What is Transformation and how does it differ from Assembly and Partitioning? Response to a reader query

Hey all. So back in April, MPS follower (and as of yesterday patron!) Finn Weddle sent me a message, in which he very kindly took the time to share that:

your podcasts have been a huge contributor to my newly gained confidence to actually design! I have done a few ‘soft’ designs, both in the sense of not being fully written up and in the sense of people social permaculture designs (one design for a community of interest hub, one for a lesson plan), but never had much of a chance to apply myself to a ‘hard’ design. One of the many factors to this has been my tendency towards analysis till paralysis, and the culmination of your inquiry as ‘generative transformation’ has really allowed me to open up my design work much more. I am only half way through, but my ‘client’/sister is bowled away by how adaptive and personalised my plan for her garden is and is singing high praise, so it’s going well. Also of note is that I’ve had a great many eureka moments for this specific project whilst listening to your podcast, so perhaps beyond all the intellectual stuff there’s a hidden truth that just listening to conversations about design process, whilst designing, is the best design process there is? Fractaaaal……

Finn went on to ask a question about what the heck I’m getting at with this concept of transformation in this chart that has unexpectedly popped out the end of Making Permaculture Stronger’s first two inquiries.

Here’s his query, which he kindly agreed to let me share here (perhaps because I implied that was the only way he’d get a decent response out of me :-)):

About the A1-C3 chart, I’m a little bit stuck though. The x-axis is crystal clear to me, and I am very confident in what you call generative design. (With my sister I’m having to use a hybrid, as she lives some 400+ miles from me, and I’m actually marketing it as the ‘least best design’ possible – it is presented as a masterplan, with 5 phases covering 3 years in the garden, and is the best I can do using the concepts and methods I have. BUT I am clear that it is only the best I can do from where I’m standing now and a version of me (or the client) in the future would make a much better design. So Phase 1 is 100% spot on, Phase 2 is very soon after so is 95% spot on, Phase 3 is not for 9 months and much could change by then, including the way in which Phase 1 and 2 were implemented, so actually around 80% spot on. After that it’s barely 50% accuracy i.e. so much could have changed from present day to the end of the project that it’s meaningless for me to go into much detail, but I can explain the concepts/patterns going forward for the client to apply themselves.) However, I’m struggling to get a clear idea of what you describe by ‘transformation’. I can see the clear difference between assembling and partitioning, and I can see that they’re both very useful for different design contexts or even different elements within a particular design, but I can’t find a clear and meaningful definition of what you call Row 3. Would it be right to summarise the y-axis as: Row 1 detail-work, Row 2 pattern-work, Row 3 the ping-pong match between patterns and details?

All the best pal,

First up I have to say I am delighted to hear that the blog and podcast have had a clarifying and opening impact on your design process experiments and adventures Finn – hooray!

Now to the query, which I so appreciate you grappling with. First I’ll say that I continue to grapple with this also. In a real sense this whole blog is me trying to figure stuff like this out in the process of writing and talking about it. So rather than having some perfect answer for you I’m grateful for this opportunity to strive for greater clarity. Given I am quite sure there is a useful distinction to be had here.

First up the answer to the specific question you end with is yes, I see it as very much something like that. To flesh it out a bit I’d say that assembly is details to patterns work, partitioning is patterns to details work, and transformation is both at the same time (the ping pong thing).

As a complement to my previously penned thoughts on this, I’ll have a go at describing it freshly and with the addition of some more recent developments. Okay, I’m taking a deep breath before I discover how this is going to come out :-)…

Assembly starts with parts and strives to achieve wholes by bringing parts together into meaningful configurations. Here the parts come first and the whole comes second. In the Designer’s Manual, Bill Mollison was speaking from an assembly perspective when he said “For the final act of the designer, once components have been assembled, is to make a sensible pattern assembly of the whole.” (p. 70, bold mine). I sometimes refer to assembly as partism, in the sense that the parts are primary, the whole secondary.

