Written by Doug Crouch

This session in the PDC is the bridge between the principles and patterns and gets into the nitty gritty of design process.  It is a session that is very call and response orientated and a session for storytelling to ground out this theory.

Where do we begin?

So the first question is how do we begin a design?  After going through the principles in the PDC and harping on observation people often throw that out.  And in a way its right, but I prefer to start with a vision concurrently.  A vision from a client, or yourself, is an observation of patterns, rhythms, wishes, dreams, realities, that all come from within.  Then they are expressed verbally or in written fashion.  Bill Mollison, in his Introduction to Permaculture Book, said that you can start with assessment or vision yet strongly writes on the need for a solid vision to be in place.  They are hard to separate but he was quite adamant that if you have a vision it needs to be adaptable as the assessment process unfolds.  You have to find that happy medium.


This step is vital for all design projects and community projects.  The vision lays the roadmap and again it is not static.  It is one of the major reasons why projects fail and why its hard to make decisions often.  This is part of the reason that the fusion of Holistic Management (HM) and Permaculture has occurred as the Holistic Goal setting of HM is a powerful tool for visioning.  This tool blends a look at social, economic, and environmental factors.  Truth is, we often only achieve one or two of those in our pursuits.

Personally, I try to talk to clients for as long as possible on this topic while also letting the conversation flow.  What it often starts as is a bigger picture points and then they quickly want to go into details around elements desired.  This wish list is very important but it is much easier to do design work if you can go back to the bigger picture.  A way to really allow for a vision to flow is direct a series of simple questions that creates a formula.  They are the following:

  • Why
  • How
  • What

The what part at the end is often that wish list but if you know the why and the how it’s much easier to read the landscape in the assessment phase through this lens of a vision.  You must remember that when designing for a client, well they are the client, and their wishes supersede yours unless they are unethical. As an example of how short they can be, I wrote this quickly for my main project these days.  (March 2018)

A recreational area/ farm/ forest combined with an agrarian community to educate others, provide tourism outreach, and healthy and nutritious food while still caring for the environment. With numerous people living on the land, a set of interconnected businesses will thrive under this ecovillage development to spur local living.

Sample vision statement from Treasure Lake, Kentucky, USA

It doesn’t have to be exhaustive and as you go down the assessment phase and even the beginnings of implementation phase as re-evaluation kicks in, it can change.  But it is important to always revisit it. Both successes and failures and evolving markets can alter it.

Treasure Lake Design


The assessment phase can be accomplished through a questionnaire to start the process with the client.  The more info they gather the quicker the job will go before you ever arrive.  In the end you are trying to save the client money so a simple questionnaire is something that is feasible.  If the client is new to the land or you are in a purchasing opportunity then the assessment will all have to be on location and in just a few hours or days following a time of research online. The time spent assessing depends on the size of the land, the scope of the project, and you will have to imagine this site for 365 days a year, which is a tough task. Consider looking at a season that is the opposite, like seeing a site green and bountiful in the late winter of the mediterranean but the brown and drought ridden conditions of late summer. Here is a more detailed questionnaire that you can download that my former teaching partner Sara Wuerstle and I collated from many others assessment sheets:

4.1 PASTE Questionnaire

Furthermore, there are many things to consider and I will try to complete as much of the list as I possibly can but inevitably there will be something missing for your particular context.  Maps aid this process for recording and glancing at satellite image maps, contour maps, and other such resources will make the assessment phase easier once you reach the locale (read the article on maps to support you in this process). Some research can also be done beforehand but most of this is on site and map aided. I just inserted the link and really you should view that article in conjunction with this one. And trust me, start looking out the window on the transport ride to the site.  It helps to put it into the greater context. There are a myriad of systems for collecting and processing the information you observe and get from a client.  Below are a few pictures of some of the tools I have used over the years.  Some are inspired by Bill Mollison but also by Dave Jacke, renowned American designer. I keep all of the info in one PowerPoint presentation as I design with this common computer software.  It becomes like a book, with each new slide becoming like a page in a book. Read this article hosted on PRI, click here, that I wrote about PowerPoint usage as a design tool.


Climate- Get to know this one as best as possible before arriving if you are traveling for the gig. Also ask about precipitation and its distribution, high and low temperatures, frost dates, chill hours, seasonal and storm winds.  Also look for and record microclimates.

Water Resources– Streams, ponds, lakes, springs, wells, water mines, standing or pooling water, erosion gullies, grid water resource, roof catchment possibility, and the state of all of them.  Look for earthwork possibilities. You will need quality drinking water and sufficient water for irrigation. Test drinking water sources. Learn about the reliability of the water source year round. Catchment calculations aid in this process. 

Waste- Sewage dealings- grid, septic, or? Is there trash service or recycling?

Access- Roads, tracks, trails, pathways and their state.  Are you going to have to dump a lot of money into access ways?

Terrain- Is the land flat, sloping, steep, gentle, valleys, ridges, plateaus?

Aspect- Which way do the hillsides face, S, E, W, N or a combination? (This and the terrain are combined as one often called landform)

North facing hillside in Southern Hemisphere with lots of terrain change, varying microclimates and soil types, previous landslide, existing fruit trees near house that was hooked to the grid.

Vegetation- What types of vegetation exist and what is the health of the ecosystem? Is it forest, mature, young, scrubby, wetlands, grasslands, food-producing trees already, timber resources, biomass resources, grazing possibilities, farmable land? Can you identify major tree and plant species? What do they indicate to you?

Soils- What is the soil types on the land?  What is the quality of the soil? Is it rich in organic matter? What is the health of the soil in terms of soil food web? Can I build with it?  Can I dig a pond in these soils? Can test either mineral or biological. Jar test for simple make up. Use soil survey maps if your government provides them like the USGS in the USA.

