Permaculture Design Process – 5. Choosing systems & elements

by Aranya


So having identified the key functions that we are going to design for, we are now
going to think about the best ways to fulfil them. Ideally, we only include
something (a system or element) in our design if it fulfils at least three functions.
Remember the ecological principle: Multiple functions for each element. Nature
happens to be so productive, because everything performs many functions.

The process

Taking each of your chosen functions in turn, write down all the ways you can
think of to (realistically) achieve them. Obviously disregard anything that is clearly
way beyond budget, or an inappropriate scale (too big or small) for the purpose.
When you are done you should have three or four lists, one for each function.

You will probably find that some of the things you thought of are on several of
your lists. Go through them again and see which other of the systems and elements
you thought of also perform any of the other functions. This identifies some
strong possibilities, though you will still have to make sure that they are suited to
the site conditions and other client requirements (do they fit in with the client’s
values?) before deciding upon including them in your design.

Here are some criteria that you may find useful in choosing the best systems and
elements to go in your design:

1. The permaculture ethics
How do the systems and elements you are considering perform against the three

  • Care of the Earth – rebuilding natural capital – soil, forests, clean air and water, species diversity etc.
  • Care of people – physical, emotional, spiritual – yourself, your family,community, culture & humanity as a whole.
  • Fair shares – of surpluses, and voluntary limits to consumption and reproduction – equality leading to peaceful planetary co-habitation.

2. What is the footprint of each possibility?

Some of your options may have a much greater ecological footprint than others.
Some may have a clearly greater embodied energy (EMERGY) – the energy
required to create it and dispose safely of it at the end of its useful life. It is not
necessary to know exactly how much energy is required at each stage, just take
a good guess. That will be enough to help you make your choices.
Biological (natural) resources tend to be the best choices to include in our
designs, as they are usually renewable and can be safely disposed of without
poisoning the Earth.

3. What does each option offer?

A couple of useful thinking tools you can use to compare your possible choices
are the SWOC and PMI tools.

SWOC stands for:

  • Strengths – what are the good things about choosing this?
  • Weaknesses – what are the not so good things about this?
  • Opportunities – what will this allow me to do?
  • Constraints – what constraints will this choice place on other options?

For instance, you might decide that for a windbreak, a hedge would offer you a
solution that gets bigger over time (S), but takes a while to establish (W), it could
offer additional outputs like wildlife habitats and food / fodder (O), but create shade
and competition for other plants growing on the north* side of it (C). A wooden
fence might provide a fairly instant barrier (S), but need more maintaining (W),
provide a good vertical structure for climbing plants (O), but involve damaging
those climbers when maintenance takes place.
*In the northern hemisphere.

Or in a similar vein ~ PMI stands for:

  • Pluses – what are the good things
  • Minuses – what are the not so good things?
  • Interesting things – what else might be relevant, even though they may be
  • neither good nor bad?

Having applied either of these tools to your different options, you can compare
them all & choose those that seem to offer the most potential.

4. How could they integrate with other systems & elements in your

By identifying the needs (inputs) and outputs of each system or element, you can
see where beneficial relationships can be created. If you can place two elements
together so that the outputs of one feed the needs of another, you are on the way
to creating a self-sustaining system. The more you can do this, the less work will
be required to maintain the overall system you design.
Two good tools to help you with this process are ‘random assembly’ and the ‘web
of connections’.

Random assembly

Write down each of your elements (or systems) on separate pieces of paper or
card. Stack them into a pile, turn it face down, shuffle them and cut into two piles.
Turn over the top card from each pile and see whether you can think of any
connections between the two systems / elements. This process can help you to
identify connections that a quick consideration might not identify. Write down any
particularly good connections, or any elements that you think you need to keep
well apart.

5-image-000Using random assembly to identify possible beneficial connections

Web of connections

This is a more thorough version of the above, for those of us who like to consider
all options. Draw a large circle & write each of the elements around the outside of
the circle. Choosing each in turn, go around the circle & identify where
connections can made. As you find them, draw a line joining them together.
Again, for any really good connections, make a special note to remind you later.


5. Diversity
Multiple elements for each important function. Ensure that there is a diversity of
elements in your design, providing security – especially for important functions
like food, water, energy etc. If all your energy is supplied by one source (e.g.
mains electricity) & that source stops working, then you are in trouble. If you don’t
have multiple options, you are very vulnerable.

6. Efficiency
Multiple functions for each element. Choosing elements and systems that are multifunctional, builds in extra efficiency (& in turn more yields) to your design. The
more functions you build in, the more effective your design.

Your challenge is to design & establish a system where the energy needed to
maintain it reduces over time, while the outputs from the system increase. A
target to aim for is to spend around 80% of your time / energy in establishing it,
so you only have to spend 20% in maintaining it.

Placing everything

So having determined the best systems & elements for your design, we can now
think about where best to place them all (part 6).

Go to part 6 – Placement & Integration