll show how the diagram can be used to scan our individual permaculture design process signature evolutions.

Dan Palmer’s Permaculture Design Process Journey Mapped on the Diagram

In becoming more aware of my own permaculture design process signature, I have found it useful to notice how it has evolved over the years. Here is my understanding of its evolution over the last 14 years drawn as a line on the diagram.

Dan Palmer’s Permaculture Design Process Trajectory 2005 – 2019 and ongoing

I started out following my initial teachers and books (not to mention my entire culture) which were centred in the A1 (fabricated assembly) space. I designed this way as an amateur and then professionally for a good three or so years. I sold clients detailed plans of element assemblages. I wished them well with a smile as I handed them their master plan and my invoice.

Then I came down with a virus. A memetic virus I found in Christopher Alexander’s writing. Be careful in reading this (least you get infected too):

The key to complex adaptation
 lies in the concept of differentiation. This is a process of dividing and differentiating a whole to get the parts, rather than adding parts together to get a whole (Alexander, 2002, p. 197)

It took a while to sink in, but eventually motivated me to break through into the B1 space (fabricated partitioning). I was still in the business of selling detailed diagrams. But I got to them by dividing up the space (moving from patterns to detail) as opposed to joining little bits and pieces together (moving from details to pattern).2

My continued experimentation with Alexander’s work then sparked my leap across to B2 (fabricated partitioning). I stopped worshipping at the altar of the master plan. I started quitting at the concept design stage. I was still a diagram pedlar – the diagrams I was selling just got fuzzier :-).

My next epiphany was realising that assembly vs partitioning was a false dichotomy. I finally arrived into the space I now call transformation, initially into C2 or hybrid transformation. Here, as I have put it previously:

…we see what we are doing as always and without exception transforming a whole-and-its-parts. To transform is to make different, to differentiate. When we are transforming a whole-and-its-parts we are making it different. No matter whether we are integrating in new parts, removing old parts, or changing existing parts around. These are all different ways of transforming the system, of differentiating the whole.

From there I soon dipped my toes, in fact my entire body-mind, into the sweet waters of generative transformation (C3). Be warned, all ye yet to venture back into this part of the forest.3 Once you get yourself a taste of this juice, your whole conception of what design is and can be changes forever. Sure, as my squiggle shows, I wriggled around a bit, and indeed at least once in recent times I agreed to fashion up a fabricated detailed plan as part of a large development project where I couldn’t be involved otherwise. But by and large generative transformation is now my home base, my happy place, my process signature’s centre of gravity.

Jason Gerhardt’s Permaculture Design Process Journey Mapped on the Diagram

I can’t say how excited I was when Jason Gerhardt of The Permaculture Institute shared the following in a recent comment:

This latest post and the diagram are wonderful. It allows me to see the growth of my own journey in the diagram, which frankly is a revelation after many years of trying to understand what was happening to me. I want to recount that a little, mostly for myself to further ingrain this diagram in my mind, but I’m posting it here for what it’s worth.

I much agree that permaculture has existed in the state of fabricating. I have certainly met many permaculture students and maybe a pro designer or ten who practice in the A1 space. I’m happy to say I was never taught permaculture design as an A1 process though.

While I’m very certain a lot of PDC’s are taught in the A1 space, I feel pretty sure that I was taught permaculture in the B1 space (not much better really). After a couple projects I realized how prescriptive the B1 space felt, and therefore how unartful it was as a process. I wanted more than that, so I worked to transform my practice into what looks like the C1 space. I existed there for a few years. It allowed me to build my foundation for working with clients, carrying projects out, and getting a lot of experience. Ultimately I realized how mechanized even the C1 space felt. I became a design-churning machine, still prescriptive, but more organized and a little more artful. Eventually, in addition to the grind of the work, what made me question what I was doing was seeing how only some or none of the pieces of my designs were being built once I stopped doing full installs along with the design.

