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Permaculture is a theory of ecological design which seeks to develop sustainable human settlements and agricultural systems, by attempting to model them on natural ecosystems.
“The primary agenda of the movement has been to assist people to become more self reliant through the design and development of productive and sustainable gardens and farms. The design principles which are the conceptual foundation of permaculture were derived from the science of systems ecology and study of pre-industrial examples of sustainable land use.” (Oliver Holmgren (1997). "Weeds or Wild Nature". Permaculture International Journal. Retrieved 10 September 2011.)
Permaculture as a systematic method was developed by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren during the 1970s. The word "permaculture" originally referred to "permanent agriculture", but was expanded to also stand for "permanent culture" as it was seen that social aspects were integral to a truly sustainable system. Mollison has described permaculture as “a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor; and of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single project system.” (Wikipedia Permaculture, 2011)
Principles of Permaculture
The 12 recognized principles of permaculture can be described as follows (from appropedia.org):
These are principles used and taught by the pioneers of permaculture - they are not universal truths. E.g. re "Use small, slow solutions": in certain contexts, big and fast-acting solutions may be best; however the principle reminds us that great impacts can come in ways that require patience and are not flashy.
The method for solving these complex problems, like the ones that power the earth’s atmosphere, can be found in a new natural design process. The new design system that is being used to transform ourselves, homes, work, food, transportation, communities, government, spiritual institutions and economic systems must be based on ecological principles of design. Ecological design principles include:
These design principles require a far deeper level of understanding of the systems inherent in nature and humanity. “Design manifests culture, and culture rests firmly on the foundation of what we believe to be true about the world. Our present forms of agriculture, architecture, engineering, and industry are derived from design epistemologies incompatible with nature’s own. It is clear we have not given design a rich enough context. We have used design cleverly in the service of narrowly defined human interests but neglected its relationship with our fellow creatures.” (Van Der Ryn and Cowan, Ecological Design, pg. 9) Clearly something has gone wrong, as manifested in the terrible gap between rich and poor, the monstrous destruction of the natural world that sustains us, and the thwarted initiatives of the best among us.
Living by Permaculture
The photographs that accompany this chapter (previous page is a straw bale home with surrounding permaculture gardens) are a beautiful example of permaculture principles applied. The family who built this home lives extensively by the principles of permaculture. This home was built more than ten years ago. The land surrounding the home and the work carried out by this family reflect an intimate understanding of life as it can exist in harmony with nature. The result is astonishingly comfortable, healthy and sustainable.
Image 1.1 the use of a straw bale chicken coop integrated into the flow of agriculture and living as required by permaculture. Chicken manure makes a great fertilizer while having chickens also serves many other needs within the ecosystem. Image 1.2 shows the sewage treatment system which consists of two large barrels full of small sponges. Bacteria within the large surface area of the sponges break down the sewage producing clean effluent that can be returned safely to the environment. This sewage treatment system is called a Waterloo Biofilter.
The home is built with straw bales walls on both of the two levels. Building with straw bales isn’t usually something that most people feel comfortable with when they first hear about it. In this case more than nine years ago this family was encouraged by the owner of a straw bale building in the United States to take a look around. With some more research and review most people come to see that it is one of the most sensible building materials for areas that have colder climates and an abundance of straw. As our forest resources are depleted there is hope that we will all find the courage and creativity to try this recently revived old building technique.
In colder climates it makes sense for straw bale homes to be built with two levels making more efficient use of internal heating. The home featured in this article does just that. In fact the size, shape and position on the property were determined largely by permaculture principles. Of course a sense of beauty and esthetic was also lovingly applied
Straw bale allows for many creative design ideas. In the case of this home comfy alcoves for the kids beds were created on the second floor. Building with straw bales means you have the flexibility to do things that wouldn’t be considered when using conventional construction techniques. Thick walls also provide wide window sills ideal for sitting spaces and the display of art work.
Large windows on the south side provide plenty of sunlight in the winter and are a major passive heating system. Floors on the ground floor are concrete slab on grade with hydronic in-floor heating. A central masonry stove provides long lasting heat. Fall, spring and summer rooms on the west provide screened in working areas for preparing harvested plants. In the winter the doors to these areas are sealed and extra insulation added. Flexing and changing the home with the seasons makes more sense than trying to heat the entire space all year long.
The site was prepared to allow for living and working off of the land year round. In order to use natural forest cover as a shield in the winter and for shade in the summer, three sections were carved out of the maturing forest area. Each acts as a light trap in the forest cover allowing light in when required in the winter. With deciduous trees, fences, vines, pergola and many areas of stone edging, the area is in balance with the required levels of sunlight, water and nutrients. Three areas were created each with a special purpose. All are connected by path ways through the forest cover:
Recovered wood from trees taken down were used in the construction of the home. A portable saw mill was used to create wood for flooring.
Round logs were used for posts in this post and beam home. Round posts have greater strength but are not specifically supported by the building code. This caused some concern for the building inspector but eventually was allowed.
Since the home is entirely straw bale with no basement. Basements can be relatively expensive to add to a home. In this particular case there was also a problem with a high water table. Working in concert with nature, rather than against this natural pattern on the site, the natural springs were channeled and dug out to allow ponds to be created and naturally fed year round.
A kitchen garden surrounds the house on the south side around the entranceway. Edible plants are combined with ornamentals. Paths snake their way throughout the garden creating many edges where growth is superior. Composting takes places directly in the garden by layering materials including used newspapers. A pair of old jeans can be broken down in a week using this method.
The Waterloo Biofilter system takes the black water through a couple barrels filled with 2 inch by 2 inch foam cubes. The resulting effluent is clean enough to release directly into the soil although eight years ago a small septic bed was required when the system was first introduced. Many years of use has proven that the Waterloo Biofilter system is so effective the effluent is safe to release into the environment.
As an integral part of this living/working site, a straw bale chicken coop was constructed on the west end of the property. The chicken manure is a great fertilizer and used throughout the gardens as a fertilizer.
Creating this self sufficient lifestyle has many other benefits. Working out of the home reduces transportation costs and pollution. Reduced travel time means more time with children and in the garden preparing for next years harvest.
Book Title: Permaculture: A Designers Handbook
Author: Bill Mollison