On the topic of a practical, commercially viable permaculture design process with Artūrs Freijs

Hey all. A month or two back I was written by Artūrs Freijis from Latvia:

Hi! 

I have been reading your blog and trying to figure out a replicable permaculture design process that would fit the new understanding you are writing about as well as the current reality of customer expectations as well as finding the most effective way to reach sustainability related design goals. 

My current process that is somehow predictable and commercially viable looks like this: 

1) checking for a good fit of owner’s values, ambitions and resources,
2) sending the owner client interview and asking a number of questions about goals, expectations, needed outcomes regarding yields etc. Asking to draw a simple vision of the land on top of a plan from Google maps. 
3) visiting the site, observing and clarifying the questions,
4) drawing a conceptual zone map of the site and discussing with owners
5) analyzing the sectors and influences on the site
6) creating the map of possibilities (vision that can be realized in 4 years) with my view on optimal placement of all desired elements
7) discussing the possibilities and selecting priorities of design elements to be implemented
8) creating the final vision for the next 4 years

What would be your thoughts on this process? How would you improve it?

Best regards,
Artūrs Freijs

Artūrs was happy for me to reply as a blog post given I’m sure this topic is of interest to fellow permaculture designers out there. So, let us take a look, where I’m hoping other readers will contribute their insights and explorations in the comments too.

First up, it is a great question, right? How do we work professionally as permaculture designers in a way that is true to our best understanding of what permaculture can be and is compatible with client expectations and is commercially viable?

Clarifying Artūrs’ Process

Before replying in this post right here I emailed Artūrs back with a few questions just to clarify which he then responded to:

1) checking for a good fit of owner’s values, ambitions and resources

DP: I think I get you here – checking to make sure they are not entertaining a complete fantasy and that what they are asking for your help with is something that resonates with your own values and is something you feel you can indeed deliver on.

AF: Yes. And it is also important to check if the owner will value the end result enough. I mean, I have had some cases when they want just somebody to come over and suggest a better looking bed of roses. Or something like that – too small or too unambitious for me. Which also means that they are not going to value the end result so much and so are not ready to pay enough for the design service. I definitely need to improve at this point and learn to have a set of questions that can easily diagnose the case and filter the leads. Price is one of the aspects that can filter out those not valuing the service…

2) sending the owner client interview and asking a number of questions about goals, expectations, needed outcomes regarding yields etc. Asking to draw a simple vision of the land on top of a plan from Google maps.

DP: So I get the questions thing but as regards the vision you are asking them to sketch a very rough design layout across the land, is that right?

AF: Yes. I haven’t tried that step with real customers yet though, but will try in the future, because I believe that such a rough sketch can give some input that would otherwise be lost if there is only written or verbal exchange of ideas.

3) visiting the site, observing and clarifying the questions,

DP: You mean clarifying the client’s answers to the questions you already sent is that right?

AF: Yes.

4) drawing a conceptual zone map of the site and discussing with owners

DP: I’d like to know what you mean here – maybe you sharing an example would help? My main question is are you here drawing a draft layout of zones across the property in the sense of zone 1, zone 2, zone 3, zone 4, zone 5? Is that right?

AF: Yes. It is permaculture zones 1-5. Actually I make two maps: the existing situation and the more optimal zoning according to my opinion.

5) analyzing the sectors and influences on the site

DP: got it!

6) creating the map of possibilities (vision that can be realized in 4 years) with my view on optimal placement of all desired elements

DP: got it!

7) discussing the possibilities and selecting priorities of design elements to be implemented

DP: got it!

8) creating the final vision for the next 4 years

DP: got it!

DP: Now before I answer your question about finding a replicable permaculture design process that fits with the stuff I’ve been exploring as well working for clients and being commercially viable I have a question for you: how does this process you’ve described feel to you currently? How is it working out for you and the clients? Are there any issues, or tensions, or particular bits you feel could be better and if so what are they? If you were going to change anything, what would it be?

AF: For me the process feels good, but it will be tweaked for sure as I acquire more experience and cases. The only problem so far has been the difficulty to sell the process. I mean, to explain to the prospective clients that it is needed and will benefit them. Otherwise usually clients ask for certain element like food forest without taking the whole into account. I know, I have to work on that. It will come with the experience I guess. 

