Deep Time and Constraint-Based Design

My lifetime is pretty short, but the ramification of the design journey I am choosing to embark on will effect things long after my time ends.  Permaculture is very much meant to be permanent, it is supposed to last a long time, that is what I am trying to wrap my head around as I learn from day to day.

Site analysis and assessment is something that is undertaken by everyone after obtaining agency at any kind of site.  It is the basic skeleton on which designs can be puttied on top of.  The more robust the skeleton, the tighter the design.  The skeleton is realized from the observations of the designer, the flashlight of consciousness unveils the skeleton as it observes separate parts within the massive structure.

My time is short, but I am designing for eternity.

Site A&A is an eternal affair, it is a constant relationship between the individual and the non-individual, i.e. the site.  Change is inevitable.  As things change, the patterns are emergent.  Within the patterns lie the keys to better design and more conscious decision making.  So when I am first getting onto a site I am doing a lot of unrecorded and relatively unattached observation, to get the gist or the lay of the land.  It isn’t long though before I begin to do site A&A, and then the work is never done.

Exhaustive Site A&A

I am a proponent of a highly exhaustive and dynamic site A&A.  This kind of A&A ultimately serves as the toolbox of patterns and data to which a designer can realize more design goals.  Because of the idea that permaculture is aspiring to be permanent, the exhaustive nature of A&A is crucial.  My own personal design method is constraint-based.  Constraints are determined by site A&A.  Patterns elicited from site A&A create real constraints that can then determine parts of the design.  It is more about what one cannot do on site rather than what one can do on site.

With modern economic constraints for professional designers and typical time-based constraints for non-professional designers, it is difficult to do such a lengthy A&A.  However, the ideal still remains.

Past/Present/Future Patterning

There are patterns of past, patterns of present, and patterns of future to be realized through observation and recording on site.  Each aspect of time has it’s own types of recording methods and attributes which I will outline here.


Patterns of the past generally deal with things that have occurred and have shaped the site to be what it is today.  Examples of patterns of the past are paleo-climatology, land use history, and phylogeny.  The Scale of Permanence has aspects that exist in the past like climate and landform.  By taking on a study of patterns of the past for a site, one may find helpful constraints that can inform design in the present.  For example, when looking at the phylogeny of Rhus typhina (or Staghorn Sumac) I can determine what kinds of things would work better on a site that has a lot of the plant growing on it.  Right now I am working on a site that grows it prolifically, which cause constraints with managing the stands.  A better example would be an event that happened in the past the prevents certain design in the present.  This is more apparent with sites that have pollution or a real serious limiting factor.  After examining patterns of past, one should be able to elicit both constraints, opportunities, and catalysts.


Patterns of present deal with A&A elements that are changing more rapidly like vegetation/wildlife, microclimate, zones of use, soil management, and aesthetics.  Patterns of present also deal with observations of patterns that are accrued on a daily basis like phenology.  Phenology is recording annual events as they occur on site like budding, fruiting, flowering, first sighting of fauna and etc.  By recording events like this one can get a really good understanding of how the climate is changing on site.  It can be incredibly important to have many of these datasets since official governmental climate studies use phenological records from individuals to understand how climate has changed.  Though there are not many…so we have predictions based on the writings of Henry David Thoreau and only a handful of others.  The present is where most of the constraints will be discovered.


Patterns of future are based on the past and present and can be a rewarding exercise to brainstorm about.  It is worth spending time to try to predict constraints that may occur in the future and how to begin to mitigate those constraints in the present.  For example, if I understand that short-term drought is to become more of a reality in Massachusetts with changing climate I should definitely be planning for a more robust water catchment and transportation system on the site.  I would take the drawbacks of overbuilding my water system if it meant that I would hardly experience consequences of lack of water which could be potentially much worse.


I am looking to measure as much as possible on site that will provide me patterns on how to design the site to function better.  While it may take a while to construct the system of data collection, I ultimately think that the extra effort will pay dividends in the future.  The site-specific document that I create with an exhaustive site A&A will be authoritative when dealing with the site and instructive as an analog for sites that experience similar conditions.  No longer will people who live in the area of my site have to rely on aggregate data based on large systems, they can see what kind of energies are occurring near their own site.