Wildlife- Are there signs of wildlife, tracks, feces, damage?

Animals- Is there currently livestock?

Natural Disaster Signs or Potential- Are you seeing the remnants of landslides, fire, flood, drought, pestilence?  What are the possibilities of all of these things as well?

Energy- What are the sources of energy for electricity, cooking, heating, cooling, etc.  Is it grid tied already, is there possibility of renewable energy production?

Buildings and their state- Is there houses, barns, sheds, etc. Is there ruins you could build on top of? What is their design and energy efficiency?

Infrastructure/ Communications- Is there fencing and what are there states? Are there telephone poles and electricity lines?  Do you get cell phone reception?  Is there a possibility of high-speed internet?

Equipment- What pieces of machinery and tools are there on site or in the locale area to help get work done if need be?

Legal Aspects- What is the land zoned as, what are the building codes, are their concerns

Boone County Kentucky screenshot of the zoning description of Ag-1. The zoning for Treasure Lake, KY, USA

around the deed, are there easements? Also think about succession plan of how the property will be handed down or transferred to a next generation of stewards.

Neighbors- Look over the fence and see what the neighbors are doing?  Is it horses, is it woodlands, is it a chemical agriculture production?

Past Land Use- Ask about and read the landscape for past use?  Was it grazed, burned, farmed?

Future Use- Many counties will have planning reports for the area and can help you know if a new highway or industrial area is being built.

Human Resources- Who is apart of the project? How are decisions made?  What hierarchies exist? What other stakeholders are involved?

Wish List- Ask the client what elements they are after.  Again this sometimes gets integrated into the vision part when asking them about it, but elements really are a separate facet.  For example, the client saying I want to be self-sufficient in meat production and the client saying I want goats.

Need to ask locals sometimes to get more info. Clients sometimes think they know their climates if it is a new property but ask some locals.  One time, a client bought me lunch before our site visit after our three-hour long car ride into central Portugal from Lisbon area.  The waiter was really helpful and even in my broken Portuguese he was saying stuff that was contradictory to what the client was saying on climate and lands patterns.


Land Use Pattern- What are other people growing in the area?

Shopping Resources- If you want to buy some screws or organic food, how far will you have to drive?

Infrastructure Resources- How are the roads leading to the property, where is the nearest hospital, what are the schools like in the area?

Demographics- Who comprises the local community in which you are moving into?

Is there a market to take crops to or could you do a site market stall?

Partnerships- Is there other ecological farmers in the area or will you stick out like a sore thumb?

Carbon Resources- Are there “wastes” that could be procured from the local area to cycle carbon, i.e. manure, wood chips, food processing wastes, etc.?

Markets- If you plan to be a producer where are you going to outlet crops or value added products or services.


You really have to check in with yourself or the client in the assessment phase on a personal level.  You/they may have big dreams but they need to be tempered into reality by clearly understanding your personal context.  There are many things to consider. If you aren’t starting a project, rather consulting for someone else, these are also questions to help get to know the person.

Finances- What is your current financial status? What assets do you already have like a vehicle? They are really helpful as well in the start-up process. Do you have a mountain of debt already? Budgets determine a lot of the timeframe of a project.

Network- Who is your real and virtual network? ?an you truly count on them to support you in this new endeavour?

Knowledge- Information and imagination are keys to permaculture and you will need to

Plant Propagation, a useful skill to have.

utilize both of these.

Skills- For example, if you want to start a nursery, do you know how to propagate plants, graft, build compost, etc.  Are you handy with tools?  Do you have farming experience and in what areas? Maybe most importantly, are you a good communicator? Remember the environmental part is just one piece as the emergence of social and financial permaculture is quite obvious these days.

Health- What is your state of health and energy levels?  This is very demanding work so you need to be mobile and energetic.  Designs can be tailored to all sort of needs but you must be honest with this one.

Time- Are you going to devote full-time hours or part-time?  This can change and evolve as most small business starters do.  They start part-time and work themselves into a full-time position.  What are your other commitments that require dedicated time- job, family, children, board meetings, travel plans, etc.?

Wrap Up

In conclusion, you may have started with one vision but as the process unfolds you go with a new one.  Sometimes that is immediate and sometimes it is shortly after starting a project and certain realities set in.  The key is to keep on top of both assessment and vision as Permaculture is guided by design process and never ends.  The observation part really is the guided meditation of permaculture, allowing you to receive feedback if your senses are in tuned.  You have to be able to sense the messages coming and admit your mistakes and not gloat in your successes.  This is all really import work.  Some people develop exhaustive lists for this part of the design process but I find it to be too formal and need to let the conversation unfold both with the client and the land. However, I have all of these recorded in my head and on paper to make sure as many as possible factors are understood before I leave the land.  Of course follow-up questioning is possible.  It is a tough task to ask, permaculture design and consulting, so be prepared. Remember, you have to be able to see the site in 365 days of time and space so reading the landscape is pivotal.  For example, implementing earthworks takes a huge context build in my opinion and their success is built from reading many factors.  Often you aren’t there on the land when a heavy downpour occurs so tuning into what the land and maps are saying is a huge skill to build.

I record these observations on paper and scribble certain things on printed maps I bring to the land.  Documentation is key here and taking some pictures will also help when you are afar.  So once back in the design studio, again figure out, how you are going to catalogue what you have gained and develop lists in numerous categories and maps to help with the buildup of the context for making proposed alterations in the landscape. Never be too proud to ask follow-up questions and I like to talk to clients before I ever go to the land to get to know them.  I sometimes don’t even charge this time, an hour of lets drink a coffee and get to know each other type of setting.  So develop whatever system works for you, the client, and the landscape.

Written by Doug Crouch