Then along came a client, a family actually, and we organically found a way to work together on a different level. We befriended each other, and actually came to really cherish each other. We transformed their yard primarily via the C2 space because of that closeness, which is to say the closeness of the relationship allowed my practice to grow to that space. We were able to develop the comfort, trust, and relaxedness to be able to play beyond traditional confines. Ultimately, I saw their lives change through their interaction with the landscape. I hadn’t actually witnessed the changes I made in the physical environment leading to profound changes in the inner worlds of my clients. That told me I was on to something. Though the clients moved on from that property, the space still exists and functions well 10 years later, but the funny thing is I don’t even care about the site because I recognized the design was about the people not the property. Since that point, I felt my design practice grow at a rapid, and honestly, bewildering pace. I feel like I’ve been meandering through the second and third hybrid and generative spaces ever since that project. I had to try stuff out. Sometimes the design work was just too cumbersome for my clients to engage with thoroughly, and some work became highly functional and cherished environments. As a side note, I think teaching with Joel Glanzberg for a few years contributed to this evolution of my process as well.

Now, I feel like I can use the C1, C2, C3 and B2 and B3 spaces depending on what’s called for by the project. I feel the most artful in my process than I ever have because I’m not trying to do a specific thing or attain a certain level or result. I just want to do what’s appropriate to each situation without expectation. At this point, 15 years post-PDC, I’d say I primarily spend my professional design time in the C2 space, partly because that’s what the market can bear, or the most artfulness that the design profession (clients and design teams) can embrace at this point in time, in my experience that is. I tend to work on commercial projects, public spaces, and large-scale ag properties. It may be different for smaller residential or garden design.

Jason Gerhardt, Feb 11, 2019.

Here’s my interpretive squiggle of Jason’s process journey (which I promise to change Jason if you think I’ve stuffed it up!).

Jason Gerhardt’s Permaculture Design Process Trajectory

What is most interesting to me is that while Jason and my squiggles are utterly unique, there is a high-level resonance in that the overall trajectory is from the lower left toward the lower right. Hmmmmmm. More on this in the posts to come.


So, there you have it. The diagram as a process signature typing and evolution tracking tool. I warmly welcome any other designers out there to have a play with where their process signature does or does not sit within the nine spaces. With if and how it has evolved over time. Be my guest – have a play with sketching your own process signature evolution on there. Then make my day and send it through to me.4

I just had an image arise of a gathering of permaculture designers who each wear their mapped process signature evolution diagrams on their shirts as they walk around. Some one scans another shirt and says “Excuse me – I have to ask how on earth you jumped from A1 to C2 in one shot – is that even possible?” Ha!

I appreciate, by the way, that for some this might seem too abstract, too hard to grasp, completely irrelevant to the realities of practical design work, teaching permaculture, growing food, running a farm etc etc. If you are in that camp then please speak up too! Let us work together to close the gap. Let us meet in the middle where theory and practice belong together and continuously feed into and enrich each other.

You see I personally would like to believe this work is a tiny little contribution to permaculture’s own process of continuing to wake up, to grow up, to become more present to its own essence and hence its real potential.5

I thank you for your attention and your interest. Hopefully I will catch you in the next post. There I’ll show how the diagram can be used to map the process signature evolutions not only of entire projects, but of permaculture as a whole.


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.


Exploring Synergies between Possibility Management and Permaculture with Clinton Callahan (E15)

Dan Palmer, Anne-Chloé Destremau, and Clinton Callahan at an Expand the Box Training in Wellington, NZ, February 2019

This conversation dives into the synergies between Permaculture and something called Possibility Management. It was my honour to be able to explore these synergies directly with Clinton Callahan. Clinton is the originator of Possibility Management, which has now been around about as long as permaculture.

For 40 years possibility management has been an evolving portal into radical responsibility, initiated adulthood, whole-person space and feeling navigation, consciously co-creating fresh possibilities out of nothing, and so much else.1 It exists as a system of piercingly clear distinctions discovered (and hence there to be noticed) inside lived experience. In trainings, books and so forth people are supported to discover and play with the power and possibility explosions resulting from experiencing these distinctions for themselves.

This episode as a video…

For me, this episode has a kind of magic to it. As I explain in the episode, discovering and experimenting with Possibility Management has been a significant development in my life, and something I am deeply grateful for. To think it all started in May 2018 when I spotted a random book lying on David Holmgren and Su Dennet’s coffee table!

Where this all started…

I hope you enjoy this opening dialogue, and here are some online places you can learn more about Clinton’s work:

Here are some links to upcoming Possibility Management Expand the Box trainings in this part of the world:

As I say during the episode, if anyone out there has or finds themselves messing about in the places where possibility management and permaculture overlap, please get in touch immediately!

