The Essence of Permaculture

Design at the Core

The essence of our sustainable existence lies in our design. Because all elements within a system crave efficient and meaningful connections.

Emeritus Prof Stuart Hill reminds us that the essence of permaculture is design. He remarked “It really struck me being in an agriculture faculty in a major university there was no teaching about design”.

In this interview, Stuart reflects on the core power of Permaculture. The essence of makes Permaculture unique. Permaculture focuses on design and drives us to build knowledge about all the components within the design and how they interact. We start to see ourselves in the picture, as part of the system. We can also learn from traditional farmers, researchers and build our own observations.

The future of permaculture is in all of our hands. Stuart urges us to expand our knowledge by adding social understanding to our ‘tried and tested work’ on permaculture design.

Epping forest where delegates from Africa and Hong Kong
marvel at the wasted abundance in a major city

Design requires knowledge

In Stuart’s early teaching years “design was taken as given” and practiced as simplified monoculture with some very simple rotations based on inputs and extraction. Instead we need to give attention to the maintenance of the system. He remarks “When I first saw about permaculture and not just permaculture but also the new alchemy institute [who] had also put out a book and report about what was needed in agriculture. And it was the same concept of design.”

What is design?

Stuart explains “So the question about design is what do you include in the design? And where do you put it? When do you put it? How do you manage it? All that requires a considerable amount of knowledge. Whereas when you’re just practicing monoculture you don’t actually need that sort of same level of knowledge.

And design encompasses an understanding of ecological processes. As well as the functions that the different organisms carry out. Also we need an understanding of what these organisms need. As well as understanding about what their interrelationships are and how that varies over time and space. So, there’s not an assumption that you can do anything anywhere, anytime. Instead, we get an understanding that there are things you can do optimally in certain places and at certain times”.

An Ancient Essence

“This appreciation for design takes a certain amount of experience and knowledge to know when and where those those things are. What has particularly what impressed Stuart about permaculture…is that design is the central issue. Other organizations such as biological agriculture, ecological agriculture, organic farming, biodynamic farming, regenerative farming and convergence farming etc. acknowledge the importance of design. But not with the same understanding and central focus that permaculture does.

David Holmgren‘s list of principles demonstrates the essential core of design. And Stuart notes that we “would only add to his list in terms of the psychological so my take is that our internal permaculture is a foundation for external permaculture. And that has been neglected I think in conventional permaculture until fairly recently. A few people have been acknowledging this you know the whole concept of polyculture systems and succession.”

Design is an Ancient Practice

Indigenous cultures, particularly in the tropics, understand the power of design. Stuart recalls “When I when I worked in Trinidad coffee and cocoa was grown under flame trees which provided shade for them. And they got more optimal production when they had a certain amount of shade. And north American Indians planted squash and beans and corn together. So the beans captured Nitrogen for the corn and the squash grew up the corn as a support. There are lots and lots of those sort of examples. And also, in terms of rotations, moving crops so you don’t follow the same crop year after year. And there are certain things that you can’t follow because something leaves a toxin in the soil that affects the subsequent crop. So, all that sort of knowledge is quite essential.” This creates the essence of sustainable design.

Why Give A Watt About Energy

We all use energy. And every watt we use effects the climate. So, let’s reduce our needs and find natural solutions. This is the beginning of a new era – a time to brush up on basic physics. Here are some tips to stop your losses and get energy savvy.

Beyond Bill Shock

Right now, massive watts of power are being blasted across territories in acts of war. In other areas people are starving from lack of fuels to transport foods. In some places people are dying from heat exhaustion and others are dying from the cold. Climate change and rising cost of fossil fuel will favour the leaders of an energy revolution.

Energy is used to satisfy our basic needs of health, nourishment, comfort, safety and security. And it also contributes to our social needs to be connected, contribute to the economy, find education and enjoy entertainment.

Our tutorial shows ways to reduce our energy needs and find natural solutions.

Boosting Cost of Nutrition

Agriculture uses energy in the planting, watering, fertilizing and harvesting of food plants. Then for washing, cooking, storage or preservation, shipping, marketing and packaging of foods. Some foods such as hydroponically grown, out-of-season delicacies from across the globe are highly energy intensive. Whereas, locally grown, imperfect, common foods can be grown with little money. This is how most people in poor countries survive. They grow their own food. And home-grown, organic foods are fresher giving higher nutritional content, so there is a greater value for each watt spent.

There are also some low-cost food production systems that boost production. These include companion planting, gravity-fed irrigation systems, food forestry and the use of perennials. Perennial plants include the starchy banana called plantain, yams, (nuts) acorns and perennial beans.

unusual foods like flower petals broaden our energy harvest

Working with nature and learning from the elders

Gravity fed, irrigation systems have been used for thousands of years in both the northern and southern hemispheres. And over the thousands of years of seed saving humans have been able to select plant varieties that can be eaten raw. Sometimes the raw foods are more nutritious.

