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Architecture and Permaculture: A Seamless Partnership

Author: Daphne Romani
January, 2013 Issue

Although the profession in itself (and the specificity of the tasks performed) might still be a mystery to most, just about anybody knows what architecture is. But what is permaculture? There are oceans of information available online regarding permaculture, yet it still remains unknown to the majority of people.
The succinct summary is that permaculture is simply a design system based on ethical principles, which employs traditional, time-tested solutions and appropriate technologies and practices. It works with nature, following its principles and functions. The most basic ethical principles are to care for the earth, people (and all living creatures) and let everyone have a fair share of all yields.
I’ve heard permaculture defined as a “toolbox” inside which many disciplines are contained. It’s a fitting definition, since permaculture addresses the multiple layers that serve and accommodate for human life: water procurement, food production, shelter, management of animal systems, energy production and processing of “wastes” to be reinvested into the whole as resources.
Architects are supposed to safeguard the health and safety of the general public interacting with their structures. Consequently, when I started learning about permaculture and its caring principles, I immediately saw the potential for a seamless partnership with architecture—one where each can elevate the role of the other and cooperate in delivering environments that enhance, enrich and nourish the human experience.
It’s easy to see that architecture normally addresses the shelter aspect within the permaculture arena. But whether it’s a place of residence or a business, all the other human needs addressed by permaculture are also present. Here’s how they’re adaptable to permaculture principles and design.
Water. Water is essential to all life. In many parts of the world, a good part of daily life revolves around gathering water. Yet in developed countries, not many people think about where their water comes from. Municipalities provide water to customers, so how could anyone even think there may be alternatives?
Every location on earth is different in terms of climate and precipitation, seasons and rain cycles. Generally, with proper planning, a lot of water can be harvested from the sky as it falls on a site, especially if there’s a structure present with a roof that can collect and direct the water to specific storage systems in tanks or in the soil. And where average yearly precipitation is low, not only is it possible, but it’s very important to do so, since multiple benefits can be experienced through this practice.
High-quality water reserves can be used in times of water shortage (like in droughts) to supplement your main supply of water and for irrigating landscapes. Alternatively, if water can’t be stored in tanks, it can be otherwise kept on the site by storing it in the soil (if conditions allow) and be used to replenish the aquifer, which is especially important if you have a well on your site.
Any water that’s prevented from leaving your site is less water that will wash out to the ocean, carrying with it all kinds of city pollutants. As a result, you contribute to cleaner waterways.
Fuel. Fuels that are commonly used in structures are natural gas and propane. Their roles cover running appliances (stoves, clothes dryers, water heaters and furnaces) to provide comfort and convenience. Some of these comforts, however, can be designed in the structure itself, by using passive solar design and using natural earthen materials (benefiting from their thermal mass properties) thereby effectively reducing the amount of fuel needed.
Alternatively there are other sources of fuels that can be implemented and sourced locally from resources that are abundantly available without requiring a complex extraction process. These are methane digesters and the harvesting of heat from the composting processes.
Power. The best known and most widely spread alternative source of power generation is solar. The next is wind harvesting. The spread of wind technologies has so far gone rather slow, mainly due to the elevated costs of construction of the power generating turbines. But there are people who are independently researching and implementing other solutions such as turbine-free wind power generators and gravity-based power generation.
Wastes. There are many waste streams that structures need to dispose of, including organic matter from food scraps (if there’s a food preparation or food consumption use in the building), waste water (from sinks, bathing fixtures and laundry, if present) and human waste. With proper processing facilities and management plans in place on site, each can be converted in valuable resources that can be reinvested into the site .
The benefits of this system are minimized infrastructure required to haul wastes off-site to be processed, enhanced soil nutrients and microbiology, and increased water supply available to plants in the landscaping (which are the best water purifying filters as well).
Landscaping and food production. No matter where one lives or works, it seems like there’s always a small patch of soil in need of landscaping attention and maintenance. This often turns into a burden or liability in terms of maintenance and aesthetics. So why not turn what could be a headache into an asset?
Whether it’s a common area in an apartment complex, condominium, gated estate development, commercial campus or privately owned yard or acreage, any area can be turned into a highly valuable and productive food producing sanctuary. Benefits include high-quality, nutrient dense foods; clean, pesticide and chemical-free food; personal satisfaction and empowerment; reconnecting with nature; getting to know your neighbors and community members; creation of educational ground and opportunity where children can see where foods come from and how they grow; and exercising in fresh air (non-repetitive movement), which stimulates brain functions.
Animal systems. These days, pets are the only animals present in most people’s lives, and anything beyond that is a mystery. Many municipalities, however, are modifying their regulations to allow for the introduction of animal systems (even if on a small scale).
Most notably, the animals that seem to be sneaking more and more into our lives are bees and chickens. They both provide delicious and nutritious yields like honey and eggs, and they’re also hard working friends. By nature, it’s what they do: Bees pollinate plants, without which most of our food wouldn’t grow and chickens enhance soil fertility.
This is what permaculture design does: Using naturally occurring patterns and functions, it arranges all the elements of a system to work together and reach their highest efficiency. It stacks functions, ensuring that each element performs more than one job, and it provides back-up systems where more than one element can perform the same function as well.
Daphne Romani is a licensed architect at Sollievo, Systems for Conscious Living, Architecture and Design who can guide you through the maze of decisions involved in any of your projects. 


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