What is Permaculture Design?

Permaculture design is a design philosophy that follows the 12 principles of permaculture.  If you aren't already familiar with those principles, you can learn more here

The design process includes several phases, each of which takes several factors into account.  This is a brief overview of the design process.  If you are interested in learning the process completely, you should consider earning your permaculture design certification from a permaculture institution near you.

A photograph illustrating an example of permaculture design

Permaculture design - By EwigLernender - Own Work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

The Permaculture Design Process

The permaculture design process begins with observation.  If the principles of permaculture are closely followed, a full year of observation is in order so that a site can be thoroughly observed to understand the natural processes at work in all four seasons.

When careful observation has been done, the designer evaluates all of the assets and problems that the site presents.  In permaculture, each problem is understood to be a solution.  As an example, if excessive rainwater runoff is identified as a "problem," that runoff might be channeled towards fruit orchards, rain gardens, or water storage tanks.  In this way, the problem becomes the solution. 

At each step, the designer must consider any preexisting natural processes.  By working with instead of against these processes, the designer ensures a successful co-creative design.

When new elements and features are introduced to a site, they should be patterned after the natural processes and patterns that already exist in that area.  These patterns will have been identified during observation.

Permaculture Zones

Zones are a key concept in the philosophy of permaculture design.  By applying the concept of zones, different priorities are used for the different areas of a site.  The commonly accepted zones are listed below.

Illustration of the permaculture design zones

By Felix Müller - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link

  • Zone 0 - House or settlement.  Places where people are located for long periods of time every day
  • Zone 1 - Frequently visited areas: kitchen garden, compost pile, chicken coop, etc. 
  • Zone 2 - Semi-intensely cultivated areas: food production, market garden, greenhouse, etc.
  • Zone 3 - Occasionally visited areas: orchards, animal pasture, low-maintenance cash crops
  • Zone 4 - Minimal care areas: Foraging, pasture, wood cutting, etc. 
  • Zone 5 - Unmanaged areas: wilderness and woodland

Flow Patterns

Another key element of permaculture design is the recognition and analysis of the flow of natural elements on and through a project site. 

The designer observes and charts the ways that sunshine, wind, water, and erosion interact with and affect a site.  Any seemingly problematic flows can then be analyzed to understand how they can instead be utilized as the solution to another problem.  See the example about rainwater runoff above.

"Though the problems of the world are increasingly complex, the solutions remain embarrassingly simple." - Bill Mollison

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Edges and Microclimates

While traditional design looks at a site as one small and insignificant part of a larger ecosystem, permaculture design recognizes that several smaller systems are typically present within a single site.

Permaculture design involves careful observation to identify all of the microclimates that are present on a site.  One example is a steep drop in elevation that renders an area shady and cool.  Another example is a pocket of level terrain along a sloping hillside, where cold air is caught and held.  All of the identified microclimates are taken into account in a permaculture design.  Additional microclimates may be created to facilitate desired features and functions.

The area where two separate areas overlap is referred to as edge.  Permaculture design recognizes that edges are valuable - containing an unusual diversity of species and conditions.  Permaculture design seeks to maximize the presence of edges on every site.

An Example of Permaculture Design

This example shows several stages of a permaculture design in progress.  Click on the tabs to change the images and see the design process in action:

  •  Site map
  •  Function map
  •  Flow map
  •  Final Design

This map shows the final design, incorporating various features of permaculture design to capitalize on existing features and maximize the production of the land.

Example permaculture design plan

This is an incomplete example, but it should shed some light on how the process works - especially if you have never seen a permaculture design before.

What is Permaculture Design? 

​Hopefully this quick overview has helped you to answer the question, "What is permaculture design?"  This is by no means a complete explanation, but it should serve as a good introduction.

If you want to learn more about permaculture design, browse around this site and read more about the concepts, the people, and the principles that constitute the world of permaculture.  For more in-depth information on any particular topic, see our list of permaculture resources.

If you decide that you would like to become certified yourself, check out this small but growing regional list of permaculture institutions to find a certification course near you. 

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