I end with my thanks once again to Ben Mallinson for creating the new intro and outro music – what do you think?

Returning Clinton’s book to David March 13, 2019, ten months after I nicked off with it…


Meg McGowan’s Take on Permaculture Design Process (E14)

Meg McGowan

In this episode I inquire into Australian permaculturalist Meg McGowan’s design process. It is a rich chat in which Meg shares many brilliant insights after working as a permaculture design process facilitator / coach for many years.

Meg out there taking it to the people…

I met Meg at the 14th Australiasian Permaculture Convergence in April 2018 and was struck by her passion and clarity. While I didn’t manage to get a selfie with Meg at the event this character did…

David Holmgren and Meg McGowan

Meg’s (active!) blog is here, her and her partner’s Permacoaching facebook page is here, and among so many other things she happens to be a permaculture design cartoonist! Check these out and there are a bunch more here.

One Permaculture Design Process
Planet Permaculture

HUGE gratitude to the wonderful Ben Mallinson for creating the new intro and outro music – a massive improvement (no offence to my mate Nath who created the old one on his phone in about three minutes). Ben has been volunteering his time to help out with several of my projects as we explore ways of getting him involved in my professional consultancy work – and I have very much appreciated his assistance.

Now I should confess that Meg and I recorded this chat way back in September 2018. It took this long to get the thing edited and released. I guess that’s a good sign in that this project is a hobby and when push comes to shove, and non-hobby parts of life call, it waits a while :-). Still, I sense that things will be warming up from here and I envisage releasing at least one podcast episode per month for a while (and the next one will come out in about two weeks).

Thanks again Meg and I’m delighted to have you as a friend and colleague and look forward to our next yarn :-).

Let’s wrap up with Meg’s take on a condensed set of permaculture principles:

Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part Four – the Nine Spaces)

The below diagram summarises coming up to three years of publicly poking around into how permaculture design is usually defined, discussed, and practiced.

I am aware you might find it a little abstract or confusing at first. But before you head back out to the garden to harvest those spuds, I would ask you a question.

Do you really care about permaculture?

If your answer is yes, I implore you to give this diagram a chance.

Call me crazy, but I believe it has exciting implications for the future of permaculture. Indeed, I sincerely believe that the ideas it is (imperfectly) attempting to convey have significant implications for the question of whether permaculture has a future.

Okay. In the hope these grandiose phrasings have secured your attention for a few more paragraphs, let us proceed.

I have already reviewed the y axis. The y axis contrasts three ways whole-part relations can be understood within creating (or designing and implementing) processes. I call these assembling, partitioning, and transforming.

I have also reviewed the x axis. The x axis contrasts three ways designing (or thinking) can be related to implementing (or doing) inside creating processes. I call these fabricating, hybrid, and generating.

After a quick overview, I’ll now take a look at how the two axes comes together to define nine possible spaces any design process can sit within (and move amongst).

Overview and the Nine Spaces

Whenever you design and create anything, you deploy one or another conceptual framework. One or another way of framing and making sense of both what you start with, how to go about developing or changing it, where you are heading, and why you are even bothering. No matter if you’re aware of your conceptual framework. It is there.1

Though rudimentary, preliminary, incomplete, and partial, the diagram we’re here exploring contains nine possible ways of framing and going about designing and developing anything. These are like nine highly simplified conceptual frameworks or ways of framing key aspects of any creation (design and implementation) process. Let’s take each in turn, sharing a few examples to clarify the gist of each.

Three Different Kinds of Assembly

We’ll start with the bottom row, which present three different kinds of what I call assembly. Assembly is when you start with predefined separate parts and construe your job as putting them together to form a whole.

Fabricated Assembly (A1)

This would be like assembling a lego set from the plans in the box. You start with a bunch of parts to assemble, and your assembly is dictated by the pre-fabricated master plan that arrived with the box of parts. Hence the name, fabricated assembly.

Fabricated assembly is the default way that modern building developments are designed as well as engineered structures like bridges.

