Bringing it all together in just. one. diagram. (Part Ten of Eleven) – If you’re designing for life, Transformation isn’t Optional – But Sometimes Fabricating is Fine

Before I bring this diagram/chart series home and tuck it into bed, there is a subtle nuance I want to try and convey.

It is this. First, in my opinion, once we have a feel for what is meant by transforming, there is no reason to ever devolve back to only assembling or only partitioning. Transforming transcends and includes both these things (read more about this here). As far as I can see it will always support a deeper and more rounded appreciation of the whole being worked within, and thus the uncovering of better, more adapted steps in the design and creation process.

Second, the axis going from fabrication through hybrid to generative is different. Why? Because there are times when you’ll draw concept plans, and there are times when you’ll draw detailed plans. There is nothing in any of this suggesting anything inherently wrong with drawings! Heck, I draw things all the time.

Indeed, I have discovered that generative transformation is almost more an attitude than a specific set of practices to do or not do (such as draw plans up front). Sometimes when I work with generative transformation I use drawings, sometimes I don’t.

In prior posts I have given examples of both hybrid transformation and generative transformation in which drawings played their role (either a concept design or simple a sketch of the next thing to be implemented).

An Example of, err, Generatively Fabricated Transformation

I’ll now give you a different example, one where I consciously fabricated a detailed plan. About three years back I took on a commission (ongoing) to design all the green spaces for a 700-apartment suburban development.1 Rooftops, podiums, streetscapes. I took it on as an experiment in seeing how far I could push my process (in a hyper-conventional context with established protocols) toward generative transformation. I didn’t think I’d get so far as I’ve gotten.

Here, detailed up-front drawings were essential. There was no way I could avoid them. They needed them for their promotional brochures. They needed them so the architects could get them into the formal construction master plans for the builders to quote from. They needed them for getting council approval. There was no way I would have got the job if said “sorry, no plans from me.” Even if my ideal scenario would be to wait till the spaces were built, then mock up and hone in on the first thing to install, install it, decide on the next step, and so on.

Now I hope this isn’t too confusing, but while this was on the surface a clear example of a fabricating transformation or C1 (top left in the chart) process, the first place I used the attitude of generative transformation was in how I went about drawing the detailed plans. I used a specific process where I immersed in the intention or what I call the project DNA and what I could access about the actual physical spaces before unfolding the suggested layouts using Christopher Alexander’s pattern language approach to unfold a particular layout. Where I was consciously transforming the space in my mind, on paper, and by mocking up various areas in real space as best I could, and thereby in a sense I’ll discuss more, actually generating the fabrication. Here is what emerged on one pair of rooftops, excluding plants…

…and with plants…

Where even though it was being drawn and not actually made at this stage, each little detail was unfolding out of my grasp of the whole situation and what had unfolded before (in a carefully laid out unfolding sequence). Which contrasts dramatically with how the prior landscape architects had used full-blown fabricating attitude and reality to come up with…

To me this is a very clear example of what I mean by fabricated assembly or A1 (in this case so blatant that it is perhaps one reason these designers were dismissed before I was brought in). Even though I was clearly fabricating, it is like, as I suggested above, that I was generating the fabrication. It is like there is a whole other order to these ideas, where there can be fabricated fabrications, generated fabrications, fabricated hybrids, generated hybrids, and so on. There may even be fabricated generations! Yes, it is confusing, but as Bill Reed says, life is complex. So dig in!

Back to the plans I developed, here are the construction diagrams…

…and 3D renders for promotional purposes…

I trust all this makes it clear I am not suggesting that detailed plans are inherently bad (I still struggle to use the word master plan, however, and I never saw these plans as masters but as required reference points along the way). I see them as risky, yet sometimes essential.

A big part of what made this different from conventional fabrication (aside from how I created the plans) was that I did not then hand over the plans, take my fee and move on. Nor did I treat the plans as something to blindly impose, as some kind of master. I held them very lightly and I chuckled at how seriously everyone else took them. To me they were a loose guide (in that sense they were a hybrid design in a detailed design’s clothing) that I consciously told myself were full of mistakes that I was going to then do my best to weed out as we went along.

Every step of the way, as further information came to light, as the actual spaces were built and I could go visit them, as I saw samples of soil and mulch and paving options etc, the plans were changed to better fit the emerging reality. I spent countless hours mocking up and imagining different shaped and sized planters when it came time to lock these things in. I injected as much life, as much generation as I could into what happened after I drew the plans (which are now up to something like version 20).

Indeed, a non-negotiable condition of my accepting the job was that the builder and landscaper would be contractually obliged to have me supervise and sign off on each part of the gardens as they were built.

Here is a shot from last week showing these rooftops and another, smaller rooftop where you can see the initial garden planters going in…

Which brings me back to my point. Transformation is a no-brainer, yet sometimes, fabricating is fine. It is all about how you create your fabricated drawings and then the specific role those drawings play in the rest of the process. Indeed, I believe it would be quite possible for a process using detailed upfront plans to more authentically honour the spirit of generative transformation than an approach avoiding any plans and yet doing so from the mindset or attitude of fabricated assembly (and/or winging it).

If you are confused right now, I am sorry. Do ask me questions in the comments below and let’s inch down this rabbit hole a little further together. I trust you can see why I felt I needed to share this.

I should also share that one thing I don’t want this to land as is me saying “actually, I take it back, whatever you are doing with master plans, that’s fine, keep going and maybe just think more about transforming wholes than assembling parts.” That is not what I’m saying. I am still challenging myself and others to ask whether and to what extent upfront plans are required or appropriate. Then, if they are, both how they are created and how they feed into what follows.2

Anyways, this version of the chart shows the zone and the rough sort of allocation of time in each zone that in my opinion befits a permaculture really grabbing ahold of and developing its potential. It is true of how I’m working lately. Always transforming, mostly straight-out generating, sometimes drawing up front concept plans, occasionally up-front detailed plans (though always with a generative attitude).

Over and out, and catch you in the next and final post in this series. It has been fun, though I tell you I’m looking forward to getting stuck into the rather exciting layers of what appears to want to emerge next 🙂

Note – I thank Jason Gerhardt (USA) who in many ways inspired this post. Either in episode 28 or 29 of the podcast you’ll hear Jason and I talking about this stuff – a talk that happened before I wrote this, even though this is coming out first. I also thank Finn Weddle (UK) and Emma Morris (NZ) for helping me decide to pull this chunk out of the upcoming final post in the series which will be much tighter as a result. Huge thanks also to Making Permaculture Stronger’s latest several patrons for supporting this work!


  1. As for my decision and experience of consciously partnering with a developer to trial a radically different way of doing things, well, that is a story (and quite a story!) for another time (thought it relates to Carol’s words in this post).
  2. None of this, by the way, is in any way diminishing how incredibly useful drawing and mapping a site at the beginning of a process is. There, drawings are almost always a fantastic addition, as a tool to better unpack what is already going on. Climate, geology, sectors, flora and fauna, land-unit mapping, and so on.

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