Act: Inspiration

Bringing it All Together in Just. One. Diagram. (Part Four – the Nine Spaces)

February 4, 2019

Ed. note: You can read Part 1 of this series on here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

The below diagram summarises coming up to three years of publicly poking around into how permaculture design is usually defined, discussed, and practiced.

I am aware you might find it a little abstract or confusing at first. But before you head back out to the garden to harvest those spuds, I would ask you a question.

Do you really care about permaculture?

If your answer is yes, I implore you to give this diagram a chance.

Call me crazy, but I believe it has exciting implications for the future of permaculture. Indeed, I sincerely believe that the ideas it is (imperfectly) attempting to convey have significant implications for the question of whether permaculture has a future.

Okay. In the hope these grandiose phrasings have secured your attention for a few more paragraphs, let us proceed.

I have already reviewed the y axis. The y axis contrasts three ways whole-part relations can be understood within creating (or designing and implementing) processes. I call these assemblingpartitioning, and transforming.

I have also reviewed the x axis. The x axis contrasts three ways designing (or thinking) can be related to implementing (or doing) inside creating processes. I call these fabricatinghybrid, and generating.

After a quick overview, I’ll now take a look at how the two axes comes together to define nine possible spaces any design process can sit within (and move amongst).

Overview and the Nine Spaces

Whenever you design and create anything, you deploy one or another conceptual framework. One or another way of framing and making sense of both what you start with, how to go about developing or changing it, where you are heading, and why you are even bothering. No matter if you’re aware of your conceptual framework. It is there.1

Though rudimentary, preliminary, incomplete, and partial, the diagram we’re here exploring contains nine possible ways of framing and going about designing and developing anything. These are like nine highly simplified conceptual frameworks or ways of framing key aspects of any creation (design and implementation) process. Let’s take each in turn, sharing a few examples to clarify the gist of each.

Three Different Kinds of Assembly

We’ll start with the bottom row, which present three different kinds of what I call assembly. Assembly is when you start with predefined separate parts and construe your job as putting them together to form a whole.

Fabricated Assembly (A1)

This would be like assembling a lego set from the plans in the box. You start with a bunch of parts to assemble, and your assembly is dictated by the pre-fabricated master plan that arrived with the box of parts. Hence the name, fabricated assembly.

Fabricated assembly is the default way that modern building developments are designed as well as engineered structures like bridges.

In a permaculture setting, fabricating assembly would be assembling the items on the client’s wish list (chicken house, pond, apple tree, compost bays etc) into a detailed master plan before implanting that plan (which is exactly what beginners are so often taught in permaculture design courses and introductory permaculture books).

As I have previously shown, the standard approach recommended in permaculture books and on permaculture courses is fabricated assembly:

…or, as a permaculture stall at a local event I attended put it:

Here is a detailed design I completed primarily using fabricated assembly: 

Hybrid Assembly (A2)

This would be like having your kid approach you with a rough hand-drawing of a planned construction which you then attempt to build, figuring out the details based on what pieces are available and the kids preferences as the thing takes shape (whether with lego or otherwise). I can’t help but include this cheesy photo which you can imagine having started with a rough (concept-level) drawing assembling a mountain, some trees, castle ruins, etc.

In a permaculture setting, this would be assembling a concept-level design diagram on paper before starting to implement the assembly on the ground, where the details would be figured out as you go along.

Here is the first example I found on the web when I googled “permaculture concept design” (thanks for sharing Deb!). While I cannot be sure, and while in places it dips into more detail than a strictly concept-level plan, it seems to me that this design is a fairly good example of what I mean by assembly or element assembly at the concept level.2

Generative Assembly (A3)

This would be like having no diagram or design at all, but simply some kind of general intention about what you’d like to make, then looking through the pile, picking up a piece of lego, then starting to build something where both the general outline of the thing and the details emerge as you go along (which might include what the thing actually even ends up being, exactly).

In a permaculture setting, this would be like getting to work on a site where you just start moving elements around, finding a connection that aligns with your general intention, then adding another element to connect in with the first two, and so on. The resulting assemblage emerges or is generating from within the creating process. This is not to say it is a haphazard or random process.

As I understand it, generative assembly (sometimes in combination with hybrid assembly) is the approach used in agile software development, where lines of code are assembled and the software product emerges from the building rather than being planned out as a whole up front.

Three Different Kinds of Partitioning

Now let’s move up to the middle row, which present three different types of what I call partitioning. Partitioning is when you start with a whole then successively partition it up into smaller and smaller parts. The word partition literally means “to divide into parts.” In this way it is the opposite to assembly, where you start with parts and end up with a whole.