What I’m calling partitioning is a reaction to the limitations of assembly/partism (which is not to say it isn’t useful!). Recently I realised that what I call partitioning is what is sometimes referred to with the word holism. In this sense, holism turns partism on its head. Here the whole becomes primary, the parts secondary. We start with a whole then sort of tickle the whole into birthing the parts. It was Arthur Koestler in his phenomenally influential book The Ghost in the Machine that alerted me to this connection between partitioning and holism. Indeed, he invented the concept of a holon (part-whole) to try and resolve the conflict between partism and holism.

For me, having designed by assembly for some years, it felt like an exciting advance to move to starting with the pre-existing whole place or space or whatever and then divide, distinguish, partition it up from there. The outcomes were certainly more adapted, more integrated, and more honouring and enhancing of what was already there. I have shared a few examples of designing in this way here and here.

Enter transformation. Here, any debate between whether it is better to move from parts to whole or from whole to parts becomes completely redundant. Transformation transcends and includes partism and holism by accepting that everywhere and always we are only ever encountering and, if we deem appropriate, transforming an already existing whole-that-already-has-parts. So at the begining there is a whole-with-its-parts. After step one there is a (slightly different) whole-with-its-parts. After step two there is a (slightly different) whole-with-its-parts. And so on, forever. There is never a whole minus parts. There is never a part minus a whole. It is simply nonsense to try and treat them as if the one could somehow exist, even for a moment, without the other.1

Here is how I put it the first time I really realised this and tried to put it into words (where I have since substituted transformation for differentiation):

Thanks in large part to all the discussions and lines of thought this article has catalysed (many of them ongoing, as in the case of your comment), as well as my own experiments in applying these ideas, I’ve come to an updated understanding that works for me (for now) and resonates with much of what you say. Two key steps for me have been realising that assembly and differentiation are different logical types and that neither are committed to either the bottom-up or top-down direction of movement.

Here, I’ll put it into words (for the first time – thanks for the prompt!)

Differentiation just means to make different. Whether you use the word differentiatetransformmake differentchangemodifyreconfigure, etc etc, the upshot is any process of design and/or creation is a sequence of [insert your preferred word here]. Each of these changes might involve addition (I bring home an apple tree to plant), multiplication (I decide to times that by ten), subtraction (I get rid of the rose bush), division (I partition the yard into two terraces), or morphing or merging or otherwise rearranging what is already there, or any number of other change types. In all cases you have differentiated the whole you are working with. You have made it different. In most cases, each change or differentiation simultaneously involves many of these things. I divide a room in two by adding and assembling some bits of wood and screws. And so on. The take away point is that we tend in our culture to display an unconscious bias in our designing and creating toward adding/assembly, when this is not only missing most of the tool box, but it is out of alignment with the fact that in nature things tend to grow where addition/assembly is an underling of division (e.g., in order for a cell to divide various molecules etc must come in from outside the system, and, sure, if you like, be assembled). It is also going to get harder and harder to do in an energy decent future. But most importantly, it is not the whole shebang. Hopefully over time we’ll all enlarge the vocabulary with which we describe the changes going on inside permaculture design process (where a problematically strong bias toward addition/assembly has been evident).

The second part of it for me is that if we more accurately contrast assembly (or adding) with division or delineation (instead of differentiation which we’ve just seen is more general of a concept) then neither of these contain any inherent directional commitment in terms of up or down in the holarchy. You might import a whole portable house to your place then bring in and layout kitchen counters and cupboards then move to select, import and assemble your knifes and forks. You are assembling from patterns to details. You might delineate a little pond in the middle of your place, then delineate a wetland it’ll sit within, and so on. You are delineating from details to patterns. Permaculturalists agree that an overall motion from patterns toward details is a good idea. So in light of the above the idea is that you gradually and sequentially differentiate a space, using many different kinds of differentiation (including but very much not limited to assembly and I note sometimes not involving any assembly whatsoever), moving upwards, downwards, and sideways, but with an overall movement downwards, from patterns toward details.

So I think as you do any either-or argument between addition/assembly and division/delineation is not a fruitful use of time (in spite of my having started a bout of just such arguments – oh well -you live and learn ;-)). My focus is now moving to the question of where are we aiming with these sequences of changes we make? What is the point and purpose and overall destination? How do we know if we’re on track? How do we so often get off track? And what is the most appropriate way of understanding the relation of designing and implementing inside this sequence? 

