Making Architecture more Permaculture

In this world where individuals are empowered more than ever to pursue the meaning they find for themselves, it is about time that we saw our homes shift to the ideas that are driving us. Permaculture is one of these big shifts in the public mindset – we are realizing the generational, massive systemic problems and we want long term, systemic solutions. The same logic of permaculture can be applied to my profession in architecture-an industry long plagued by cookie cutter homes and a giant lack of inspiration- we need these homes to catch up to the inspired food forested land that we are designing to support the lifestyles and purposes we want to have.

Ramblings about the conventional home

Homes evolved out of function to support the way of life for the home owner. Imagine being a pioneer starting a homestead out in the plains of Texas, with the local Indians paying a visit here and there, the harsh elements and the limited support you would have. Imagine only building your life from the assets you could pack up in your wagon. Or imagine a scenario a bit later after some settlement: you have a land to farm and your home has a shop adjacent to it. Lots of storage space for the seasonal changes. In these situations, your priorities are pretty clear. You want to have shelter from the elements and ways to sustain and improve your life.

credit: The Project Gutenberg EBook of Rural Architecture, by Lewis Falley Allen

When the home grew, resources were gathered laboriously (timber, labor, metal). It had to be efficient and functional – it had to be justifiable.

Today however, homes don’t necessarily have the same concerns. Resources for construction are in abundance, logistics to get them to the site are easy and info/videos abound how to do things. You have your local Home Depot, you have a car and you can learn how to install things. You can also just hire the complete package and pay a contractor to do it for you.

Homes also had more of a status symbol focus, or were used as an investment. To suit this purpose, architects have also pumped out designs from a mass production perspective. Less time was spent on designing for more home. The house became a commodity-and fewer architects stayed in the market to hone their craft on the humble home. You may see some gifted designers here and there, but the overall talent pool has focused on the larger projects.

As we said, homes evolve to the functions needed by the home owner. With all the modern challenges we face today, now would be an opportune time for these homes to evolve to what society needs them to be – using permaculture, they can rise up and become a part of the solution.


Both permaculture and architecture involve thinking and designing at a systems level. The main difference in my opinion, are the permaculture ethics and principles. The view that all the solutions and tools to be used are under the guiding ethics and principles changes everything. You shed away a lot of the fluff and can pursue more meaningful and more challenging ideas. Where most of the focus was what features can fit the budget, the designer must now re-evaluate every design solution if it is worth the resources and the long term life enhancement it provides.

Both permaculture and architecture involve thinking and designing at a systems level. The main difference in my opinion, are the permaculture ethics and principles.

Does the design lead to a more self sustainable future, one that regenerates the ecosystems it is connected to? Does it take too much of the local resource just because it can-and is the embodied energy worth the life cycle of this use? This is not to say that the design will look bad visually. The value actually increases if we spend more time iterating the design so that the solution works and also looks like a complete system.

The overall task is to evaluate the project (regardless of size) and how it adds/detracts from the rest of the system you already have. This may mean a new home, an addition to a home or a remodel in a room. It may even be just a shelf. If that shelf is located and stocked (say a container, flashlight and foliar feed) so that it makes your trip to gather chicken eggs more fluid and productive, then this makes egg collection something to look forward to in your day. We can design things that will make our lives better-design a pleasant experience and stack it with other routines that already make sense from a permaculture perspective.

If you are building a new shed-locating it on your site is crucial. Consider the purpose of this shed and what activities are around it. If this shed is for a workshop, you may want to locate it further away from the main house if you have some hazards, but also locate it so that you allow good daylight and fresh air in your workspace. Thus going there allows an opportunity to walk the property, enjoy the view and check on your livestock, and collect rainwater from a point where you can reasonably use gravity to irrigate.

Permaculture Ethics (+examples)

The real world application of permaculture into home designs will have many interpretations. Here might be a few examples how those translate when designing a permaculture home using the permaculture ethics.

Care for the earth:

Earth care can include the selection of construction materials. We can support products that support good practices like using recycled components. We can also avoid those that harm the environment, like carpets that use fibers made from GMO products. It can mean taking care of the earth by allowing the structure to be an element in the overall design that is in harmony with existing conditions – reduce the amount of cleared trees to fit a building or be strategic where it sits so that access is efficient.

Care for people:

People care is already intrinsic since the house is meant for the people, but we can also think of this as lifestyle design. Think of the example we noted earlier about giving thought to where you might locate a shelf as part of your egg gathering routine. Or the walk to the new shed, and the memories of working pleasantly in a workshop filled with daylight, yet cool with the open air breeze as you build some life enhancing project.

Instead of being just the structure, how can this home allow us to live the kind of lives we dream of?

Instead of being just the structure, how can this home allow us to live the kind of lives we dream of?

Setting limits to population and consumption:

“Care of resources” to me means managing ourselves and our levels of consumption responsibly. This would support people care and earth care by using resources as appropriate.