In a permaculture setting, fabricating assembly would be assembling the items on the client’s wish list (chicken house, pond, apple tree, compost bays etc) into a detailed master plan before implanting that plan (which is exactly what beginners are so often taught in permaculture design courses and introductory permaculture books).

As I have previously shown, the standard approach recommended in permaculture books and on permaculture courses is fabricated assembly:

…or, as a permaculture stall at a local event I attended put it:

Here is a detailed design I completed primarily using fabricated assembly: 

Hybrid Assembly (A2)

This would be like having your kid approach you with a rough hand-drawing of a planned construction which you then attempt to build, figuring out the details based on what pieces are available and the kids preferences as the thing takes shape (whether with lego or otherwise). I can’t help but include this cheesy photo which you can imagine having started with a rough (concept-level) drawing assembling a mountain, some trees, castle ruins, etc.

In a permaculture setting, this would be assembling a concept-level design diagram on paper before starting to implement the assembly on the ground, where the details would be figured out as you go along.

Here is the first example I found on the web when I googled “permaculture concept design” (thanks for sharing Deb!). While I cannot be sure, and while in places it dips into more detail than a strictly concept-level plan, it seems to me that this design is a fairly good example of what I mean by assembly or element assembly at the concept level.2

Generative Assembly (A3)

This would be like having no diagram or design at all, but simply some kind of general intention about what you’d like to make, then looking through the pile, picking up a piece of lego, then starting to build something where both the general outline of the thing and the details emerge as you go along (which might include what the thing actually even ends up being, exactly).

In a permaculture setting, this would be like getting to work on a site where you just start moving elements around, finding a connection that aligns with your general intention, then adding another element to connect in with the first two, and so on. The resulting assemblage emerges or is generating from within the creating process. This is not to say it is a haphazard or random process.

As I understand it, generative assembly (sometimes in combination with hybrid assembly) is the approach used in agile software development, where lines of code are assembled and the software product emerges from the building rather than being planned out as a whole up front.

Three Different Kinds of Partitioning

Now let’s move up to the middle row, which present three different types of what I call partitioning. Partitioning is when you start with a whole then successively partition it up into smaller and smaller parts. The word partition literally means “to divide into parts.” In this way it is the opposite to assembly, where you start with parts and end up with a whole.

Fabricating Partitioning (B1)

Here we have to move on from lego. Lego is inherently about assembly. You can’t really partition lego, apart from breaking some construction apart into the pre-defined blocks it was made from. So let us move across to origami, where you start with a whole piece of paper, then partition it (i.e., divide it into parts) by folding. Fabricating partitioning in an origami context would be like completing then following a detailed plan like this:

Or imagine fabricating partitioning as it might apply to working with the medium of play doh. You might starting with a certain sized-blob of play doh and a detailed set of instructions or plans that you follow exactly, and that say things like “first divide the blob into two equal sized bits. Now make one half into a sphere and the other into a cube. Now take the sphere and indent a line around it dividing it into two hemispheres. Now push a 1cm hole in one side of the cube using a sharp pencil” etc. Your job is to partition up the play doh according to a pre-fabricated master plan.

In a permaculture setting, fabricating partitioning would be like starting with a drawing of a whole property, then drawing a line to partition it into two sub-wholes. So for instance you might start by drawing a line to partition zone five from the other zones, or the private homestead area from the public visiting area, or some such. You then zoom into one of the freshly created areas and further partition that, and so on. What makes it fabricating is that you partition your way to a detailed design on paper before you start implementing.

In the following example completed by my colleague Adam Grubb you see how the whole site was initially partitioned into a concept-level design before then being further partitioned into details. This is what fabricated partitioning looks and feels like.

Hybrid Partitioning (B2)

This would be like having your kid approach you with a blob of play doh and a rough hand-drawing of where they’d like to take it (maybe it is a rough drawing of an elephant, for example). Using the diagram as a guide, you start moulding the material, where the details of the elephant-like shape emerge as you go along.

In permaculture setting, this would be like completing some rough, high-level partitioning of a site on paper then letting the details emerge as you implement. I have documented a couple of clear examples of hybrid partitioning permaculture design processes here and here.

Generative Partitioning (B3)

This would be like having no diagram or design at all, but simply some kind of general intention about what you’d like to make, then looking at your piece of paper or blob of play doh, making some change to it, looking at it again, making another change, and so on (the process would likely involve testing out then undoing certain changes too). Here both the general outline of the thing and the details emerge as you go along (which might include what the thing actually even ends up being, exactly).