Natural cooking options

But often foods become more nutritious when they are warmed, soaked, blended or fermented. To reduce our energy use when cooking there are many different alternative technologies now including these solar cookers and rocket stoves.

Cooking on Chinese Kang, a highly efficient stove

Also drying foods, making ferments, pickling, making jam or brewing foods all require some energy. The reason why we do this is not just to be able to preserve the food but it can increase the nutritional value of the food. Or make it more palatable. It also allows us to transport goods to the other side of the world. We can use these foods any time of the year.

Most food is dried. Drying foods requires heat but the common alternative is not the healthiest it usually uses sugar. In fact, sugar is the biggest food commodity worldwide. It is both a food and a preservative. Yet, few people in the western world have ever tasted fresh sugarcane. And diabetes thrives with sugary diets. Sugar is commonly added to foods such as tomato sauce, baby foods and breakfast cereals. When we eat nutrition rather than for convenience, we are helping the environment by reducing costs in cheap agricultural practices, long distance transportation of food and medicine.

Tea doesn't have to cost the earth.
costs of tea

Adding sugar is a quick and easy way to preserve food. The next easy way is pickling with alcohol or vinegars. Beyond this, there are ferments like sauerkraut, kimchi, yogurt and kefir. These ferments increase the nutritional availability of foods and supply good gut bacteria. And they aren’t hard to make once you learn how.

Hygiene prevents disease and suffering

Clean and Well

Hygiene uses energy. Bathing, showering, saunas and scrubs are better with warm water. Because warm water allows the soap and the oils in our skin to dissolve more easily. In the western world tap water is delivered by pumps with a complex set of filter systems. Another need health includes the manufacture of medicines. Some vital medicinal procedures like x-rays and MRIs require a lot of power. So, instead of burning our last remaining fossil fuels or using nuclear power – we need to keep these reserves for high value services.

What a home really needs


A lot of effort is used to create shelter. We clear the land, we dig foundations, we build the structure and then we maintain it. Many people focus on the creation, few focus on running costs and fewer care about maintenance. Maintenance work rarely gets recognition. It is the unspoken, boring work on a home. Yet it is the most vital act to reduce costs, extend usefulness and reduce the environmental burden.

There are ways to reduce the need for maintenance. Well built homes with good design, durable materials last longer. And smaller homes require less maintenance.

This mansion was built 800 years ago. It is strong and it’s built without any nails. The reason why it has survived is because it’s the pride of place of the village. Not only is it durable but it’s loved.

Efforts for Lasting Security

There are two ways to reduce the need for security. One option is to not own much worth stealing. And the other is to work to build an equitable society. The most effective way to achieve this is to help people out of poverty and give them hope. Education (especially for women) doubles a societies capacity for innovation, increases skills and reduces over population.


Social Power

We need some external energy to communicate, to get around, to learn stuff, to entertain one another, to work and to trade. Crowded venues do not need electronic amplification they do need to be designed well for good acoustics. There have been some inventions to reduce transport costs.


What do we use for information these days? The internet uses a lot of electronic energy – if you have a website you can pay as we do to have it run on solar power.


In order to meet our basic needs of food, water and shelter we have to work. And while we can most of us work a little extra to support those who cannot work.
Many of the ideas that apply to our individual costs also can apply to our workplaces. The trade of goods and services is usually conducted through money.


Money is a form of energy exchange. Although it is a common means of exchange – there are many other ways to support the work of others.

What are your energy uses? Have a quick look at your energy bills and think of one way to reduce the costs. Then check back again a year later.

Making Your Home More Liveable

Many of us have suffered in a hot house or a cold house and now, there are designs for passive houses. Nick Radford and April Sampson-Kelly explore the ways to make existing homes more liveable and sustainable.

True Cost of a New Liveable Home

The way that we build today, in this privileged society, uses a high level of manufacturing. It’s really quite hard to achieve what we would call genuinely sustainable. There’s a cost – environmentally and financially. It’s difficult to wear the cost of building at the moment. The building industry is no longer about shelter. It’s driven by capitalism.

When we’re starting with our housing stock that is not well designed, not well built for passive solar, what can we do about that?

Nick reminds us, this system we have is not the one we must have. In a lot of European countries renters have much more security. They have very long leases that are really hard to break as a landlord. And it is worth upgrading the performance of your rental because you know it’s going to pay for itself.