Now I’m sorry Finn but I cannot resist in closing mentioning one little thing that might mess with your mind, as it continues to mess with mine. Transformation is not just ping pong. It is not just assembly then partitioning then assembly, back and forward. Patterns to details to patterns to details to patterns. Yes, this is part of it. But there is this other weird thing going on. You see we tend to think that as we move toward the parts we are moving away from the whole, and vice versa. For they are in different directions, right? Isn’t that the whole point of the distinction between wholes and parts – that one is up here and one is down there? For me, if I am honest with what I observe when I observe my self in process, it just ain’t that simple.

For me, the way I get closer to the whole is not up and away from the parts but is literally by going further into the parts. Indeed, the only place the whole can be found, if I’m honest to my experience (and not my unconsciously imbibed theories about how the world works), is in the parts! I know, I know – WTF right? Everyone knows that parts are inside wholes and that is how it is. But what I’ve been experimenting and dancing with is the irrefutable fact that it is at least as true, if not more true, that the whole is inside the parts.2 For me, even though logically it is something of a mind f%^&, this has been a beautiful realisation. So I’ll be curious to see what you and others make of it!

Over and out and I hope at least some of this was helpful Finn in feeding into your own sense-making and experience-noticing around this stuff. I believe this topic is a critical stepping stone on permaculture’s path toward a deep and shared understanding of an authentically nature-honouring creation process.


Bortoft, Henri. The Wholeness of Nature : Goethe’s Way Toward a Science of Conscious Participation in Nature. Lindisfarne, 1996.

Mollison, Bill. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari, 1988.

Koestler, Arthur. The Ghost in the Machine. Penguin Group, 1967.


  1. As Koestler put it: “The two-term part-whole paradigm is deeply engrained in our unconscious habits of thought. It will make a great difference to our mental outlook when we succeed in breaking away from it” (p. 49)
  2. I have Henri Bortoft to blame/thank for putting me onto this, by the way, not to mention David Seamon for putting me onto Bortoft!


  1. You really are giving people a much better place to start. While it seems complex at the surface, I think you’re actually making it more approachable. And the process you are describing is so human, accessible to anybody with flags, string, stakes, and senses. In the last few months I’ve been working on design projects almost on a daily basis and I have to say you are having a huge impact on my approach. I see it everyday a little more clearly. My process signature is surely shifting.

    1. Thanks so much for your support and appreciation Jason. It is so motivating to learn that what began as random cathartic musings have evolved into something coherent and useful enough to be making a difference for fellow permaculture designers (in addition to just myself). Having folk from around the world (most recently from both Latvia and Sweden) share that this stuff is making a difference in what they are doing in real projects motivates me to keep going.

      And it is so true, right? A bit of potentially unusual terminology aside (which I hope to weed out more as things move forward), this stuff is all about bringing design processes back toward life, which means more accessible, collaborative, inclusive, functional, beautiful, empowering, etc etc. Once you get a taste there ain’t no turning back.

      I look forward to our next chat and I was meaning to mention that your prior comment resonates muchly with this one from Dave Jacke.

  2. (length warning) As I read this, I can’t help pulling from Zen Buddhist concepts. So much of the inquiry and expression on this blog is at the heart of the non-dual philosophy and mindset described in Buddhist texts. Words have never quite done it justice and most of the descriptions are intended to get people to just BE it. My favored description might go like this: the whole and the parts are not one, and they are not two. What is one supposed to do with that? Go practice.

    I’d like to play along with you guys by using the example of the room I’m sitting in. When I took occupancy of this house there was an empty room with a closet. This room is just a part of the whole of the house of many rooms however. So I looked at the whole house and had to determine what was the appropriate use of each room. I had to consider the whole of myself as well because I needed different rooms for different purposes with different characteristics. I had to consider a bigger whole yet because of the forces other than this house, such as directional city noise, sun access, temperature, etc. Some basic assumptions were made, for example I don’t want to sleep in my kitchen. Fair enough. And I could actually go through the motions of determining why that assumption is correct for me, but it’s become ingrained knowledge that I don’t want to sleep in a warm space that has the fragrance of food, etc. An analysis of elements exercise would reveal all of the things by showing the outputs of a kitchen are incongruous with the inputs I need for healthy sleep.