Three Different Kinds of Transformation

Now let’s move up to the top row, which present three different types of what I call transformation.  Transformation is when you start with a whole that already has parts then iteratively modify and evolve it using many different types of actions including assembly and partitioning. In other words, transformation transcends and includes both assembly and partitioning.

Fabricated Transformation (C1)

This would be like starting with some material, such as a piece of wood. You look at the branch and you then draw up a detailed master plan of some object you’d like to make the branch into. A fishing rod, or a bow and arrow, or a flute, or whatever. You then start transforming the material (cutting bits off, adding bits on, changing the shape etc) constantly checking it against the plan and makes changes to make it closer to the plan as drawn. Below is a detailed design for a slingshot, for example:

In a permaculture setting this would be like starting with a site, drawing up a detailed master plan, then setting about gradually transforming the place toward the master plan, where sometimes you’d partition what exists, sometimes you’d add new things, sometimes you’d delete existing things, and so on. As you may have already realised, this is what actually happens in practice when we try to implement any detailed permaculture design.

Hybrid Transformation (C2)

This would be like above with the piece of wood but rather than drawing up a detailed master plan you stop at the concept design level. Then as you transform the wood’s shape and size you both steer what you’re creating toward the concept design and let the details emerge as you go along. Let’s say you started with a rough sketch of a hedge hog then made a start where these details emerged as you went along:

In a permaculture setting this would be like getting a concept design together then starting to actively transform the space, where the details come out in the wash. I have documented a clear example of hybrid transformation here. Below is a concept sketch followed by a photo of the details as they emerged in the process of implementing the concept design:

Generative Transformation (C3)

Coming back to our piece of wood, let us say you set out to make something, and rather than figuring out what this something is up front, you just start modifying it. You cut this bit off. You whittle this bit down. And so on. A beautiful little something emerges. This bowl, for instance, could surely only have emerged from a process of generative transformation, where at every step of the process the next step was decided on then and there, based on what was right in the moment, and where any pre-existing plans either never existed or were thrown away.

As I write this I vividly recall a very similar (if much rougher and amateur) example I once experienced. I was helping a friend cut down some large silver wattle (Acacia dealbata) trees next to his creek in NZ. One of the larger trees felled, I was about to start lopping the log up into rounds of firewood. It then occurred to me it would be fun to craft, with the chainsaw, some sort of useful object – possibly a piece of outdoor furniture. I cut off a large length. I looked at it. The idea of a little seat arose. I cut out a seat shape. The result rolled back and forward too much to make a seat, so I fashioned some supports out of the offset from the seat bit, and used them to support the seat. I then noticed the lack of back support, so I used the final bits of left over wood to notch in and add two little backrests. The outcome was rough but beautiful and both utterly un-expected and perfect. My friend later said that as I was crafting the thing I had a huge smile and looked like a kid at play. Here I was not merely assembling. I was not merely partitioning. I was doing both and more. Nor was there any plan, conceptual or details. There was only my intention to have fun working the material and see what happened.

In a permaculture setting, generative transformation was at play when David Holmgren decided to start building a shed on top of the spot where materials had found themselves being stored (as opposed to his and Su Dennet’s house the design of which David fabricated off site).

I have shared one clear example of generative transformation in a permaculture setting here. The below photo conveys something of the forms that were generated without any prior whole-site concept plan or detailed design in hand.


Hopefully this post has shared how the focal diagram actually does correspond to different ways it is possible to go about creating (or designing and implementing) anything. In this next post, I’ll share some ways that the diagram can be used to diagnose the centre of gravity and trajectory of an individual designer, of an individual project, and of permaculture (or any culture, for that matter) as a whole.

Hope to catch some of you then, and if you have any inclination please do make a comment below.