Goldilocks

What’s the goldilocks recipe for a liveable home? We can get a good picture of climate sensible building from many traditional cultures. In cold climates are usually squat and they’re often rounded to reduce the effects of wind and for the ease of construction. And they have minimal airflow and high insulation. Whereas homes in the tropics are often elevated to shade the area below. They are tall and narrow. They have high ventilation and high airflow. The steep roof also helps to shed water. They have low insulation and low thermal mass. On the other hand, homes in the deserts traditionally are squat they have high thermal mass, often have a flat roof. So, you can sleep on it at night. And they have small windows to reduce the sun’s heat rays.

Keys to the modern climate responsible, liveable home

A liveable home needs to be warm, not too hot, not too cold, dry, light, a good amount of light to work with clean air and secure. It’s nice to feel cool in summer and warm in winter. This can be achieved without fossil fuels. To be cool we need to shade the area, be insulated from the sun’s rays and have air movement. That can be created by the shape of the building or by devices like fans. And we can use something called a heat sink. That is a block of thermal mass to absorb some of the heat.

With passive solar, the occupants actively modify the building throughout the seasons. Whereas in the passivehaus standard, the house design and materials respond.

The bear has personal insulation (fur) as well as an insulated cave home

How do we create warmth?

How do we make a space warm and liveable? We can use energy from nature but actually our bodies create a lot of warmth. So, if you are cold right now the fastest way to get warm is to insulate your body. Put some more clothing on. Also. we can reduce the amount of air movement. Because, we know when air moves it cools down. And we can insulate the building so the warmth is not lost. The buildings need to stay water tight. By being watertight we have more control over the temperature.

Insulation, thermal bridges and thermal mass
Termites build homes with Thermal Mass, good ventilation and natural materials
Termites build homes with Thermal Mass, good ventilation and natural materials

There are many creatures in this world that use insulation – like the bear in a cave, and the fur on its skin and the sheep with its wool. But when we look at the elephant – it uses its ears to cool down. It fans those gigantic ears to cool its body. But if it was in the snow then it would benefit from insulation on those ears because they would be very cold. The ears are like thermal bridges they move the heat from the elephant’s body out into the air. So, if you have a doorway or a window that has wood a wooden lintel right through from the inside to the outside that is a thermal bridge. When we cover the thermal bridge we’re reducing the heat loss or the heat transfer from outside.

Thermal mass is usually a bulky material like mud boulders. Or even water tanks, a brick floor or a wall can act as a thermal mass. In many ways it’s the opposite to insulation because insulation is usually light and airy using the trapped air to block the transfer of heat. However, wood can act as a thermal mass. But it can also act as insulation. Some homes, especially underground homes and cave homes, don’t need much thermal mass because the cave or the soil around it is the thermal mass. And we see evidence of ancient underground housing as well as many modern underground houses use the constant temperature of the earth.

Use Natural Energy for Liveable Spaces

One of the most important aspects of building a design is its orientation – the way it greets the sun. Thousands of years ago, Socrates noticed that when the homes are facing the sun the light can penetrate into the home. And if there’s a portico on the front that stops the hot summer sun from coming into the home. But in winter the sun can still get through underneath the portico or the porch. These were gracious, liveable homes.

Socrates suggested that we elevate this sunny side and lowered the sunless side to block out winter winds. It allows the sun to come in in winter but not in summer because it has shade control on the sunny side and not many windows if any on the sunless side. But it also has thermal mass on the floor to absorb some of the energy during the day and release it at night in winter.

Frank Lloyd Wright used the same principles but it incorporated a berm on the back of the home. In front was a large section of glass and overhanging is the roof it comes out sufficiently so it blocks the sun in summer.

April in a cozy earthship without any heating

Earth ships are very similar. Here I am in an earth ship in Taos New Mexico, United States and it is in the middle of winter. You can see some snow on the ground there was no heating for this house. And you can see the sun is coming through onto a small dividing wall which is a thermal mass dividing the area between the kitchen and the living room. And you can also see (a little bit further to the right and a little bit screened for privacy, I imagine), is a large thermal mass in the bathroom.

Socrates work became the start of solar passive design thinking, yet thousands of years later, modern buildings depend upon fossil fuels.

PassiveHaus sits tight and regulates

The passive housing standard doesn’t rely on sunlight but you can have the same treatment on the sunny side. You can have your windows. But they tend to have triple or double glazing on all the windows. Because the whole Passivhaus standard requires that it is super insulated, the thermal bridges are covered. And so, there’s very little chance of any exchange of energy – warmth from the inside to the out or vice versa. The colder your climate the more that passive housing suits. It’s useful also in a warmer climate that’s subject to heat waves.