Fabricating Partitioning (B1)

Here we have to move on from lego. Lego is inherently about assembly. You can’t really partition lego, apart from breaking some construction apart into the pre-defined blocks it was made from. So let us move across to origami, where you start with a whole piece of paper, then partition it (i.e., divide it into parts) by folding. Fabricating partitioning in an origami context would be like completing then following a detailed plan like this:

Or imagine fabricating partitioning as it might apply to working with the medium of play doh. You might starting with a certain sized-blob of play doh and a detailed set of instructions or plans that you follow exactly, and that say things like “first divide the blob into two equal sized bits. Now make one half into a sphere and the other into a cube. Now take the sphere and indent a line around it dividing it into two hemispheres. Now push a 1cm hole in one side of the cube using a sharp pencil” etc. Your job is to partition up the play doh according to a pre-fabricated master plan.

In a permaculture setting, fabricating partitioning would be like starting with a drawing of a whole property, then drawing a line to partition it into two sub-wholes. So for instance you might start by drawing a line to partition zone five from the other zones, or the private homestead area from the public visiting area, or some such. You then zoom into one of the freshly created areas and further partition that, and so on. What makes it fabricating is that you partition your way to a detailed design on paper before you start implementing.

In the following example completed by my colleague Adam Grubb you see how the whole site was initially partitioned into a concept-level design before then being further partitioned into details. This is what fabricated partitioning looks and feels like.

Hybrid Partitioning (B2)

This would be like having your kid approach you with a blob of play doh and a rough hand-drawing of where they’d like to take it (maybe it is a rough drawing of an elephant, for example). Using the diagram as a guide, you start moulding the material, where the details of the elephant-like shape emerge as you go along.

In permaculture setting, this would be like completing some rough, high-level partitioning of a site on paper then letting the details emerge as you implement. I have documented a couple of clear examples of hybrid partitioning permaculture design processes here and here.

Generative Partitioning (B3)

This would be like having no diagram or design at all, but simply some kind of general intention about what you’d like to make, then looking at your piece of paper or blob of play doh, making some change to it, looking at it again, making another change, and so on (the process would likely involve testing out then undoing certain changes too). Here both the general outline of the thing and the details emerge as you go along (which might include what the thing actually even ends up being, exactly).

Three Different Kinds of Transformation

Now let’s move up to the top row, which present three different types of what I call transformation.  Transformation is when you start with a whole that already has parts then iteratively modify and evolve it using many different types of actions including assembly and partitioning. In other words, transformation transcends and includes both assembly and partitioning.

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Fabricated Transformation (C1)

This would be like starting with some material, such as a piece of wood. You look at the branch and you then draw up a detailed master plan of some object you’d like to make the branch into. A fishing rod, or a bow and arrow, or a flute, or whatever. You then start transforming the material (cutting bits off, adding bits on, changing the shape etc) constantly checking it against the plan and makes changes to make it closer to the plan as drawn. Below is a detailed design for a slingshot, for example:

In a permaculture setting this would be like starting with a site, drawing up a detailed master plan, then setting about gradually transforming the place toward the master plan, where sometimes you’d partition what exists, sometimes you’d add new things, sometimes you’d delete existing things, and so on. As you may have already realised, this is what actually happens in practice when we try to implement any detailed permaculture design.

Hybrid Transformation (C2)

This would be like above with the piece of wood but rather than drawing up a detailed master plan you stop at the concept design level. Then as you transform the wood’s shape and size you both steer what you’re creating toward the concept design and let the details emerge as you go along. Let’s say you started with a rough sketch of a hedge hog then made a start where these details emerged as you went along:

In a permaculture setting this would be like getting a concept design together then starting to actively transform the space, where the details come out in the wash. I have documented a clear example of hybrid transformation here. Below is a concept sketch followed by a photo of the details as they emerged in the process of implementing the concept design:

Generative Transformation (C3)

Coming back to our piece of wood, let us say you set out to make something, and rather than figuring out what this something is up front, you just start modifying it. You cut this bit off. You whittle this bit down. And so on. A beautiful little something emerges. This bowl, for instance, could surely only have emerged from a process of generative transformation, where at every step of the process the next step was decided on then and there, based on what was right in the moment, and where any pre-existing plans either never existed or were thrown away.