A mini-conversation with Jason Gerhardt

Hey all, for reasons I’m sure will be obvious I’ve decided to promote this insightful comment on the last post from Jason Gerhardt into a post. Meantime, the blog will be coming back to life soon, and I can’t wait to start rolling out the next leg of the MPS journey come 2019. In my humble opinion, we’ve nearly completed our warm-up exercises and things are about to start getting interesting :-). Over to Jason with my reply below:

Hi Dan, this is exactly what I thought you’d arrive at, that is, design as an evolutionary process. It’s kind of the only logical outcome, to build living systems by processes of evolution (the guiding principle of life), which is what happens in design regardless, even though it may not yield the desired outcomes. On some level I think Mollison had it right with “allow systems to demonstrate their own evolution”. Humans tend toward control and have a very hard time when things don’t go to plan, so we need to ease up on our expectations (and our plans), not become more and more rigid about getting exactly what we want. At least to some degree I hear this in your conclusion. However, we definitely need things to not fail. There is a difference between failure and deviation.

Don’t make too big a leap in minimizing the importance of designing upfront, however. It is integral to the overall process, just not the end (because there is no end!), and not more important than any other stage. The design process is circuitous and loops back on itself continually, never ending, and it includes implementation and management, which are equally important design stages to send one back through every other stage. This is an affront to the image of the know-all architect while mere laborers put the pieces together. And it is why the mere laborers always grunt and grumble behind the architects back because they are the ones that save the day when things deviate from plan, as they always do. So we need to be careful in codifying a new process that favors the on-the-ground work over any other piece because eventually we will end up right back at the same place with a lopsided design process. This will be especially true on large projects with multiple elements being designed, implemented, and managed by multiple teams, which is the way most of the design world works outside of residential landscape design. So on some level, we simply need a leveling of the playing field in the design trade, and we need to educate everyone as if they were a designer (because everyone is). No player’s role is more important than any other. This might get us even closer to permanent culture 

I do want to be clear that I think your articulation is the way the design process has always been. I also think a good designer is able to decipher when even a fabricating approach is the best method (because sometimes it is!) considering the greater context of the ongoing evolution of a clients paradigm and/or project. It takes a lot of time and gradual paradigm shifting to achieve wholism, which is why most people who are fresh out of a PDC can’t design for squat, nor should they be expected to, able to, or allowed to (especially when the stakes are high).

You have articulated this thoroughly and more fully than previous articulations of the design process, and I applaud your hard work, Dan. I’m excited to see your thoughts on how we share this with students and advance it in the design trade (beyond the confines of permaculture).

And my reply:

Thanks so much for your comment Jason! Everything you say resonates with where I am coming from and nicely recaps many of the main points I’ve been exploring (which, as you say, at the highest level includes framing “design as an evolutionary process”). A few little reflections in response:

As regards easing up on our expectations, and not becoming “more and more rigid about getting exactly what we want,” I think there is a crucial (and under-appreciated) distinction here between what you could say is what we think we want (which is usually a superficial wishlist of desired elements or outcomes) and what we reallywant (which is around deeper intention & quality of life). I mention this because when reality either invites, or, if we don’t accept the invitation, forces us to deviate from imposing our wishlist according to our plan, we can deem this failure. But when we get clear on the above distinction suddenly the degree that the details of what happens where when and how can vary enormously, indeed need to vary enormously in order to deliver on the deeper intention or reason for getting involved in some project in the first place. Where yesterday’s failure is transformed into today’s success (even if it means moving to another property or project or whatever) :-).

I love your

So on some level, we simply need a leveling of the playing field in the design trade, and we need to educate everyone as if they were a designer (because everyone is). No player’s role is more important than any other. This might get us even closer to permanent culture

As these inquiries proceed1 I’ll be looking closely and critically at the whole idea of framing design as a circuit of separate stages occurring one-after-the-other (design-implement-manage or whatever variation) and developing an alternative framing where these are more accurately construed as contemporary aspects inside a healthy process (where the usual understanding of what defines the line where design stops and implementation starts becomes completely redefined). But I absolutely agree that any way of dealing with lopsidedness that simply moves the lopsidedness somewhere else is not transforming the underlying pattern (and is a trap I have to avoid falling into, or even coming across as having fallen into).

This is also so well said (and could become the beginning of a whole thread in itself!):

It takes a lot of time and gradual paradigm shifting to achieve wholism, which is why most people who are fresh out of a PDC can’t design for squat, nor should they be expected to, able to, or allowed to (especially when the stakes are high).

