Designing Our Way to Sustainability

by Steve Gabriel

Good ideas don’t just happen. They take careful considering and planning to materialize and succeed in the long term. If we glance back through human history, we can see plenty of examples of good design, but unfortunately more instances of cities, agricultural systems, and managed natural areas that are poorly designed and don’t support the needs of those who live and work in them.

A good idea always starts with a vision, which is a grand fantasy that pushes the edges of possibility without concern for the limiting factors of time, money, knowledge, or community support. Visions are important to get all the ideas on the table, but are only a starting point. Employing a system for design helps us refine and construct visions in a meaningful way.

There are dozens of versions of the design process. One process that works in a variety of settings and scales, from kitchens to forests, from a small garden to a hundred acre property, is often associated with the practice of Permaculture. In Permaculture design, the overall vision is to create sites that meet the needs of humans while improving the health ecologically.

There are four main steps to this process: goals articulation, site assessment, schematics, and research/design.

Any design must have a clear definition of the goals it intends to achieve. This part of the puzzle is where the vision is refined into a reality, determining which of the possible outcomes is most important and feasible. Goals reflect most the needs and wants of the people, they articulate the values and achievements we are working toward.

Complementing the goals for a site or situation are complete assessments of the place we are designing. In landscapes, this translates into cataloging information on vegetative cover, soil types, wildlife patterns, and the flow of water over the landform. The “site” however, can be seen as any environment; one student of a recent permaculture design class in Ithaca redesigned his kitchen using this process, where the site consisted of the cooking surfaces, equipment, and movement of people and materials around the work area.

With an understanding of both the goals of a project and the characteristics of place, the real design work can begin. It is easy to jump to conclusions at this point; people get excited about ideas and can easily get fixed on one solution when another or better resolution might be a wiser choice.

For example, people often want a pond on their property, even if it isn’t appropriate to the site. It is important to consider the underlying desires in this element; is the pond for attracting wildlife, improving aesthetics, recreation, or some other purpose? Often it is a combination of function. 

In the schematic phase of design conflicts like the one above are examined and explored to find a deeper understanding. Most times a compromise can be reached, depending on the goals and willingness of the people involved to be flexible. What started as a pond may end up being a small bath for wildlife, a flower garden for aesthetics, and a tree house for recreation. The discovery of solutions to what seems like unresolvable differences between people and the site is what makes the design process so exciting.

After all this fleshing out of ideas comes the research and design phase, where numbers, dimensions, and specifics are developed and put onto a scalable map. This becomes the blueprint for actually implementing the process, and can be the most time consuming because of all the detail work.

If this process seems logical and straightforward, it’s because it is. We are all designers, we just need to practice and refine our skills. Whether or not we realize it, we are constantly designing our lives. Having a logical process to walk ourselves through can help ensure that we have considered all the pieces and will offer a home, garden, forest, or workplace that will succeed for generations to come.

Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2020, 11:58 AM