Another Question from Dan

One thing I want to be up front about here is the process I am using to inform my comments on Artūrs description of his process approach. The process is what I call generative transformation :-). What this means for me is that I am:

  1. trying to get a feel for the whole of where Artūrs you are in your journey as a permaculture designer as well as for how you’re thinking about what you do or would ideally do, then
  2. sort of gently hone in on any sweet spots or nodal intervention points where a transformation could be made – edges you could experiment with in terms of continuing to evolve toward a way of doing this work that is fulfilling for you, is aligned with your values while adding value to your customers and providing you with a viable livelihood.

Which makes me realise straight away that I’m gong to struggle to offer any meaningful and non-generic suggestions1 until I have a clearer image of your intention, purpose or vision for your work Artūrs. Can you tell me a little about why you are doing this work, about what drives you and most excites you about this stuff? Maybe even if you could tell me what it might look and feel like if this work was truly flowing for you, and feeling as great as you can imagine it feeling. What kinds of projects would you be taking on? What kinds of people would you be working with? How much of your time would you be investing in this? What percentage of your income would you ideally want to be deriving from this work? Are you interested in being part of implementing as well as designing? And so on. You give me something more to go on with this kind of thing and then I’ll a means of assessing whether any suggestions I might make are consistent with where you actually want to go!

Replied Artūrs:

Yes, so, I aim to support a physical transition of the current city and suburban environmental reality to a nicer and greener one. I believe that the way of doing this is to inspire the wealthy land owners in cities and suburbs by providing a quality permaculture landscape designs that are both functional and visually pleasing. There are a few trends that can be used like local and slow food, zero waste or the slowly raising awareness of dry summers (in Riga).

The tricky part might be to distinguish my work from the usual landscape architect work. Especially when it comes to addressing the wealthiest landowners, who are typically more interested in lawns and fountains than permaculture landscapes. The ideal situation would be to establish trust and rank within the wealthy class to provide the permaculture designing. And then it could generate all the income needed for my minimalist lifestyle. At the moment I design as a side hustle, but would love to do it all the time.

Although I would love to implement all my designs, from a strategic point of view it is better to not do that (I have heard). But I would be happy to at least supervise the implementation process. Normally permaculture gardens are being implemented by landowners, but it could be different working with the wealthy class, so some supervision would make even more sense. 

You might wonder why I am so focused on the wealthy? Because I believe that the strong and influential should lead the way for a wider society. And in addition to flying private jets and driving big cars, they should at least start a nice permaculture garden as the first step.  That would also leave a bigger impact on surrounding society in my opinion. In the ideal workflow, I could easily communicate the rather untraditional and ambitious design solutions with the client. And the whole process should be like a well designed discussion so that the possible misunderstandings are being addressed in a timely way without asking too much of effort from the landowner. The process should also stretch the imagination of landowner and help to arrive at an ambitious but doable goal. 

Finally, Some Actual Reflections from Dan

Thanks for bearing with me Artūrs. So you want to

  • make your living by helping to transform city and suburban environments in permaculture directions in a way that uses the least effort for the greatest effect, where…
  • …right now you see providing permaculture design services to wealthy private clients as a way of realising the above because
    • they have money by definition meaning you can charge them reasonably well towards making your living from this, and
    • you see the wealthy as a nodal intervention (acupuncture) point in that if they weave permaculture in amongst their lawns and fountains, others will be inspired to follow
  • where your greatest difficulty is selling the process as in communicating its value to potential customers

Fair enough.2 So what I’ll do now is make a few comments based on my understanding of the design process framework you’re proposing to use, and the goal you are striving toward. Then we’ll see if anyone else out there has anything to add, what your thoughts are, and we’ll take it from there.

Okay let me look at your process description again:

1) checking for a good fit of owner’s values, ambitions and resources,
2) sending the owner client interview and asking a number of questions about goals, expectations, needed outcomes regarding yields etc. Asking to draw a simple vision of the land on top of a plan from Google maps. 
3) visiting the site, observing and clarifying the questions,
4) drawing a conceptual zone map of the site and discussing with owners
5) analyzing the sectors and influences on the site
6) creating the map of possibilities (vision that can be realized in 4 years) with my view on optimal placement of all desired elements
7) discussing the possibilities and selecting priorities of design elements to be implemented
8) creating the final vision for the next 4 years

What would be your thoughts on this process? How would you improve it?