The passive house is about really super heavy insulation and the ability to shut the building completely off the outside world. And then really carefully regulate the airflow – the temperature movement across the wall. So, we’re probably going to need more and more houses that are resistant to heat waves. I like that it measures the actual built performance because in Australia we’ve got this big gap between the theoretical performance and the stars that are awarded to a design compared to the the actual built performance. And it is quite hard to measure whether the house really stands up to the standard. And passive houses is very clear on what the standards are and how you measure them.

More liveable

There are a couple more things that make homes feel liveable. Being secure includes being fire safe and there is a standard for this. We need to determine if the building honestly meets the standard. Or make plans to escape. And chemical safety is a factor especially if the homes are surrounded by pollution or have lead paint or a long history of chemical use. For pest control in the building construction phase we can choose to use physical barriers like a termite mesh instead of chemicals. But this is tricky to retrofit on established buildings.

Liveable Spaces For Climate Security

Homes are more liveable when they provide other functions such as harvesting water, generating electricity, supporting indoor production by having sufficient natural light. And some buildings have really good outdoor spaces where we can work they provide windbreak, frost protection, some reflected light, some shade and of course the runoff water.

To design for the variation of the seasons and for climate change use the angles of the sun to set up shade. Add thermal mass or phase change materials within the home. Add insulation, especially between the roof and the ceiling in that cavity. Block thermal bridges such as window and door frames. Adjust the air flow. An increase in ventilation will be cooling. Whereas, when we block off rooms – divide the rooms – it makes them snug and warm. In summary, liveable buildings are warm. They’re not too hot and they’re not too cold. They’re dry. They have good natural light. They are safe and secure. And I hope this has given you lots of ideas on how to improve your home.

Why did the Wallaby cross the road? – wisdom, action and support for young people

Another high profile international sportsman, Wallaby David Pocock, picked up the ball and starting running in the Australian federal election. What motivates young people into climate change action. And how can we support them?

Climate activist Greta Thunberg discussed EU plans to tackle the climate emergency regarding the Climate Law, a proposal seeking to commit the EU to carbon neutrality by 2050. Thunberg criticised the committee proposal as insufficient: “The EU must lead the way. You have the moral obligation to do so and you have a unique economical and political opportunity to become a real climate leader”. Greta went on to say “You, yourselves, declared that we are in a climate and environment emergency. You said this was an existential threat. Now you must prove that you mean it.”

It is vital to follow “ a science-based pathway”. “Anything else is surrender.” “This climate law is surrender. Because nature doesn’t bargain and you cannot make deals with physics.”

Introducing her, environment committee chair Pascal Canfin said the energy of young people transforms society. 

Climate activist Greta Thunberg by European Parliament – This file has been extracted from another file, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88931682

Ready, Set, Action

Candidate David Pocock played rugby internationally and has 83 with awards. He told the Canberra times that running for the senate is “a huge challenge and it’s an exciting one,”. Although the Canberra region is the home of the federal parliament house it has an independent political nature.

David Pocock says "we need new voices in politics standing up for our community with long-term thinking and a visions for our future.
Wallaby hopeful David Pocock https://assets.nationbuilder.com/davidpocock/pages/112/attachments/original/1650602626/David_Pocock_Policy_One-Pager.pdf?1650602626

Despite modern town planning, Canberra suffered in recent heatwaves (43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) on January 4, 2020). The residents felt and smelt the smoke and dust from the fires of 2019-2020. And their once popular local tourism industry, the snow fields has begun to slowly melt away. Canberra knows first-hand the impact of climate change.

Take Action

Be Supportive to be Active

The sad thing for young people is they can’t see the change and many older people won’t admit the losses. But given the right education and ability to research, they quickly learn the changes that demonstrate climate crisis. Young People need easy access to records about losses of biodiversity to make forecasts effective response.

Next, we must stop politicising and blocking action on climate crisis. Then, develop empathy, real support (secure housing and employment) and foster leadership.

Taro, monstera, yams, cumquat, sweet potato, watercress and more enrich this young person’s balcony

Climate action steps in each Permaculture Zone

At the heart of our action (Zone 0) we develop listening and empathy skills with non-violent communication. Then we step into actions for Zones 1-2 by documenting ideas and giving skills development. As well as giving real life assistance such as accommodation, sharing resources and financial support. When we share the workloads, offer business guidance, offer informal training for young people, we create employment readiness.

Next up, Zones 3 and 4 accommodate the sharing of resources. These include workspace, seeding capital, equipment, plants, and produce offers young people a chance to develop their own businesses. For example, Mark Sheppard of New Forest Farm offered start up resources such as apples for young people to make a cider business, herbs and flowers for another young person to start floristry and herbal remedies. Established generations have much to offer the next generation. And young people have creative ideas and energy to make it work.

Finally, Zone 5 supports remaining wildlife and models of sustainability.

Learn how to design a sustainable society and environment using Permaculture skills.