Notes from the Field Station: Permaculture Principles

10 Nov

Permaculture Tree

In order to satisfy the imperatives put forward by the Living Building Challenge, all projects are required to host sustainable agriculture on site. In the case of the Bechtel Environmental Classroom (BEC) our design team has chosen to implement permaculture gardens including an orchard of native fruit trees. Over the next two weeks I will introduce the basic concepts of permaculture, how those principles operate in practice, and the impact permaculture gardens will have on the design and operation of the BEC.

Put most simply, permaculture is a design system used in the crafting of sustainable human environments. The name itself speaks to the intended longevity of these designs, being a contraction of permanent and agriculture.  In essence, permaculture focuses upon the interrelationships of plants, animals, buildings, and infrastructures based on their placement within a landscape. Although the meaning of the word sustainable has become increasingly convoluted in recent years, in this context I am using it to mean a system that is ecologically-sound as well as economically viable in that it has achieved a balance between consumed resources and output wastes. To achieve this, permaculture makes use of the inherent qualities of plants and animals, in addition to landscape features, to produce a highly efficient self-sustaining system on the smallest possible area.

Permaculture draws upon the wisdom and common sense of traditional farming systems, as well as current knowledge of natural systems. The hugely influential book The One Straw Revolution (Fukuoka) most succinctly outlines the basic philosophy of permaculture: to work with nature rather than opposed to it, long and thoughtful observation over reckless labor, and the utilization and appreciate of all plant and animal functions. The principles of permaculture design are highly interdisciplinary, merging ecology, energy conservation, landscape design, and environmental science. They include:

  • Every element is placed in relationship to another so that they assist each other
  • Each element performs many functions (“stacking functions”)
  • Each function is supported by many elements (basic needs served in two or more ways)
  • Efficient energy planning for house and settlement (4 zones based on intensity of use)
  • Emphasis on use of biological resources (plants and animals) over fossil fuel
  • Energy recycling on site (fuel and human energy)
  • Using plant succession to establish favorable sites and soils
  • Polyculture and diversity of beneficial species for a productive, interactive system
  • Use of edge and natural patterns for best effect

Based on your familiarity with design and permaculture, these theoretical principles may seem highly abstract without the grounding of concrete examples. Next week I will continue this post by discussing “Permaculture in Practice”, in which I breakdown permaculture designs in action, as well as discuss the role permaculture plays in the BEC design and qualifications for the LBC. Stay tuned!

A great resource on permaculture principles and designs for sites large and small, rural or urban, is an Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay.

If you have yet to read my initial post on the overall design scheme for the BEC feel free to check it out now.

Jessa Finch (’12)

CEEDS MacLeish Intern

* Permaculture Tree drawing is from Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison

2 Responses to “Notes from the Field Station: Permaculture Principles”

  1. darius July 14, 2015 at 5:55 am #

    Hi, I appreciate your efforts and work you do. I would like to ask you for a favour – could you please reference the permaculture tree picture, please? I am writting an article about permaculture principles and I would like to use the drawing. Thank you. Darius (Slovakia)

    • Smith College CEEDS July 14, 2015 at 9:13 am #

      Dear Darius,
      Thanks for being in touch. And thanks for the catch. Jessa should have attributed the drawing way back then.. The image is from the book Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison. Good luck.

      CEEDS staff

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