I’ll pull out steps that I have something to say about then share some things that pop into my mind:

2) sending the owner client interview and asking a number of questions about goals, expectations, needed outcomes regarding yields etc. Asking to draw a simple vision of the land on top of a plan from Google maps.

One thing that jumps out as a possible risk for me is the idea of inviting the owners to draw a “simple vision of the land on top of a plan from Google maps” before you even get there. In my experience this is especially true of clients who, when they happen to be very wealthy, also tend to be very used to coming up with ideas on the spot then throwing money at someone to make them happen.

The risk in asking them to start designing is that they have some ideas they get attached to where this becomes all they want to talk about when you show up. Where you are then setting yourself up to potentially expend a lot of effort trying to politely tell them that their idea sucks and won’t work and will be a waste of money. In my experience, the longer you can hold yourself and the clients back from starting to draw out a design on paper, the better.3

While I have colleagues who send out a questionnaire in advance I never do this any more. I want to ask them questions face-to-face and watch their body language as well as what they say. I want to see how organised their space is, what they like to have around them in their home, what books they have on their book shelf. I want to get to know them as well as I can toward customising whatever happens with their place to their unique individuality. You could always take the checklist with you and go through it with them rather than sending it out first?

Something else I’ll mention here is striving to get as deep as feasible into what they are really after, then helping them articulate that in a compelling way that excites them. Which is exactly what you’re getting at when you speak of “stretching the imagination of landowner and help to arrive at an ambitious but doable goal.” Indeed, I prefer to meet clients away from the property the first time to focus on this. Unless you can get to something that really fires them up the risk is they lose motivation moving forward as the novelty of this new permaculture ‘hobby’ wears off.

A huge part of this phase of the process going well comes down to your own self confidence, by the way. The clients need to feel safe in being able to trust that you know what you’re doing and are not going to screw their perfectly nice lawn and fountains up (such that their friends make fun of them for relying on a hair-brained permaculture hippie :-)). Where your authentic confidence is in turn fed by your demonstrated competence, as in the demonstrated ability to be able to do the sort of thing you’re proposing to them. Which makes me think about the possibility of doing whatever it takes to get a project going, even if as a volunteer, or where you say “pay me whatever it is worth to you when we’re done” or something like that. Once this is behind you, your issue of selling the process may just well evaporate in a puff of all the neighbours yelling “hey, we want you to do for us what you did for them!”

4) analyzing the sectors and influences on the site

First up I’d suggest it makes more sense to do this before the next bit, so I’ve reversed your 4 & 5. Second this step4 flashed by a bit quick for me. I feel like I want to add something like immerse deeply in the site and really get to know it as a whole.

5) drawing a conceptual zone map of the site and discussing with owners

I think the idea of zones has its place, for sure. So think of it more as a food for thought item when I share that I never map zones in the design and development processes I am part of. There just always seems to be something more relevant and useful to do instead I guess. Sure, in the process the things that need attention the oftenest end up the nearest to the energy centre (I like someone’s summary of the zoning idea as “oftenest nearest”).5

I guess I should say something to the question this might prompt of “then what the heck do you do then, Palmer?” Well, one alternative heuristic is Yeoman’s Scale of Permanence. I customise this to fit the situation but it does often work out that we focus (after climate and landform) on water then access then trees. So this would be something to consider trying instead here – drawing a concept plan ordered around a project-appropriate scale of permanence. You may already know that Darren Doherty is probably the global authority on this approach what with his Regrarians Platform.

6) creating a map of possibilities (vision that can be realized in 4 years) with my view on optimal placement of all desired elements

A quick note here is not forgetting to simultaneously zoom out and make sure that the fabric or flow or texture of the site as a whole is unfolding in a beautiful, harmonic way. Often times in our obsessive focus on getting the elements assembled right we neglect the shape and feel of the whole. Where it is the shape of the whole and the negative spaces between the elements that largely how good a place looks and feels. And the better it looks and feels, then the happy your customer, and the more enthusiasticall they’ll recommend you to their friends!

