The permaculture chapter: principle 7 – design from patterns to details

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

  1. Design from patterns to details

Patterns in permaculture are of central importance. Examples of patterns, and indirectly of the importance of patterns, are evident in the following comment by Mollison (1988: 12), one in which he is clearly raising issues with aspects of ‘designs’ common to ACID: “Perverse planning is everywhere obvious: houses face not the sun, but rather the road, lawns replace gardens, and trees are planted to be pruned and tended.” In the first example of houses not facing the sun, the implication is that the sun is an essential factor to consider when designing and building a house (or any structure) – consideration of the sun’s ‘pattern across the sky’ means that a house can be built to be passively heated by the sun in winter and cooled in summer, for example by incorporating a roof at just the right height and slope so that the lower angle of the sun in winter allows light to enter windows, while in summer its higher angle in the sky will direct heat onto the roof and not through windows. Of course, solar panels can also be placed on appropriately designed and constructed roofs that face the sun – the cyclic movement of the sun across the sky is the pattern, while the roof built at the right height and facing the right position in the sky is the detail. Lawns, the next example, require continuous maintenance for no return (think no yields), a counterproductive pattern; but humankind continuously needs fresh food (a pattern), and a productive garden (the functioning of which involves numerous intersecting patterns that must be respected) will provide for some of this need. The final example – trees that need constant tending – again reveals a counterproductive pattern, and by planting fruiting trees one is respectful again of a pattern of needs, in this case again the need for food.

Another excellent example of designing from patterns to details is that of ‘zoning’, described by the Permaculture Association[1] as “a design method that is used to help generate an overall pattern for the site and ensure that it is designed to be energy efficient.” A simple example of this is the positioning of the ‘herb area’ in one’s garden: herbs are used frequently for many meals (a pattern), so herbs close to the kitchen (the detail) – preferably right outside the kitchen – makes sense because of the saving of time and energy required to pick the herbs. The house (i.e. physical building) is generally considered to be zone one in permaculture, wherein most of the necessities for daily living should ideally be accessible – ‘objects’ here might be accessed several times a day, for example, the herb garden as already mentioned. Zone two would not necessarily be accessed several times daily, though it might be accessed once a day, so one would design to place less frequented aspects of the home there. This process of zoning typically moves from zone one to zone five. In big permaculture designs zone five would be areas of wild woodland left almost entirely free from human interference. However, even the smallest design can identify zones – for example, a bedroom can be designed according the patterns of use of objects, with the most frequently used objects appearing in zone 1, and the least in zone 5. Regardless of what is being designed, the aim with zoning is to take note of patterns, and tailor the detail so that energy is not wasted in a system. This system of design can be ‘scaled’, i.e. applied to bedrooms, houses, neighbourhoods, communities, cities, etc. The Permaculture Association (ibid) points out that designing from patterns to details gives “an overall shape to the design, before getting too carried away with the specific details to start with” – this is a very useful practical approach to design where the ‘overall shape’ is determined by natural elements of a system, as opposed to the often exclusive anthropocentricism common to Promethean endeavours.

The researcher can comment personally on the principle of designing from patterns to details by mentioning that in the setup of his rustic permaculture homestead, it became clear that the dominant pattern of movement of people through the homestead was around the kitchen, the rocket stove, the dish-washing area, and the nursery where seedlings are planted and need frequent watering. The pattern of movement showed that the rocket stove needs to be central because one must keep adding wood to it when cooking; that the kitchen needs to be accessible from more than one entrance due to a heavy flow of movement through it; that the dish-washing area is not in the kitchen because flies get attracted to dishes that get piled up for even a short period of time during summers; and that the nursery needs to be very central because of frequent watering needs. Gradually these components of the homestead were constructed to constitute zone one, and movement occurs almost cyclically between components – i.e. one can walk out of one entrance of the nursery, into one entrance of the kitchen, out of a second entrance to the kitchen, past the rocket stove, past the washing-up area, past the bedroom, and re-enter the nursery through a different entrance, and one would have completed a circular movement through the zone.

In Chapter 5, Sheldrake’s morphic field hypothesis was encountered, where “the regularities of nature are essentially habitual and that a kind of memory is inherent in nature. This habit model implies that past patterns of activity influence those in the present” (Sheldrake 1994: 129). There is definitely some overlap between what Sheldrake is doing and this permaculture principle: the principle is ‘design from patterns to details’, while Sheldrake focuses on habits and ‘past patterns of activity’ that, via the mechanism of morphic resonance, determine specific details of members of a species. Then the sub-section on Hancock’s ‘civilisation with amnesia’ focused on a civilisation lost to history, a civilisation that left very clear indications of its existence, and of its knowledge of cyclical cosmic patterns (for example, precession of the equinoxes) – knowledge that was intricately detailed into megalithic stone architecture all over the world; indeed, in that sub-section the mathematician Robert Bauval was quoted for his insistence that the positioning of the pyramids on the Giza plateau correspond to two important celestial events that point unambiguously to 10,450 BC: “at that date only […] we find that the pattern of the pyramids on the ground provides a perfect reflection of the pattern of the stars in the sky” (Hancock 1995: 444). Finally here, zoning as an example of designing from patterns to details is also reminiscent of the Zeitgesit Movement’s advocacy of designing new cities and areas populated by people using ‘emergence thinking’, a type of thinking referred to in that sub-section as ‘logical deduction’ based on the natural patterns of a given area.

[1] accessed 22 February 2016

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