Permaculture Design Companion

The Permaculture Design Companion is a practical 190 page workbook that uses permaculture tools to bring your project to reality.


Design :: Design Tools

In some ways thinking has got a bad reputation, as not grounded or practical. However when we're designing ecologically and socially sound projects that resonate with what is relevant to us, tools simplify a load of complex factors and help us reach a good decision. Imagine a carpenter, when they want to do a job they choose a tool, i.e to make a cut they choose a saw. It would be pretty inefficient, frustrating and even hazardous to pick up a hammer and attack the task with no mental organisation as to what and why they were doing. It is likely that if we were completely in harmony and symbiotic with our environment such tools would be obselete, but in a fragmented world, often distant from the skills and knowing our ancestors embodied, pattern languages help realign us with what is true, good and beautiful with minimum harm to other beings.

So permaculture tools are frameworks and processes for thinking about a problem or plan; they organise our thoughts and allow our mind to bring foward the relevant information or activity. The brain loves patterns and uses them to reduce the huge complexity of life to simple operational stuff. Below is a summary of some tools to use when designing.  This can be applied to any scale from planning an event, to working out how to build and site a dwelling on a piece of land.

Below are some steps to get you started.


Observation is fundamental to good design. The tendency of humans to control and react to the world has created the unsustainable world we are grappling with. So to truly observe and not jump to conclusions can radically maximise our positive impact, allowing being before doing. The key to observation tools is not to think of solutions:


This is good to do with children, who are professional wonderers. Walk around your site or contemplate your idea saying 'I wonder ...?' For example, 'I wonder why that fern grows there? I wonder why I feel nervous in this setting?'


This exercise was devised by Chris Day, and is described as 4 modes of listening. Take yourself to your site and go through the modes, making notes before or afterwards. Between 5 minutes and an hour for each one is a good start.

  1. 'Intuitive': first impressions; walk the boundaries of a site; gut feelings etc
  2. 'Objective': collect measurable data eg species, numbers, size of area, weather etc
  3. 'Imaginative': picture the landscape and its inhabitants 10,000 years ago and into the future
  4. 'Subjective': go to a place you are drawn to and do the first thing that comes into your head


A good survey will include the place and people involved and an accurate to scale map (this should be a map of existing features rather than proposed ideas!) For people, be sure to separate out different groups or individuals to get a true reading of the situation and to include yourself, whether as designer or participant. One way to simplify a survey is to break it down into the elements:


Earth can include soil, materials available (natural, man made, money, landform, species).


Air can include wind patterns, ventilation, thoughts and ideas.


Water can include water sources such as rainfall, taps, roofs, rivers; water catchment such as ponds, butts etc; emotions and feelings.


Sun can include aspect (north, south facing etc), average temperatures, sun traps, frost pockets, shade, passions, creativity.


Spirit could be your people survey, what skills they bring, limits they have, what they want to put in and get out of a design/project. It can also include spiritual beliefs, sacred spots and beautiful views.


This is not an inspiring name but these are great tools for looking at a site and starting to plan activities:


This is looking at patterns of how frequently a place is used and its proximity from ourselves. This starts to minimise wasted effort by placing elements (things) in places to use the least energy. What your situation is determines what your zoning will be; a block of flats or a farm have all the zones but their detail will be quite different. Zone 1 is patios, front gardens, herb beds etc. Zone 2 perennial garden, shed. Zone 3 orchards, grazing. Zone 4 coppice. Zone 5 wilderness.


Map the wind, sun, water, frost and soil conditions on your site. You can use overlays of each of these sectors on a map to see where stuff is most appropriate eg. the shade sector will show where the veg garden shouldn't go but where trees would be fine.


This is the slope or direction your site faces. In the northern hemisphere, a southern aspect gets a lot of sun. A northern aspect will get limited sun at some times of day and year, east gets morning sun and west late afternoon and evening.


Get as accurate idea as possible of the gradient and variations on your site. Its amazing how inaccurate the eye is once you start making foundations.


This tool means how high above sea level you are. Eg we are 175-195m high. This gives valuable information about what grows where and weather conditions generally.


By now you will have a lot of information and your subconscious has had lots of time to organise it all and by now your ideas for a design will probably be bubbling up. There are lots of ways to analyse the collected treasure, here are a few good ones:


Start thinking of things as elements (things eg pond, greenhouse, kitchen) and functions (storing water, growing salads, cooking). Then a good practice is to make sure every element you want does at least two functions, this is for efficiency. For example, a stove cooks, heats water and space, dries clothes etc. A group of trees might give food, fiber, habitat, windbreak, privacy. Complimenting this is to ensure every function is fulfilled by at least two elements, for security. For example, water storage could be a pond, water butts, soil structure and contouring the land.


You can take this further at a systems level by writing down all the inputs and outputs of each element. and then match the outputs (yields) of one thing to the inputs (needs of another) to close the loop. Try to think as laterally as possible. An example might be a roof. Its needs might be structural, aesthetic, spatial etc and its yields might include obscuring a view, nesting for birds, rainwater catchment. Then when you're mapping other functions and elements you can identify links. The roof becomes a valuable source of water for a polytunnel or bathroom. The needs of a neighbour to see something pleasant and the roof design might accommodate this by being turfed which would in turn provide other benefits and so on.

'An unmet need = work or fossil fuels. An unused yield = pollution' (B.Mollison)


Pick an aspect of the situation (this can be of what already exists or of what you are proposing) and write down the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Constraints


Similar is to ask yourself what is Positive, Negative and Interesting.



Use to scale maps and models wherever practical. Cut out templates of your main elements and play around with them to bring the design together on paper or make a model out of whats available, clay, lego, mashed potato!


Below is David Holmgren's interpretation of the PC principles. Check through your ideas to see if they resonate, new ideas or modifications may appear. Don't worry too much about what they mean, your own interpretation is good enough.


Check your design decisions to see if they include:

Earth care: ecosystems: soil, water, ecology, biodiversity, air

People care: patterns: social organisation, affect on others and self

Fair shares: limits to consumption: Ask our conscience what limits and compromises we can accept.


Reflecting on what worked and what didn't and how we would act differently yields vital information for sustainable design. The more we observe and feedback and adjust our behaviour the more likely we are to truly be somewhere rather than just be using resources and doing stuff to the world.


There's lots of ways to evaluate and then tweak your design. The analysis tools above of SWOC and PNI are good. Remember to evaluate not just the content of what you did/ are doing but also how well the tools and surveys you used to plan worked. The tweak is the adaptions you make. This is called action learning in permaculture design and is vital to turn mistakes into mis - takes; trial and error becomes try-alls and dismantles the perception that life is fixed rather than a process of experimentation.


Turn problems on their heads to become the solution. For example, too windy then grow windbreak trees giving a firewood yield, put up a turbine, become a small business drying people's washing without fossil fuels!


The Permaculture Magazine lists tons of great design courses for an in depth approach to design tools. We are running some courses applying these simple design tools to a dwelling integrated with the land, food, firewood and greywater systems.

Earth Path by Starhawk


People and Permaculture by L. Macnamara

Earth Care Manual by P.Whitefield