8) creating the final vision for the next 4 years

So this is where I starting getting nervous Artūrs. As you’ll know if you’ve read pretty much any of posts in the last year or so, I don’t like the idea of a final vision. First, it is never final. Second, when we focus on drawing then realising a vision, we too quickly lose track of the underlying intention the vision is supposed to be in service of, and we almost inevitably fall into one of two traps. Either we:

  • Realise the vision (which is a trap because if we somehow were able to impose a vision that was finalised four years ago we definitely missed the multiple times that reality suggested a better next step to take and we ignored it in favour of the vision).
  • Don’t realise the vision (which means we potentially wasted a lot of time creating it)

So I would suggest, Artūrs, the possibility of deleting this step and replacing it with something like “helping identify the best next step based on the concept plan and the current reality of the site and the people, then supervising its implementation.” Just an idea – take it with a grain of salt. Though I can’t count how many designers who have told me of the disillusionment they feel when after years of selling final visions / master plans they realise that the clients never got around to implementing them or tried and completely stuffed them up.6

Summary

Okay Artūrs you asked my opinion and you got it. Based on my own experience working as a professional permaculture designer and my understanding of where you are at and where you are heading I’d throw this suggested transformation of your existing process description at you:

1) checking for a good fit of owner’s values, ambitions and resources,
2) interviewing the client and asking a number of questions about goals, expectations, needed outcomes regarding yields etc.
3) visiting the site, observing and clarifying the questions,
4) immerse deeply in the site and really get to know it as a whole including analyzing the sectors and influences on the site
5) drawing a concept plan (whether zonal or organised around the scale of permanence) of the site and discussing with owners
6) creating a map of possibilities (vision that can be realized in 4 years) with my view on optimal placement of all desired elements and a coherent, harmonious patterning to the site as a whole
7) discussing the possibilities and selecting priorities of design elements to be implemented
8) supervising the implementation of the highest design priority, then circling back to 7, and so on, round and round…

All the best, hope has been something of use in this for your design process adventures Artūrs, and thanks so much for catalysing then co-creating this post together with me.

Endnotes

  1. as easy as that would be, and as tempting as it is
  2. If I was actually consulting to Artūrs, for the record, I would continue going into his context a fair bit further. I sense there is some helpful stuff waiting to be discovered a bit deeper down. For now, however, I will work with it at the current resolution, given the question this all started with, not to mention I have trees to go plant!
  3. For the record on some projects I help folk develop their landscape perfectly well including major roads and dams etc without any design drawing at all, as crazy as that might sound…
  4. I wince a bit to call them steps as they aren’t really in the sense of a linear sequence
  5. I’m not the only one either. David Holmgren tells me he never consciously used zone mapping in the design and development of Melliodora.
  6. Simply because they were not fully involved in the vision’s creation, ironically given it was a vision for them!

2 Comments

  1. Another great post, Dan, and thanks also to Artūrs for generating such great discussion.

    I agree with your point about client interviews. I used to send an advance questionnaire and usually found myself going back through it with clients to seek clarification on their answers. This was not energy efficient (and therefore against the principles about using energy efficiently).

    I would suggest that the starting point is to develop a macro perspective of the area using local knowledge and online resources. Working in the same bioregion means my knowledge of the relevant patterns, climate, weather, wind, sun angles, topography etc, transfers from one project to the next but there’s still a need to check how these factors will impact a particular site. Human made features like dumps, heat sinks and potential sources of contamination are worth exploring, as is the threatened and endangered species lists of plants and animals for your area. Noting the location of any large bodies of water and bushland will be relevant to local temperatures. Move from these macro patterns to the patterns on site, noting which reflect local conditions and which deviate. As an example, we are at the end of a keyhole valley so our primary high wind direction is altered. Notice patterns specific to the site and check observations when you can, for example with soil sampling.

    I also think there’s room in this process for auditing the property using the principles (whichever set you use). To what extent does this property…………….?
    It can be immensely beneficial to do this with clients. It’s not necessary to give them a lesson in permaculture. Just ask the questions. It’s sometimes necessary to reword them if the language isn’t clear for the client, but you’re planting lots of seeds regarding the way they view the space, and the kinds of things you’ll be doing with your design. I agree that walking the site with clients and listening carefully to what they say is critical. I also like to wander alone where possible. I see different things.

    I hope this is useful. I’m still working on my current best design process, and I keep redesigning it. I recommend that process too. Collect information, learn, analyse, ideate, plan, implement, review using the ethics and principles and repeat.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.