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

Table of Contents

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.



  1. As opposed to what Dave Jacke calls “the pale of scermanence” ;-)
  2. See here for some other, better-known adaptations others have made, including perhaps most prominently Darren J. Doherty’s version that defines what he calls the Regrarians Platform.


  1. The real life examples documentation of Melliodora evolving through the implementation process are valuable example. Thanks for sharing this series from your class with David!

  2. It`s fascinating to see the evolution of this blog, which I follow pretty much since the whole project started –
    The conversation around design process is important, inside & outside PermaCulture movement(s);
    The topics exposed here resonate stongly what I was thinking about durning the last few years, reflecting critically on my personal proceses (as an early PC enthusiast but also sometimes critic) as a teacher & designer – I also know of colegues and fellow activists & designers in Latin America, who are engaged in similar discussions in their projects & networks;
    Soon I share more on my process & projects

    1. Que bueno oírte Holger and I’m delighted you’re finding resonance with how this project is evolving. It is affirming, actually, in that my intention is for this project not to be about one person’s obscure ramblings but about tapping into shared issues and experiences permaculturalists are facing around the world. I would love to hear more of your thoughts and processes and projects, as well of some of the themes in conversations you are part of. One thought I’m having is if it would ever be of service to have an español section to this site then let me know – maybe we could figure something out.

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