As an example, if you are buying a new home, don’t buy based on the size of the house. Buy based on your needs. Again this goes back to not using the home as a status symbol. Consider what your use for the house will be-consider time and space. A large home often results in underutilized spaces which you now have to pay to own (repairs, taxes, heating/cooling, cleaning).

If you are expanding a part of the house, or adding a deck-same principle, don’t build in excess just because you have the space for it. Consider long term effects and use of your resources-these will all supplement your first 2 ethics to care for people and care for the earth.

Permaculture principles (+examples)

According to Bill Mollison:

Bill Mollison photo. Alt-Ark: Making architecture more permaculture
Bill Mollison. Alt-Ark: Making architecture more permaculture

Work with nature rather than against it

Our home is but a small component in a vast ecosystem, so really it should be designed to integrate into what nature already provides. Orient your home for shade and airflow-thus reducing your utility bills. Work with the terrain instead of regrading it and save on foundation and site costs. Foundation issues from excess drainage? Consider remediating it and growing in that area to stabilize it.

Alt-Ark : Making Architecture more Permaculture
Remediating foundation problems using permaculture. credit: Alt-Ark. Making Architecture more Permaculture

The problem is the solution

This principle helps one to be creative with the solution. It is actually quite daunting to design with a blank slate-with no limiting factors and no context. I’d rather have to design into something which has rich layers of considerations and problems in it than to have an idealized site with no anchor. The problems result from symptoms in the area, thus tackling those mean you are factoring in a lot of other issues local to the site.

Make the least change for the greatest possible effect

Let’s not knock down that wall if we can find other ways to solve the problem. Expenses and resources must be justified in a project, especially when money is not an issue. Sometimes we are just too lazy to put in more study to find a more effective solution.

If one can improve heating in a room by reducing bends in the attic ductwork, maybe that DIY solution is all we need. It may be great to add better insulated windows, but are the windows large enough to make an impact?

The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited

This is still new to me and I understand it better from a landscape perspective than in zone zero. Let’s say you have achieved balance in your system, as all the needs are met there is bound to be a surplus. If you can keep the surplus consistent, your yield can be unlimited. How this applies to zone zero I will probably elaborate further in a future post.

Everything gardens

If you refer to Bill Mollison’s book, Permaculture, A Designer’s Manual, he explains this as “everything has an effect on its environment”. And this is true for a house, shed or any structure you add into a homestead. The house location needs to be sensitive to the potential of the entire site and take into account as much impact as can be visualized for the long term. Adding your egg gathering shelf at that wall affects your workflow, if you are left or right handed, if the door swings this way or that and together they create a bottleneck.

Permaculture principles (+examples)

According to David Holmgren:

David Holmgren photo. Alt-Ark: Making architecture more permaculture
David Holmgren. Alt-Ark: Making architecture more permaculture

Observe and interact

Do this with the site and the systems that are already working in it. You don’t see this done effectively in most conventional homes and subdivisions. The designers may look at grading and locate accordingly-but this is more of a reaction to the cost of regrading a site. Few designers would spend time researching sunpath and wind direction and then even fewer developers would allow these to drive the project cost. On the other hand, you as an individual can take this more intensive, purposeful approach. Gather as much information as applies to your project before you set out to action.

Catching and storing energy

This can be as simple as eliminating leaks in your energy (like water or insulation) and can expand to building your own solar panel system. Think in terms of what resources flow in and out of your homestead-and which of these can you make more efficient and store in reserve. Rainwater harvesting system is an easy way to store energy in the form of water. If you are heating your home with electricity, that is inefficient. How do you capture more of that heat so you store more of that electricity you are converting into heat?

Produce a yield

How about setting up a small nursery in your yard-converting solar energy into a product you can eat or sell? Or, if you want to remain inside your zone zero, how about renting a spare room for AirBnB. A spare shed can also be rented for storage. If the design works, how about adding a cryptocurrency mining rig? It would keep a room warm, you would also get some type of income.

A yield can mean many things, but the goal is to make effective use of your system such that you can get an output instead of you just always providing the input.

Self regulation and feedback

Observe the benefits of what you are doing to the home. Is your appliance upgrade resulting in a sudden increase in your electric bill? Is the increase due to some setting or usage you need to get back in balance or is this appliance due for a return? To self regulate, you must have a good recollection of your routine consumption. Consider logging certain expenses and inputs, in this case you can consult your utility bill.

Use renewable resources and services

When we say renewables for a home, renewable energy probably comes high on the list. On this criteria, solar is probably one of the top 3 options that come to our minds. Solar is cheaper now more than ever before. Assuming you have a good solar orientation and you have good space available, this may be worth adding in. However, I would hesitate to get into a significant amount of debt to make this happen-but that is just me where I am at. There are many other forms of renewable resources that can come into play. Consider rainwater or even foot traffic. As with most things, the application is only limited by the designer’s imagination.

