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.

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.

Zone 5 Feeds Our Unique Ecosystem

Wildlife is a vital part of the whole ecology of a permaculture site. Dick Copeman campaigns for sustainability for humanity and the forgotten wildlife creatures in our delicate ecosystem.

Dr Dick Copeman is a humble leader full of inspiring ideas. He is one of the founders of Northey Street City Farm in 1994, and still involved in the Farm. Originally a medical doctor, Dick has also worked as a campaigner on food policy, fair trade and sustainability issues. He has a Diploma in Permaculture. And has co-authored the book ‘Inviting Nature to Dinner’ available at earthling enterprises . Here shows us how to integrate more wildlife in our permaculture designs.

Wildlife is a vital part of the whole ecology of a permaculture site.

No place on the planet is complete without
its full range of species.

Dick Copeman
Native Rosella Hibiscus with tiny insects at Shoalhaven Heads Native Botanic Garden
beautiful and tasty food for us as well as wildlife
Native Rosella Hibiscus with tiny insects at Shoalhaven Heads Native Botanic Garden

Wildlife Builds Diverse Ecologies

Each site has specific species who have, over millennia, shaped their own ecology. Each site has an unique ecosystem. The site needs this full and complex ecology to function effectively.

Dick says “If we diminish that wildlife by clearing habitat [and by ‘wildlife’ I include plants as well], excess degradation and too much disturbance well… the site is poorer. Many ‘permies’ realize this and they try their best to incorporate wildlife. I could see that that invertebrates are a very important part of wildlife that are often not acknowledged or overlooked in this whole scheme.

Common brown butterfly Seven mile beach 
National Park
beautiful wildlife
Common brown butterfly at Seven Mile Beach National Park

Tiny Beings, Big Mass of Wildlife

Invertebrates are by far the biggest number of species and the biggest amount of living biomass on any site. They fly around, burrow in the soil and swim in the water. So, in the food web, invertebrates are important mediators. They translate food into energy.

Predatory wasp nymph eating spider that mum stored in nest. Valuable wildlife
Predatory wasp nymph eating spider that mum stored in nest

Many permaculture designers had this idea of you have your intensive veggies in zone one and your fruit trees in zone two. And it’s not till zone four or five that you really have native plants to provide the habitat for your your native insects and other invertebrates. Sure, they provide habitat for native slaters, worms and millipedes and all those provide recycling and decomposing. But what we’re experimenting with at northeast street and in the book is mixing and matching native plants with exotic food plants. And also highlighting the role of native foods, or bush foods. And encouraging people to to grow more of them.

Book 'Inviting Nature to Dinner' promotes incorporation of wildlife

Bush Foods Feed Us Too

“I don’t think 25 million Australians… will ever be able to feed themselves totally on bush food plants. Because we’re no longer hunter-gatherers, like the original people were, with a much lower population rate. But there are many bush foods that we could be eating more. And the thing we highlight in the book is that those bush foods support or provide food for many more native insects and other invertebrates than our exotic food plants.

Bush lollies - walking stick palm Linospadix monostachyos 
very edible wildlife and people food
Linospadix monostachyos- Bush Lollies

Some exotic plants food plants support native insects but nowhere near the rate that the native plants will. And even with the exotic food plants we can still incorporate a lot of native plants in amongst our orchards and food forests. Native plants assist in enriching the soil. And they attract pollinators and herbivores to help with cycling of nutrients.

Rediscover Indigenous ‘Good Bug’ Mixes

“So what we’re experimenting with, (and finding good results) is incorporating native plants instead of exotics. A lot of permaculture people will plant good bug mix to bring in predatory wasps that will predate on caterpillars that might be eating our tomatoes or our corn”. But the good bug mix usually uses exotic plants like Queen Anne’s lace. “We know you can provide a much better effect through planting native plants. And get more support for your whole ecosystem. We’re hoping to be able to demonstrate that it really does work!” says a very happy Dick Copeman.

Farming For Her Community

Building community helps farmers. Direct marketing enables the farm to increase diversity and build a fairer income. Flavia Assuncao of  GrowingRootsPermaculture talks about her personal experience in farming and direct marketing.

“Some plants are very important for diversity but people don’t know how to cook” the harvests that Flavia and Bunya grow. But now, they have a whole community of supporters. Flavia says the close contact with customers encourages them to keeping farming. Customers take food to share with their whole family. I guess the main issue is like – sometimes I even cry because they say ‘this food is lifting my soul – or like, when I eat this food I have to the energy to concentrate. it is all an important part of their culture.’

Growing Support for Healthy Farming Practices

Flavia says “for me is what’s keeping me going”. Everytime when Flavia feels like – ‘argh! its too hard’ – she gets a message that someone coming! “Really the Islanders spirit (vibe) is, you know for them – life is beautiful and everything is okay and if they have it fully they are ahead and normally the bunch is when we sell you know commercial bunch is gonna be little. But I always make sure that I make it for them, Islander style.

I always say to them so they come they get so happy because normally for them food is to share. so you know i always make sure of that and they bring drink and food for us too. When we always get food from them when they come, they bring trays of pumpkin, taro and sweetcorn. “

Two-way exchange

“We learned so much well. We had some guys coming from Fiji /Sydney (750kms), do you know? So we were harvesting cassava and they were telling us: ‘Look, you can plant it like this…’ and so we get the perspective from so many different cultures as well and we learn. and it is so good and this is something that really brings me life,  because I am not from Australia as well, and once I had cassava and all these bananas to eat, I could see that I was really grounded here. Because it really is part of who I am. “

Mixed farming in Food Forest

Customers also show Flavia how to grow a mix of forest and have the animals together in the shade.

“They come here and tell me: ‘This is like Bali!’ (their home)! Where they grow forest,  they grow food,  and they have the animals together. They cook under the shade, together with the trees,  there’s no separation.  They are part (of the Ecosystem),  they live in spaces like this on their islands,  so  it’s so good to see how much inspired (encouragement) they get when they come in here,  and they feel home, this place feels like home for them.  it is very familiar landscape with bananas,  and they use the leaves from papaya, the leaves from cassava,  because on their island theirs resources are a bit short,  so they use so many different parts of plants,  bananas flowers, parts of the banana, they use everything to cook,

So we are learning so much of having all these cultures around us and  this connection  is actually really inspiring and rewarding, because they allow us to grow with  diversity.  and having different plants we have  different “tastes”  for everyone, and  they cannot find this food on the supermarket,  like pumpkin tips (shoots) , chokos tips (shoots) they cannot go to the supermarket to find that.. When they get here , they say: “Do you have taroooo!!! Betel leaf!!! I had a lady that bought  a whole box with betel leaf and while her daughter  was talking to me,  she started to eat in the car everything that had in their box. Because this food is part of who they are, and they miss they food.

Having all this culture around us that this meeting is actually really inspiring and rewarding.

Bunya and Flavia use clever food forest disruption to boost production.

Growing Diversity

I started selling only chillies, but now we have more them 20 produces in our list to sell every week, . It was a very slowly process, but  what we are building with the community is so strong,  that keep us growing (going for longer) as well.

The Value of Feeling Supported

Farming can be lonely but Flavia says “For us, this work is not about make a lot of money, in short time, It is more about building community, and empower people to grow their food., outside of our garden as well.  We also sell plant propagation  and we teach people and empower them to grow food in their backyard,   for example when we sell the Aibika, we always tell them to plant the sticks in their home garden. Our garden keep growing outside of “The farm “.

Flavia smiles “it’s working so well”

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