Saturday, March 17, 2012

Holmgren Design Principle #7: Design from Patterns to Details

Going through David Holmgren's version of the Permaculture Design Principles, here's #7.

Design from Patterns to Details

I'm a software architect, so this seems blindingly obvious to me: large complex systems that work are composed of simpler systems.

Designing from patterns recognizes that although each design is unique, there is a huge body of knowledge available about how other problems have been solved. Successful solutions can be mined for their components, and the subsystems can be generalized into patterns. Failed projects can be also analyzed for their anti-patterns so that we can (hopefully) learn from the mistakes of others instead of repeating them.

Abstracted patterns describe the problem, the solution, the benefits of the solution, the risks associated with it, and any mitigation for the risks. From such an abstraction, the pattern can be applied to different problem spaces and yield both structure and insight.

Biosystems are more complex than software ones (or construction ones - the source of the original pattern work by Alexander), and permaculture is still in its relative infancy so this is a rich growth space :-) From some googling, it looks like there are folks working on codifying permaculture pattern language(s), but in the meantime we've got a lot of great permaculture books to learn from.

Zones and Sectors

A common permaculture design approach is to analyze the site in terms of zones and sectors, working from broad strokes down to the details. Zones are classed by distance in time/space/energy/attention (or any other useful metric). Here's a standard view:

  • Zone 0: your home/primary living space

  • Zone 1: herb/vegetable garden

  • Zone 2: perennial fruit/nut orchard, small livestock

  • Zone 3: large livestock pasturage, commercial crops

  • Zone 4: managed forest/wetlands

  • Zone 5: wilderness

Sectors then work with radials from the design center (or any point of attention), and specify things like summer and winter sun, seasonal wind directions, fire risk, and flood patterns. You can also use sectors to layout just about anything - good views vs. bad views, privacy vs. display, etc.

Looking at the intersections between the zones and sectors can provide a first cut for which design elements will go where, then each element can be worked in turn. Going from the broad strokes to the fine details is a winning design strategy that works in many industries, and it works great for permaculture!

Pretty picture of the principle at

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