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This is part 2 of 2 of a transcript of a talk given by Paul Jennings to the recent SBUK Big Straw Bale Gathering. Paul has built his straw-bale family home on a ‘One-Planet Development’ smallholding in Wales (costing £12,000).

You can read part 1 in this link.

Permaculture principles and buildings:

Site design improves building function. Working from patterns of landscape design and land use, we work to details, like how our buildings fit into the landscape. From pattern to details is a technique of nesting one pattern or design in another, a higher order system. For example: a bioregional pattern to localities; localities to site developments; site landscape developments to buildings, gardens or orchards; house to conservatory; conservatory to watering system or composting process; watering system to plant species choice or gardening practice.

Credit: Paul Jennings

Hopefully then, you’ll see that design of good buildings, the sort which we might readily call “ecological”, cannot really begin with just building design. By definition the ecological must be linked in a complex web of relationships to both higher and lower order systems. If ecology is your thing (and it should be your thing) then the short phrase which is your house makes no sense unless combined in a sentence which refers both to landscape and how you deal with your bodily wastes, or what you use to clean your worktops, or how much of your own food you grow.

So let’s place our buildings in an understood and designed landscape where windbreaks reduce our energy needs, and where zonal design reduces work and helps us to create self-sustaining abundant household and settlement economies of the sort we are going to need.

Let’s ask ourselves what a building can do. We can go back to the list of functions and examine our plans or our existing structures, and we can make our buildings do more. When we do this, investing in buildings, we make them more energy efficient, we reduce long-term costs and work,and we create a human environment which meets more of our needs whilst using less of the Earth’s resources, increasing our security and improving the prospects for future generations.

A well known Permaculture principle is multiple function. Instead of planting a fruit tree and asking of it only fruit, we plant it for shade and microclimate creation, we use it as part of a plant guild with soft fruit bushes, deep rooted mulch plants, insectary plants and nitrogen fixers; we put a bird box on it, and as well as taking fruit for our table, we run chickens underneath to peck at windfalls and control pests, turning them into eggs. When we cut the tree back to let more light into the garden, we chip the wood or compost it, cycling nutrients like a forest.

We can stack functions in space like this, for buildings. We do anyway, but we can design to do it better. A house can be a home for people, and for bats; a room can be a place to eat and a place to hold meetings; a place where, as we plot the downfall of capitalism we can draw books from well placed shelves. A house can be a place for education of children; a place where we care for all generations; a place which produces food, and which deals with its own wastes by using them to meet the needs of other elements in the design, a design aimed at abundance.

Credit: Paul Jennings

Stacking functions in space, thinking of a house in the same way we think of a forest or a forest garden, can work with stacking in time. The building we’re living in now might become something else as needs and desires change. So, a well designed barn might come to provide accommodation, it might become a shop or a monthly produce market; a seasonal store; a place for courses or Solstice feasts. Over time, a well designed building may go through transformations, and we can design for that. There are very good historical precedents, it’s how buildings were once nearly all used.

Applying good design for relative location to our buildings, vis-a-vis other buildings and elements in our designs, can give rise to very efficient single envelope constructions, to evolving courtyards; to the kinds of places which feel bigger than they really are because they are thoroughly inhabited, full of all kinds of human activity.

We can build in backup plans, accommodation for young and old; spare capacity for storage. We can take seriously David Holmgren’s call to catch and store energy, not just in solar panels, but as food in larders, as water; as knowledge for dissemination; as growing community. Thinking about buildings like this is Permaculture thinking, because a house as just a place to sleep and watch television is a place segregated from the other functions of human life, from the meeting of a whole host of human and ecological needs.

Integration brings buildings back to life. As a side benefit it reduces food miles; reduces hours behind the steering wheel; it brings generations back together. Well-designed buildings in a well-designed landscape provide the matrix for a very different kind of society from the one we have now.

Buildings in a rapidly changing world

Finally then, it’s to the future which the society we have now is taking us that we must turn. All ambitious and perhaps utopian thinking aside, we face an urgent need for Permaculture design in our buildings, new and old, and in our settlements.

The future is pretty scary. We know that large commercial builders don’t take the future seriously,not beyond the next dividend payment anyway, and of course we are all aware that the government is in no way prepared for the likely scenarios we face by the middle of this century. It seems to me that the government is unprepared for next year, let alone 2°C of global warming. To the extent that we can, we need to take our very survival in our own hands as we design the places we live, our livelihoods, and as we think about how we might cope with living in dramatically changed times.

This is the Apocalypse slot. I apologise.

We are going to experience much more extreme weather. We need to design and build for more high winds, probably extremely high winds. Preparing for this will involve thinking about some of the things I have already mentioned: building and settlement placement; planting properly designed windbreaks. It will also demand earthworks. We will need to think about earth sheltering, possibly even taking Mike Oehler’s route and going underground; we will need to familiarise ourselves with hurricane proofing: combinations of earthworking, planting and building using traditional typhoon proofing approaches from the Pacific Islands. Does anyone know what wind speed will peel their roof off? I don’t believe the roof that I live under will be enough for the future we likely face, not without more work on its structure, on our landscaping and plantings anyway.

It’s going to be very windy. It’s also going to be very dry for long periods. We need to design for water storage in the landscape and at our buildings. I don’t have much faith that public utilities as we have known them will rise to meet the challenges of climate change. How much water do you use? How much water can you harvest from your roofs? Where will you store it?

And you know, when it’s not very very dry, it’s going to be very very wet. This is going to challenge your access designs, your hard standing areas.

There’s going to be extreme heat, there could be extreme cold as well. These phenomena demand changes in building design. Straw bale buildings cope well with the cold of course,and with the heat, but there is no room for complacency because we need places to store firewood, to store food – have you ever tried hacking leeks out of frozen ground? I have. We need outside areas which remain cool and pleasant when temperatures rise.

We shall be confronted, quite soon, with challenges to fuel and energy security, to food security, and access to water. We can either design for these problems now, or face the consequences later. It is quite possible, even on a small plot, to build in safeguards. It’s easier in settlements, through renewed ties of neighbourliness and good design. As public services fail, and I believe that they will, we must become citizens again, and see our own projects as part of a wider society. This begins, of course, on familiar ground, with energy efficiency, but also some self-reliance in fuel, growing food and fertility, using microclimates created through design of our buildings to, for example, lengthen the growing season, or to provide shade for cool climate crops; cycling fertility and water from our buildings to productive uses, for example grey water for biomass production. We should be designing with the oldest of aims in mind, to create a functioning household economy, to meet our needs as close to our hearth as possible, not monetary needs, but real needs: growing, harvesting, processing and storing.

Now I’m not here in camouflage, and I don’t have a crossbow in the boot of my car, but it’s got to be worth thinking about safety as well as material security. There is a reason that settlements across Europe which date back to times of insecurity show clear patterns of design for defence. It’s easy to sound hysterical about this kind of thing, but it might soon be time to look at steadings as a good design pattern. In any event, through the era of what David Holmgren refers to as energy descent, the generations to come will face a range of serious challenges.

If we are not to build toxic boxes, which stand empty during the day, and hold atomised and exhausted people through the night, which meet none of their material needs from their site, and which may very well be rendered uninhabitable by climate change, if not societal collapse, even before their pathetically short planned lifespan comes to an end, then we need to consider human needs, design criteria, in the round.

Undertake a thought experiment: imagine what you are building now, but in the year 2100, and how well it will have stood the passage of the next 80 years. Now that will still be a young building. Consider it in 2200. Less than 200 years old, still not very old, and yet we can hardly conceive of the problems the folks living in that building might face from day-to-day. I have a strong suspicion that they will not be going to work on hoverboards, or living in a world of which Gene Roddenberry might have dreamed.

Back to our own troubled times. We should be thinking about meeting a wide range of needs including transport and culture, about how new communities or villages might come together at need. Holmgren argues that suburbia is the sweet spot for this, a place where there are enough people but also enough space, a sort of ready made village-like environment, presently supported in dysfunctionality by cheap energy, but the place where most of us already live. We are not all going to find ourselves designing or living in eco-villages.

The necessary reinvention of society, we might almost say the rediscovery of society will affect the way we build. Presently, houses, most buildings in fact, are mostly under-occupied. Households have shrunk and we have segregated the generations. Multi-generational design of buildings and settlements could be one practical response to the challenge of a world in which society must take up where social services have fallen away. Straw bale granny annexes may be the way forward; clusters of buildings in which youngsters can raise their own families without leaving home may be another. Increased occupancy is a fine idea, but it’s going to be much easier if we design for it. Old people looking after the very young, and being looked after in their turn is one of the oldest and most successful patterns in human life, perhaps one of the keys to our species’ runaway success, but good design might help us side-step the well-recognised problems of sharing too little space with too many people.

Credit: Paul Jennings

It’s past time to start seeing homes as homes rather than as speculative steps on the property ladder. This isn’t just about the obvious social impoverishment that has followed the senseless spiralling of property prices, it’s also about the need to reconnect with place, to understand and observe our landscapes and to care for them. Designing for the long term and to cope with the probable catastrophic outcomes we will face in the decades to come, relies upon the cultural rediscovery of settlement. When we design places where people are born, play, feed themselves, make things, raise children, grow old, die and are buried under fruit trees, then we will have moved decisively towards permanent culture, ironically perhaps forced in that direction by crisis.

In conclusion

We can build buildings which look sustainable in one way or another, or which look good in brochures, but which aren’t fit for the future.

Permaculture design will save you money, but we need to face the fact that it may be even more important than that: Permaculture design could be what will one day save your life.

Designing a site and the buildings which go on it is always about a series of questions. Often those questions are aesthetic or financial, about resources. These questions remain important, but here and now, as the Anthropocene nightmare unfolds, the questions we ask become crucial not just to our happiness in our houses, but to our very survival.

The transcript was first published on

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