Also, in an upcoming post I’ll try and get across the confusing fact that fabricating and generating are more attitudes than technical facts about this or that process. I know of projects that, though they involve much fabrication, are in spirit and practice highly generative, and vice versa!

Thanks again Jason – it is gratifying to be in conversation with experienced colleagues such as yourself, who not only get what the hell I’m going on about, but enrich and enlarge the conversation by sharing from their own experiences.

I might have to hit you up about recording a podcast interview sometime!


Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part Three of Five)

A couple of posts back I introduced a diagrammatic snapshot of where Making Permaculture Stronger has arrived after over two years conducting two in-depth inquiries into the design process understandings at permaculture’s core.

The diagram contains a tentative framework for understanding how different kinds of design processes are constitutionally more or less able to enhance life.1 It has two axes. The last post explained the y-axis. There I laid out the difference between assembling, partitioning, and transforming as three distinct ways to think about how whole-part relations can be understood  whenever we do stuff or create stuff.

Here I’ll move to the x-axis and review the difference between fabricating, hybrid, and generating as three different ways that designing (or thinking) and implementing (or doing) can be related whenever we do stuff or create stuff.

Long-term readers of this blog will have seen this three-way distinction before, but I wanted to have a fresh go at presenting it for readers who might only be reading this current four-part series (which is being reproduced on at least one other site).

We’ll start with fabricating, then consider generating, then come back to the hybrid middle ground.

Fabricating (Master Planning)

A fabricating approach completes an up-front design or master plan and only then starts implementation.

Here are a few early examples of fabricated master plans I played a leading role in:

fabricated assembly

fabricated partition-then-assembly

Aren’t they pretty! They also bring together thousands of mistakes in the sense that many of these decisions would be made much better in sequence and in context as the site was being developed, rather than being dreamed up and crammed into a pretty picture up front. This is not to suggest that there is not a time and place for such pictures, by the way (something we’ll discuss more in the next post). It is to say we get in trouble when we forget what they are – diagrammatic guesses that can never, ever capture or respond to all the new details that only and inevitably emerge as soon as you start to intervene in any complex system or ecosystem.

Ben Falk has put this very nicely:

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.


A generating approach focuses on a rigorous process for repeatedly honing in on the best next step then taking it. Here we generate a design layout or pattern in the very process of actively modifying whatever we are working with. Any design sketches are at best servants of the way things are unfolding on the ground, rather than upfront masters (as in master plans) where pre-cooked guesses are imposed.

Though I first learned about generating from Christopher Alexander, I was subsequently delighted to discover that permaculture co-originator David Holmgren had been exploring something similar for many decades. Check out David’s 1994 words where he contrasts master planning (fabricating) with strategic planning (which is something very similar to what we’re calling generating).2

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…

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, strategic planning can help pinpoint the initial step to get the desired processes moving without later having to undo what has already been done. (David Holmgren, 1994, p. 21)

In a master planning or fabricating approach, it is extremely hard, if not impossible, to avoid making premature decisions and then imposing them on reality. You thereby end up taking steps that are not the best suited to what is actually going on at that stage in the unfolding process.

In a generating process, on the other hand, we move from imposing on reality to unfolding out of reality. As a result, the decisions we make along they way are non-arbitrary. They are made at the right time in the presence of the right information meaning we have at least a chance of getting them right. When by fabricating we make our decisions before we even start, it is like we are turning on this massive tap of arbitrariness where the quality of the outcome rests on the nature of the guesses we made at the start.3

Furthermore, if we seek to mimic natural process, nature generates – it never fabricates! As a result, an authentic generating process is much better able to connect in with and enhance life. It just. makes. sense.

Here’s a few images and a recent bit of drone footage from the 10-acre Mayberry Woodend project in Victoria, Australia, where the lovely residents and I have been experimenting with a generating process. In terms of our diagram this was actually an example of generative transformation – something I’ll explore and explain further in the next post.

This next diagram shows all we drew before we started to ground-test and do – a diagram that includes only what we’d decided was the best next step – a new driveway:Here a photo of the works underway:

and the patterns that were generated, here in a photo…

…here in a video:

The point I want to make is that not only are functionally and aesthetically harmonious layouts achievable without drawing upfront plans, what emerges is in my early experience so much better (as in more functional, more connected, and more beautiful) that what could have been captured in any upfront plan.