    Back to this room. I determined it was best suited for my office. How I set it up was by measuring different parts of the room and pieces of furniture I needed for my office, where they would fit, and envisioning how it would function. Then I began constructing. I shuffled things around until I found the fit. And over the course of a year I kept nudging things in this direction or that and trying different wall hangings in different places. That on-going low-level configuration process ended up staying in place until my girlfriend moved in. This addition changed things up as we found our house is a bit small for two, and we needed another comfortable place for someone to sit and get alone time from the rest of the house (which is very much open floor plan). So we moved a desk out and added a couch. My girlfriend also needed the closet in this room so it had to serve that function as well. We also need more storage so there are boxes of stuff under the design table and bikes in the corner. Two years later we’ve realized the office is not in right relationship for so many different purposes, so we are looking for a house that has a better configuration for our needs.

    So what are the design lessons here? Time changes everything is one. Any additions (or subtractions) to a space changes the whole is another. These lessons alone should inform my process moving forward. One process pattern that emerges is that we can only design with the information that we have now, and knowing that things always change, we shouldn’t spend too much time figuring out every last detail acting as if it’s going to be set in stone. This points us to the previous post of Meg McGowan’s wonderful articulation about concept planning versus detailed planning.

    The point here is to provide a description so that someone can use design process in a more effective way, yet even that could be an assumption that may be off the mark, however. Maybe there are no designers and there are no spaces to be designed? Subject and object are not one, and they are not two. Maybe it’s all just action. In my example above, the house is acting on me, while I am acting on it. Where does one draw the line to differentiate the two?

    In a final analogy to Zen practice, Zen is described as the “sitting school”, which is a very basic practice of sitting in meditation, following ones breath, and just being present. It’s basic, and yet incredibly difficult for most people. Practice helps. As one sits over and over and over it becomes more of our natural reaction to ‘just be’ on the cushion. As one does that in the safe space of meditation, it starts the ripples that impact non-cushion time. I see design in the same way. As we consciously practice designing over and over again, it starts to change our whole life. Being in such close encounter with relationships in space and time in the safe confines of a design project starts to change us to where it impacts everything else that we do (which is all design). Just as Zen doesn’t have continually higher levels of practices, maybe permaculture design doesn’t either. Maybe describing design practice pretty simply is all it takes to get one going, and then it’s up to trusting in life, using time as an ally, and incorporating gradual realizations into one’s daily life by working through the articulations of designers more steeped in the practice than us.

    One thing in particular that I love about this blog is that many designers are sharing their realizations about how designing works in their life. These articulations get us closer to being able to give people the proper tips and practices to get started and help us along the way. I don’t know that there is a best and final articulation that can fast-track designers own processes though. I do think these things are important to articulate, but mostly serve as something to refer to for inspiration and confirmation as one matures in their practice.

    In short, there is no substitute for practicing properly. Keep doing it over and over again forever, constantly working on dissolving the boundary between wholes and parts, space and time, oneself and the world. Then we will become better and better designers. This dissolving of boundaries is what allows one to realize the permaculture ethics fully, which is what will allow us to grow greater permanence in human culture, which is what I think we are aiming for. We’re not designing in spaces and times, wholes and parts. We’re designing a way of life that is in greater integrity with the nature of life.

    I bet this is “out there” for some, and I probably need to work on the articulation, but I do believe it’s the kernel of what we are trying to describe and achieve. I also believe this is what Christopher Alexander was on to.

    1. Jason I love this which I so true of my understanding of about all I’ve been doing: “Maybe describing design practice pretty simply is all it takes to get one going, and then it’s up to trusting in life, using time as an ally, and incorporating gradual realizations into one’s daily life by working through the articulations of designers more steeped in the practice than us.”

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *