Permaculture and eco-building

The philosophy of permaculture is a useful framework through which to understand the broader principles behind many eco-houses. There is a synergy between eco-building and permaculture in that they are both design systems which at heart seek to interconnect the processes of life and create more sustainable systems. They are both based upon understanding and creating systems of co-operation that encompass ecology, people and equality. The word ‘permaculture’ comes from combining permanent agriculture and permanent culture. The British Permaculture Association defines it as “about living lightly on the planet and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature”. Permaculture is about designing systems whereby the needs of people and the environment are met in a way which creates balance and harmony and is inspired by close observation of nature’s own systems of stability, resilience and productivity. Thus “practitioners should learn from, mimic, and work with – rather than against – nature. This implies that we should design complex, integrated, even multi-stored, systems within which all organisms … perform not single and competitive, but multiple and mutualistic functions” (Mulligan and Hill, 2001, 205).

Permaculture has had a big influence upon green ideas in Britain in recent years, but in the main this has been expressed through changing practices of gardening and food production, eschewing many of its wider implications for the built environment, land tenure, planning and economics. However green buildings, appropriate land tensure and community governance are vitally important in supporting the more visible aspects of permaculture practice. The Permaculture Association refers to these elements as part of the ‘invisible structures’ of permaculture and argue that “we need to ensure that the physical systems we create are able to be maintained and developed long into the future”.


Tony’s roundhouse at Brithdr Mawr, Wales

In Britain there is a particular deep green version of eco-buildings called Low Impact Development (LID). LID is a radical approach to housing, livelihoods and everyday living that began in Britain in the 1990s as a grassroots response to the overlapping crises of sustainability. LID employs approaches that dramatically reduce humans’ impact upon the environment, demonstrating that human settlements and livelihoods, when done appropriately, can enhance, rather than diminish ecological diversity. However, LID is not solely concerned with the environment. It is also a direct response to social needs for housing, an anti-capitalist strategy forging alternative economic possibilities, and a holistic approach to living that pays attention to the personal as well as the political. Many of its key advocates and designers are trained in permaculture design (for example, Ben Law, who built an eco-house in Prickly Nut Wood, East Sussex, has a Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design) though others describe themselves as ‘accidental’ permaculturists. As such Low Impact Development, has been described by Tony Wrench, of Brithdr Mawr, “as being a catalyst for letting permaculture happen in the countryside and letting people with no money or very little money, live a balanced lifestyle that will survive economic crises, and will survive peak oil”.

LID reflects the ethics of permaculture in two keys ways: in its holistic approach and in its emphasis upon the importance of people and the personal. LID takes holism – the idea that we need to understand the whole of a system (physical, social, economic, and psychological) and that the properties of a system cannot be understood by its component parts alone – as its approach to understanding how humans should interact with the environment. For Will (Green Hill) this holism is central to permaculture; “one of the things that defines permaculture is to try and – for an individual or a group – do the whole process, be both implementer and designer and observer, and evaluator as well, to learn lessons … because it’s incorporating people and the earth and trying to get that fair share … that defines it as being holistic”. Thus LID and permaculture advocates that in addition to physical changes we must attend to the personal and emotional too. This very much reflects a permaculture ethic of seeking to work in harmony with nature’s systems and of people care, and an acknowledgement that the personal politics of change are as important as protecting the natural environment.

Green Hill, Scotland 

Many LIDs in Britain have used permaculture as a way to structure their communities, food production, house building and livelihoods. Increasingly they have been able to shift beyond food production to a more holistic implementation of permaculture principles, just as it was originally intended, and as a result be part of “the permaculture movement [which] acts as a sort of a natural laboratory wherein potentially sustainable solutions are experimented with” (Veteto and Lockyer, 2008, 53). Permaculture has been used to shape site plan decisions, to make best use of resources and energy, to support the processes of integration rather than segregation and to assert the importance of being flexible in the face of change. However, few LIDs have been able to put permaculture fully into practice because of a difficulty of collectively agreeing the finer details of what permaculture is, and for the lack of large-scale collective working examples of permaculture in Britain.

Permaculture has openly and deliberately built upon a myriad of understandings of natures’ systems, both indigenous and western scientific, and as a result is conceived by many as being about “looking at some of those traditional ways of farming and working the land and traditional communities and saying what works and what doesn’t work?” (Will, Green Hill). Others have argued that in practice it is “only by reconnecting ourselves with our local resources can we move towards a sustainable society” (Whitefield, 1997, 8). This, however, confuses the wider lessons of permaculture in that it is a hybrid of principles, some about localism, but others about connection, integration and the balancing of needs of the earth and people. There are also tensions about the time needed to closely observe a site before any plans are made amid the acknowledgement of the need to evolve systems quickly to cope with climate change. Britain is in a transitional period of making permaculture work at a large scale in collective spaces. However, it is the broader lessons that permaculture teaches which have been embraced by eco-builds where hope really lies. In balancing the needs of the earth with those of people, of asserting the importance of equality, and crucially in tying these together with a focus on holism sustainable ecological living has begun to become a reality. As such permaculture is a useful way to understand eco-building and Low Impact development in Britain.

Mulligan, M and Hill, S. Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action. (2001) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Whitefield, P. Permaculture in a Nutshell. Permanent Publications. (1997) Hampshire, England.

Veteto, J and Lockyer, J. Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture: Moving Theory and Practice Toward Sustainability. Culture and Agriculture, 30, no. 1 and 2 (2008): 47-58.

This is an extract from a longer book chapter being published as ‘Permaculture in practice: Low Impact Development in Britain’ in J. Lockyer and J. Veteto (eds.) Localizing Environmental Anthropology: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillage Design for a Sustainable Future. Berghahn Books.

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