As I write this I vividly recall a very similar (if much rougher and amateur) example I once experienced. I was helping a friend cut down some large silver wattle (Acacia dealbata) trees next to his creek in NZ. One of the larger trees felled, I was about to start lopping the log up into rounds of firewood. It then occurred to me it would be fun to craft, with the chainsaw, some sort of useful object – possibly a piece of outdoor furniture. I cut off a large length. I looked at it. The idea of a little seat arose. I cut out a seat shape. The result rolled back and forward too much to make a seat, so I fashioned some supports out of the offset from the seat bit, and used them to support the seat. I then noticed the lack of back support, so I used the final bits of left over wood to notch in and add two little backrests. The outcome was rough but beautiful and both utterly un-expected and perfect. My friend later said that as I was crafting the thing I had a huge smile and looked like a kid at play. Here I was not merely assembling. I was not merely partitioning. I was doing both and more. Nor was there any plan, conceptual or details. There was only my intention to have fun working the material and see what happened.

In a permaculture setting, generative transformation was at play when David Holmgren decided to start building a shed on top of the spot where materials had found themselves being stored (as opposed to his and Su Dennet’s house the design of which David fabricated off site).

I have shared one clear example of generative transformation in a permaculture setting here. The below photo conveys something of the forms that were generated without any prior whole-site concept plan or detailed design in hand.


Hopefully this post has shared how the focal diagram actually does correspond to different ways it is possible to go about creating (or designing and implementing) anything. In this next post, I’ll share some ways that the diagram can be used to diagnose the centre of gravity and trajectory of an individual designer, of an individual project, and of permaculture (or any culture, for that matter) as a whole.

Hope to catch some of you then, and if you have any inclination please do make a comment below.


  1. Daniel Christian Wahl has put this well in his book Designing Regenerative Cultures:“All design is either consciously or unconsciously an expression of our theories about the world — our culturally dominant worldview. The shift from our current industrial growth society to a life-sustaining society of diverse regenerative cultures is fundamentally a shift in metadesign from the ‘narrative of separation’ to the ‘narrative of interbeing’. Our worldview shapes our designs and our designs reinforce the worldview they were created in. That is one of the reasons why we cannot solve today’s problems within the worldview that created these problems in the first place. Past design solutions in the form of the products, services and systems around us influence and reinforce culturally dominant perspectives, processes, structures and behaviours, mostly without questioning them. We are faced with an urgent need for systemic transformation in so many aspects of our lives. Whether you live in London, New York or a ‘slum’ settlement on the outskirts of one of the world’s rapidly growing mega-cities, people are calling for practical action and react with impatience if they perceive an approach to be ‘too theoretical’ rather than immediately practical and able to make a difference in the short term. I have experienced this bias against ‘theory’ and toward ‘practical action’ in my work with local, regional and national government officials, in consultancy work with individual businesses or business clusters of different industries, and in work with grassroots initiatives like ecovillage or transition town projects, even in many educational initiatives. In my opinion, the separation of theory and practice is another false dualism that we have to learn to overcome. By classifying initiatives as either theoretical or practical we are not paying attention to the fact that our view of the world is already deeply informed by theories about the world. In saying “we don’t have time to waste with theoretical considerations, let’s get practical and start implementing solutions”, what we are actually implying is that there is no need to question our perspective and explore alternative perspectives. We are jumping straight into action, offering answers to the questions and solutions to the problems at hand, without stepping back to make sure we are asking the right questions. We fail to explore whether the solutions we are aiming for are yet again solving one issue whilst causing harm and ugliness elsewhere.Every practical act is deeply informed by a whole set of theories and perspectives. So the question is not whether we are practical or theoretical, but rather whether we are implementing practice in full awareness of the theoretical frameworks — the worldview and value systems — that inform our practice. Taking a design-based approach can help us to make our practice more theoretical and our theory more practical.”
  2. including the permaculture design course classic elements of a herb spiral, banana circle, and mandala garden!

Dan Palmer

Dan Palmer has been studying and practicing permaculture for a little over ten years. Along the way he helped start the now global permablitz movement, a well-respected permaculture design, implementation and education company, and several overseas permaculture projects in India and Africa. He has taught or co-taught perhaps a dozen permaculture design certificate courses, read and written a lot about permaculture, and learned from many senior designers and teachers within permaculture and in related fields. In the last year he has started running what he calls Advanced Permaculture Design courses, in which he gets to work with folks that already have some training and experience in permaculture (and want to take it to the next level). He also continues to design, with several hundred professional design projects behind him.

Tags: permaculture, permaculture design, regenerative systems