Foot traffic as a renewable resource. Alt-ark: Making architecture more permaculture
Foot traffic as a renewable resource. credit: Alt-Ark. Making Architecture more Permaculture

Produce no waste

Realistically to me, there will be waste, but the goal is to reduce it to as much as you can instead of just sending more material to the landfill. Maybe one buys in bulk for construction materials for a project. You might also be able to design the project from it’s inception to not add to the waste stream. See if you can have minimal scrap wood left over, or if you can reuse materials from another dismantled DIY project.

You can use dimensions in your design that fit modular dimensions for the materials you use (4×8 for plywood. 6, 8 and 10 ft for 2xs).

Design from patterns to details

This ties well to observe and interact. The more you are aware of your environment and the current systems in it the better you can design something that will be cohesive to those existing systems. You can also use this principle to assess more mundane things like the paths you use the most in your home. If you spend lots of time walking through a specific part of your living room (pattern), it makes sense to adjust your furniture selection and placement to enhance this (details). Maybe locate fragile trinkets and sharp corners away from this high traffic area, and consider some type of storage at both ends of this path, say for keys, jackets and a marker board)

Integrate rather than segregate

This gets you to thinking in terms of systems. Instead of just jamming in an element of design, you can now integrate it into the whole system. This makes for a more elegant design as the restrictions and external factors all play a part in shaping your results.

Let’s say you needed to add in a ramp to get up your home-your tendency may be to add it up the pathway where it is easiest to install. This ramp may be a hazard if your pathway already has a poor slope. It may disrupt the flow of others who do not use it regularly. When you look at the finished product, your mind can also tell it was added with little consideration on its placement. Some more thought into integrating it would result in more long term benefits, granted the install cost may increase a bit. But the addition would have multiple benefits instead of just being a path to get up the porch. That small change can increase edges for community building opportunities for example: now there is a path that runs along an area where you might have some seating and this can encourage interaction.

That small change can increase edges for community building opportunities for example: now there is a path that runs along an area where you might have some seating and this can encourage interaction.

Use small and slow solutions

There will be a lot of self regulating in this process, changes in a home can vary in size and complexity. That by itself needs managing, but once you have narrowed down the goal, it is worth it to see what solutions will have the most effective impact for the least amount of resources. If you haven’t invested the time or skill to observe and interact with it, it is probably best to address the problem in manageable chunks.

Instead of blowing your budget on a big purchase like a kitchen remodel, perhaps you can get away with changing out the kitchen cabinet panels, then you can use the extra savings to switch to a natural gas oven and save on your electric bill for the long term.

Use and value diversity

A diverse system is more resilient than a monocultural system. Another way to think of this in my opinion is having redundant systems in your home. Look for opportunities to add different elements into your overall system, add them where it makes sense for what you are trying to do.

In your zone zero an example of this might be having multiple ways to keep a room warm in the winter. Yes your standard room will have heating to it and insulated walls. To add to this and diversify it, how about considering heavier tile for your floor to increase heat gain where there is access to sunlight. Or if this is an open floor plan, consider a header/soffit at your ceiling to define a room to isolate warm air where it makes sense. On the flip side, if you want to keep a room cool and this is new construction, a higher ceiling helps.

…having multiple ways to keep a room warm in the winter… how about considering heavier tile for your floor to increase heat gain where there is access to sunlight.

Use edges and value the marginal

In terms of spaces, edges in a home are more defined than in the landscape. There’s a lot of value you can create at window where the inside and outside meet. For example installing light shelves to extend daylighting into a deep room or adding blackout shades to create multiple uses for that room.

There are also implied edges between overlapping uses of a space. What value can you create at the implied edge between a dining room and a kitchen? Did this not make so much sense that the kitchen island was invented to try to capture this value?

What value can you create at the implied edge between a dining room and a kitchen?

Creatively use and respond to change

You can look at this in so many different ways (like most things in permaculture). It could be how you design for the changing seasons in your home. Perhaps you want to deal with excessive hot air during certain times of the year or how the door you use to get to the deck gets horribly mucky at certain times of the year. I invoke the problem is the solution.

There’s definitely value in providing some type of catchment system at that door that lets mud get sorted both outside the door as you wipe off your boots, and inside while you take them off. I’d figure out some way to make the mud outside drain to a garden bed instead of drying up as dirt inside. After all, that mud has nutrients if I am building my soil (which I should be). These solutions do not have to be some intricate floor trap, it just needs some thought put into them.

Developing solutions

This big picture look at pursuing architecture thru the lens of permaculture has been a longer article than I planned for. I hope you find value in the examples offered to evaluate home design using permaculture principles.

Understand that these are developing ideas, and if things work out right, these ideas should change and grow. This is a long term play. It’s about time we sat down and contemplated how we can refocus our property, our home, even our desks – and set them up so that we are actively building a better future for ourselves and our children.

Here at Alt-Ark, our goal is to make architecture more permaculture. We seek to empower the creation of forever homes that families can actively design to match the lives they choose to live.

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