Permaculture Design Process

Permaculture is rooted in three ethics and realized through a series of design principles that are applied to ecological and social system design. Design solutions must be applied in both the social-cultural and biological-chemical-physical realms for success in either. Human “ego-systems” are often the most impenetrable features to work with and are in need of restoration (through effective facilitation and loving kindness) to allow for the possibility of ecosystem regeneration. We recognize and nurture the inextricable links between biological and cultural structures, from which truly resilient design solutions arise.

Permaculture principles


  1. Earth Care – The allowance for natural processes and resources that support all life systems to cycle and regenerate.
  2. People Care – The right for all people to have the power to manage the natural resources and cultural processes necessary to one’s existence in a manner consistent with Earth Care.
  3. Fair Share – The governing of human needs and behaviors that results in the equitable availability of resources and rights for the Earth and all its inhabitants, including both the intrinsic rights and dignity due all people as well as the setting of limits to growth and consumption by those who are exhausting resources at an unjust and un-ecological rate.


Design principles build upon permaculture ethics to inform and guide actions. These are generalized principles derived from the observation of natural patterns and the study of systems. Principles are meant to be conceptually universal, but the application of each will be specific to place, people, time, and context.

There are five key permaculture principles used in the design process:

  1. Protracted and thoughtful observation (PATO) – Use lengthy and considered observation of natural systems rather than hasty and thoughtless labor.
  2. Stacking functions – Each element (noun, thing) performs many functions (verb, needs).
  3. Planned redundancy – Critical functions are supported by many elements. For example, potable water is provided by roof-water catchment, a well, and a pond to unsure the availability at all times of the year for all needs on the site.
  4. Relative location – We can conserve time and energy through careful placement of elements in relation to each other and improve the functioning of the overall design. Everything has an effect on its environment on many scales. Every element in a design has an impact on other elements.
  5. Make the least change for the greatest possible effect – Make small strategic changes to save time, energy, resources and unintended consequences.

In addition to these five key design principles, permaculture Permaculture Design Course design employs many other guiding principles such as:

  • Compose with rather than impose upon natural elements, forces, processes, agencies and evolutions, so that we can assist rather than impede natural development. Use gravity to move water, use the sun to warm and light, use wind to cool, etc.
  • Work from patterns to details – Work from a large scale down to a smaller scale while keeping in mind the larger scale at all times.
  • Make the least change for the greatest possible effect – Make small strategic changes to save time, energy, resources and unintended consequences.
  • Use on-site resources – Determine what resources are available and what resources are entering the system on their own and maximize their use. Additionally, waste is an unused resource.
  • In the problem lies the solution – Often hidden in the problem is the solution we desire. Problems challenge our creativity and resourcefulness to devise workable, sustainable, and just solutions.
  • Pollution is an used resource – In natural systems, waste equals food. A design that results in a waste that cannot be the food for another organism or cycle is bad design.
  • Everything is connected – Everything has an effect on its environment on many scales. Every element in a design has an impact on other elements.
  • Succession of evolution – Natural design follows a pattern of evolution based on dynamic equilibrium that optimizes stability and resiliency over time. Our own designs can follow suit and take advantage of change over time.
  • Optimize yields – Increased cycling can increase yields. One gallon of water used to wash veggies, then wash hands, then water an orchard gives us the equivalent of three gallons of use.
  • Information as a resource – Information is a critical potential resource; never underestimate the importance of thorough site assessment and community asset mapping.
  • Start small then expand – Implement in phases, being aware of scale and scope; remember that every action causes a reaction. Build in time for feedback.
  • It depends – Although principles can guide design, each solution must be specifically tailored to be appropriate for each given site in line with cultural and ecological uniqueness.


Kendall Dunnigan

The permaculture design process consists of several phases: assessment, visioning, designing, and implementation. The phases are based on natural systems thinking, ethical intention, and protracted and thoughtful observation.

  • Assessment – The design process begins by asking what do we have? What is the situation that we will be working in both ecologically (sun, wind, water) and socially (human resources/skills, regulations, history). This step can take a year or more to collect the observations needed to conceive a sound site design. Without this step, a design quickly degenerates into “cut and paste” knock-off that is not tailored to the land or needs of the people on the land. Design without assessment is not rooted in the land, but in human ego. A core concept is that designs evolve out of observation, rather than stem from a designer’s imagination with little connection to place. The aim is to compose withrather than impose upon the powerful forces at play in natural systems and human communities. Observation guides and grounds design so it is reflective and responsive to place.
  • Visioning – Visioning, or goal setting, asks people to dream a future, state values, and develop a common statement for their work forward together. It may be thought of as the assessment of the people involved in a project. For large projects, this phase can be lengthy. In any project, it is a key step that if overlooked is detriment to the long-term project.
  • Designing – Connecting the vision with the observation.
    • Conceptual Planning – In this phase, natural systems thinking and the principles are nested into the plan by creatively brainstorming design possibilities based on the assessment findings, values articulated, and goals outlined. Once possibilities are generated, these options are winnowed down using the principles as an ethical and functional sieve. The inputs and outputs of design elements are analyzed so the output of one element can be matched with the needs (input) of another element (ex. greywater from the house washing machine goes to adjacent edible perennial food forest or food forest become a shaded, safe, and food-filled run for foul). By placing elements in beneficial relationship to each other and to natural forces (such as sun, wind, water), we yield more productive and efficient settlements by increasing returns while shifting our work from heavy maintenance to strategic management.
    • Master Planning and Design Review – Typically, a leadership team of community members takes the many conceptual designs created by the larger community and compiles them into 2 or 3 detailed design options for community consideration. Intense evaluation of the proposed design takes place in this phase. By evaluating the design, the community slowly refines the plan into a cohesive, achievable design that will be resilient – hold up to system shocks and flourish within the dynamic equilibrium of natural systems over time.
  • Element Specifications and Budgeting – Once the master plan is complete, each element is designed in detail. Once the element designs are complete, budgets can be created, funding sought, and permits acquired. The sequencing of the implementation of the design takes places as part of this phase.
  • Implementation – Installation of the design often occurs in phases as people, financial, and legal resources are in place.

The design process is a reiterative process that may move linearly through design steps or may circle from one to another and back again. Depending on the information that arises in each phase, steps may be revisited and the design revised.

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