When designing with nature’s guidance and inspiration, creative energy flows as we mimic natural systems through the design process. The Principles of Permaculture can be broken down into a numbered sequence but essentially they should all have the number one in front of them for they are one.  There is no separation for natural systems work in a holistic means and we must understand that the principles themselves are so intertwined that for this principle of multifunctions to come through in a design relative location must be applied as well. Thus by building on relative location, we can locate items so that there is multiple functions for every element.

Squirrel in elm tree, treasure lake, KY

Squirrel in elm Treasure Lake, KY

Multiple Functions for Every Element: Practical Application

In nature we see this everywhere with animals such as the squirrel. It fertilizes from its waste, it is a taxi cab for fungal spores as it runs the forest, and classically it plants nuts of oak and hickory. From this inspiration we should always aim for our elements to perform at least three functions.  This is a general rule of thumb and often, if we don’t meet this number of three, we have not explored our creativity fully, or the research wasn’t sufficient in our functional analysis. Below is a great example of a permaculture planting to match inputs and outputs up together:

The Mulberry Tree placed in relative location of the chicken coop thus performing multiple functions

The mulberry tree is placed on the southern side (sector planning) of the coop to provide shade for the chickens in this dry and hot climate of Northern California. Through our functional analysis we find out that mulberries drop their fruit when ripe. Consequently, the plant performs another function of providing forage for the chickens that are grazing below. When I go to feed the chickens or pick up some eggs, I can pick the ripening mulberries from the tree or those located outside of the strawyard.

silk worms- another layer of regeneration from antiquity, another function of the mulberry possibly

Furthermore, because the chickens are constantly depositing waste in the strawyard, the tree is able to utilize and absorb this concentration of nutrients. Conversely it is also able to create soil itself by its leaf drop and its association with microorganisms in the soil. Also by placing this element in relative location of the strawyard, the chickens are afforded some aerial protection. Since the site was located on the banks of a major western U.S. River, there is an avian predation risk from hawks and eagles. I mean it tastes like chicken afterwards so we must give them the correct habitat so that they will not be predated upon and our hard work lost.

Lastly the chicken and mulberry tree from a wonderfully entertaining relationship. When you go into the yard and shake the mulberry tree when the fruit are ripening, a hundred or so mulberries will drop. This sets off a feeding frenzy comparable to the piranhas and wounded fish. Again this is only possible through the principle of relative location as the mulberry tree must be next to the coop and strawyard for that functional interconnection to occur.

permaculture functional analysis

drawing credit to Bill Mollison

Economical Equipment

When it comes to our purchases of equipment, make sure you are buying multifunctional equipment.  This is the reason why the Italian made BCS or Grillo walk behind tractors are so popular with market gardeners. They are able to switch out man implements, lighter the compaction, and able to go on steeper slopes that tractors can’t. My mini John Deere tractor is both a mower, able to attach farm implements to, and mainly a hauler of all sorts of things with the cart combined in relative location so to speak. Also on a Permaculture farm we often make buildings super multifunctional so that we don’t have the expense of building so much.

Multiple Functions for Every Element Quick Summary: Each element in the system should be chosen and placed so that it performs as many functions as possible. Use relative location so elements with diverse functions have their qualities perpetuated.


Written by Doug Crouch

Header art by Sien Verpoest


Mollison, B. & Slay, R.M. (1991) Introdcution to permaculture. 2nd Edition. Sisters Creek, Tasmania, Australia. Tagari.


  1. This is great, see how we can ‘transplant’ life-enhancing rules for agriculture/livingsystems to technological systems.

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