For the record, I am not saying that there is no place for drawing on pieces of paper or computer screens. Indeed, as I’ve shown above, part of the planning process for the driveway in the above video was drawing possible driveway layouts on paper. But the focus was honing in on and crash testing the best next step, not creating a ‘plan’ to impose.


The hybrid approach is now easy to explain. It mixes together equal parts fabrication and generating. In particular, it involves completing a high-level, broad strokes concept plan ahead of starting to implement, but then lets all the details fall out of the creating/doing/implementing process as it rolls forward.

My friend and renowned ecological designer Dave Jacke describes what I’m calling a hybrid approach well in this personal communication:

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)

Here’s a simple example of a rough concept design I sketched with my parents for the layout of their new house garden:

Here’s us (my dad and I, although my mum was right there too!) getting to it and figuring out the details with rakes and shovel rather than pencils and computer mice:

and here’s the resulting layout from above…

…and from the front:

Winging it

You’ll note a little asterisk in the diagram next to the generating label.

here’s what it says:

Not to be confused with winging it (ill-considered random/ haphazard implementation generating no coherent design)

I mention this to ward off the misunderstanding that a generating process is somehow less rigorous, logical, evidence-based, or documented/documentable than a fabricating approach. In my experience it is much more of all these things!

It is also harder work. You cannot just draw a nice picture, hand it over to the implementation team, then slack off as the territory gets rudely affronted with your map. You need to stay fully engaged as you make changes, immerse in the outcome, and figure out the best next move from there.

Point made. Generating is a world apart from winging it.

From Less to More Life Enhancing

An authentic generating process is infinitely more able to honour and enhance the life in a given system than a fabricating process (and obviously a hybrid process its in between).  This is an important point I want to flesh out a little more.

Life and adaptation are not separable concepts. In other words, all life involves, requires, maybe even is adaptation. To enhance life, therefore, is to enhance adaptedness. Enhancing adaptedness, by the way, is another way of saying enhancing fitness – fitness in the sense of the fitted-ness of a whole’s parts to each other, and the fitted-ness of that whole to the larger wholes it sits within. The moment an organism doesn’t fit its environment, for instance, it doesn’t live.

Now here’s the thing. Adaptation cannot be fabricated or master planned, period. I believe it to be an essential truth that adapted systems can only emerge or be generated iteratively, in an ongoing dance between a system’s form and its context.

This is why in the diagram we are here exploring, I contend that a generating process is more able to enhance life than a fabricating process.

I’m going to let Christopher Alexander (2002) drive the point home:

…there is a fundamental law about the creation of complexity, which is visible and obvious to everyone – yet this law is, to all intents and purposes, ignored in 99% of the daily fabrication processes of society. The law states simply this: ALL the well-ordered complex systems we know in the world, all those anyway that we view as highly successful, are GENERATED structures, not fabricated structures.

The human brain, that most complex neural network, like other neural networks, is generated, not assembled or fabricated. The forests of the Amazon are generated, not fabricated. The tiger, beautiful creature, generated, not fabricated. The sunset over the western ocean with its stormy clouds, that too is generated, not fabricated. (p. 180)

The significance of generated structure lies in the concept of mistakes. Fabricated plans always have many mistakes — not just a few mistakes but tens of thousands, even millions of mistakes. It is the mistake-ridden character of the plans which marks them as fabricated — and that comes from the way they are actually generated, or made, in time. Generated plans have few mistakes (p. 186)

If an [human] embryo were built from a blueprint of a design, not generated by an adaptive process, there would inevitably be one thousand trillion mistakes. Because of its history as a generated structure, there are virtually none. (p. 188)


I have shared three ways in which designing and implementing can be related inside any creation process: fabricating, generating, or a hybrid including bits of both.

I have shared how I think this distinction matters in that only the generating and certain instances of the hybrid approach are able to deliver on permaculture’s aspiration to partner with and enhance life in whatever contexts it is applied.

In the next post we’ll zoom out and consider the diagram as a whole and various ways it can be usefully employed in understanding, practicing and teaching permaculture design process.


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.

Holmgren, David. Trees on the Treeless Plains: Revegetation Manual for the Volcanic Landscapes of Central Victoria. Holmgren Design Services, 1994.