Site A&A, to me, needs to be exhaustive, dynamic, and site-centric wherever possible to be able to inform not only the designers on the site but also anyone who is curious to learn what the document entails.

Open-Source Permaculture

A group of college nerds came together collectively at the UC Berkley campus in the 70’s and ushered one of the most technologically important inventions of the modern age…fully functional personal computing.  Fueled by their desire to figure out problems and impress their friends, these students and enthusiasts worked hard and for long periods of time to crack the problems of computing.  Their club was called Homebrew, and the ethic was sharing and open-sourcing.

I am currently working on applying such an ethic and also provide some insights in how to apply open-source to permaculture design.  The sheer power and swiftness of computers makes them well-suited to creating scaled basemaps which can be easily traded, shared, and printed for various uses.

The roster of Open-Source programs and their uses are as follows:

LibreCAD- Scaled Basemapping

Inkscape – Vector Based Editing

GIMP – Pixel Based Editing

Scribus – Desktop Publishing

Krita – Digital Painting

There are other free but not open source programs available to the budding permaculture designer:

Google Earth Pro (Yeah buddy) – GIS and Geositing

Google Mytracks – GPS Tracking

Xmind – Mindmapping

SketchUp – 3d Modeling

Let me briefly explain which programs I am using so far and for what purposes:


LibreCAD – With this program I am trying above all to create a basemap that is scaled, and on which I can make visually appealing with other software.  This is done by typical low-cost surveying techniques like triangulation and offset/extension.  I build the basemap with my own personal measurements combined with any found measurements from existing maps.

Inkscape – Basically the mainframe of the operation.  Even though on the surface inkscape is basically an open-source version of Adobe Illustrator, it can support a large array of file types.  The most important file type it supports is .dxf which is integral to using and then improving upon work done in LibreCAD.

*Here is a link to an example of the first full basemap I created with the LibreCAD/Inkscape Combination.

GIMP – A photo editor.  I use it personally to edit digital photos that I’ve taken.  Right now I’m working with a Canon A2300 modded with CHDK.  Essentially CDHK makes certain point & shoot Canon cameras able to shoot in RAW format as opposed to jpeg, as well as other useful features like altering shutter speed and aperture.

Scribus – Really haven’t been able to sit down and figure out this one yet.  I have experience with InDesign, so I will have to learn the different interface.  From what I’ve seen and read it can get most jobs done.

Krita – A lot can be done with this digital painting program.  This program is for painting the basemaps that I finish in Inkscape.

Free to use

Google Earth Pro – Now the pro version is available, all one needs to do is download the pro version and use the code GEPFREE when logging in to it for the first time.  It is pretty powerful and I sometimes get lost in all that can be done with it.  It is perfect for getting a bird’s eye view of your site and the context of where you are doing design work.  There are topography maps available to put as overlays and there are soil maps that can be overlaid as well to find out what kind of soil types are existent on your site as well.  The soil types can be clicked on and then sent you to more information.

Google Mytracks – This app requires a GPS device via cell phone, so you’ll need a smart phone in order to use this.  It basically tracks the path that the phone moves in.  This can be used to find out how long it takes to travel certain paths, changes in elevation and other data.

Xmind – Just a mindmapping software.  Bubble diagrams and webs are created through topics and subtopics.  Can be used to organize ideas, plans, and projects.

SketchUp – Used for 3D modeling.  Any kind of architectural work and concepts can be hashed out on sketchup for the site.  I have used it briefly to model the garage and see what it would look like with a second floor.  The garage is right in a central location of the garden, so I imagined that with a second floor and large windows facing the garden (and simultaneously facing south as well) a nice space could be created up there that takes advantage of the solar gain during colder months.

Open-Source is an ethic I really like, and computing is important to design.  Things just move faster with open-sourcing, when many users can access the code and change it to improve the programs and offer more applications.  Companies tend to stop innovating when they become a certain size and opt instead to buy innovation from smaller groups or individuals.

But with more focus and time spent on the learning curve with the open-source programs, innovation can be occurring all the time, because individual coders and small groups can constantly be tweaking the source code in order to provide a tighter designed program.  This is what I’m after as a designer, tightest design possible.

So if you have the time, go for open-source, collaborate, and get more sites implemented.