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Integrated Design

Photo by rama_miguel on Flickr. (CC BY-SA)

Could it be useful sometimes to replace the name permaculture with something else, because some people have wrong associations with the word? I’ve heard people discussing this, but they didn’t come up with any alternative. Here I have a suggestion: “integrated design”.

In a way, permaculture principle eight – integrate rather than segregate – has become like my most precious jewel among the design principles. And in fact I think the value of this principle is inestimable. To integrate rather than segregate is the core of life, without which life cannot exist, and life has no meaning.

Luckily, permaculture is all about how to integrate.

I believe permaculture principle eight is in fact the answer to the seventh principle of deep ecology:
The ideological change is mainly that of appreciating life quality (dwelling in situations of inherent worth) rather than adhering to an increasingly higher standard of living. There will be a profound awareness of the difference between big and great. –
Unfortunately our modern societies are based upon the antithesis of permaculture principle eight, which is to segregate rather than integrate. Work life segregated from family life (through zoning laws). Children segregated from the old in nurseries and old people’s homes. Dwellings segregated from one another in rows, like plantations of houses, a foundation for social atomism. Schools and education segregated from nature and working life (the opposite is a tribe school, like practiced in Findhorn Ecovillage of Scotland). Leisure segregated from work (meaningful, like gardening) and holidays away from home, ownership and manufacturing segregated from community, food consumption segregated from food production. I could go on and on forever.

This is why the heart in life has left our modern lives, and our hearts have become cold and empty. And if you still have a little dignity left you ask yourself: Why am I here on Earth, what is the meaning of life? Still, the answer is simple – it is to live an integrated life. This is a possibility stolen and crushed by experts and people in power (but not of power), but it is a possibility found in the hands of permaculture, to be given back to you for free. I hope you’ll grasp this possibility, leaving “the comfort zone” and entering “the life zone” of permaculture.

If you act according to the Way (Tao),
You become one with the Way.
If you act according to the Virtue (Te)
You will become one with Virtue.
If you lose either the Way or the Virtue,
You will lose both. – Lao Tzu
The Wikipedia Definition
In Wikipedia “integrated design” is defined as a collaborative method for designing buildings which emphasises the development of a holistic design. According to Christopher Alexander the architectshould play a profound role in this process:
The obsolete 20th-century architect, making drawings, but otherwise standing outside the procurement process, might be compared to an (imaginary) designer of the moon-landing project in 1969 who might have said: “I am a designer. My job is to decide where on the moon we are going to land. How we get there is someone else’s problem, not very important.” The architect’s too-exclusive focus on the drawing as the architectural process is hardly less myopic. Such a definition confines the architect so narrowly, as to make the architectural effort almost marginal. It all but ignores the architect’s love for buildings, and the necessity of involvement with craft, making, manufacturing, engineering, people, money, and public discussion.
 Yet architects did, in the late 20th century, steadfastly refuse to consider the procurement process at all, let alone to consider it as a single whole. They were rarely willing to consider procurement as an important theoretical and practical problem. And only very few were willing to get their hands dirty enough to get themselves involved in it. – The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 552
Imagine if we replaced the word architect here with a permaculture designer. We too need to involve the whole procurement process in our design, to make it whole. But of course, this is natural to us, just never forget it.

But Wikipedia’s definition is far too narrow, because in addition to houses an integrated design also includes community, a neighborhood, landscapes and gardens – in fact all aspects oflife.

Deep Ecology
In a way the deep ecology movement has the same goal as permaculture:
In 1972, Naess made a presentation in Bucharest at the Third World Future Research Conference. In his talk, he discussed the longer-range background of the ecology movement and its concern with an ethic respecting nature and the inherent worth of other beings. As a mountaineer who had climbed all over the world, Naess had enjoyed the opportunity to observe political and social activism in diverse cultures. Both historically and in the contemporary movement, Naess saw two different forms of environmentalism, not necessarily incompatible with each other. One he called the “long-range deep ecology movement” and the other, the “shallow ecology movement.” The word “deep” in part referred to the level of questioning of our purposes and values when arguing in environmental conflicts. The “deep” movement involves deep questioning, right down to fundamental root causes. The short-term, shallow approach stops before the ultimate level of fundamental change, often promoting technological fixes (e.g. recycling, increased automotive efficiency, export-driven monocultural organic agriculture) based on the same consumption-oriented values and methods of the industrial economy. The long-range deep approach involves redesigning our whole systems based on values and methods that truly preserve the ecological and cultural diversity of natural systems. –
According to this definition permaculture surely is a part of the deep ecology movement. But permaculture is more, because it has what deep ecology lacks, the tools needed for redesigning our whole systems. Where deep ecology provides you with the basic ethics, permaculture also provides you with design principles and the design systems needed to make this change happen. You might say; permaculture is like a holistic flower.

Still, I feel something is lacking in the permaculture movement as well; the attention to form and beauty. The beauty of the permaculture flower! Or even better than beauty; The Phenomenon of Life.

Every structure has life to the degree it is part of a whole, and to the degree that it’s bound together by the fifteen properties of life. We should be careful to make every permaculture design whole, even in matters of beauty or form. Not just practical and sustainable, but beautiful as well.

Yes, it’s true; some are familiar with the fourteen archetypal pattern elements of gardening:
  • Scale, which relates the garden to the environment;
  • Garden rooms, which divide and connect the garden;
  • Pathways, which define what we see in the garden;
  • Bridges, which differentiate garden spaces and create compelling focal points;
  • Gates, which are the portal to the garden;
  • Shelters, which anchor the garden in space;
  • Borders, which separate and make distinct garden sections;
  • Patios, which tie the house to the landscape;
  • Sheds, which add texture;
  • Focal points, which create destinations in the garden;
  • Water, which fully engages the senses;
  • Ornamentation, which creates mood;
  • Containers, which allow artistic flexibility; and,
  • Materials, which add bulk, solidity, and softness to the garden.

These elements are certainly important in the creation of wholeness in a garden, but wholeness is even deeper, and is the vital part of everything which has meaning, everything which has deep feeling. In Taoism wholeness and feeling are one and the same. Alexander likewise sees the universe as a coherent whole, encompassing feelings as well as inanimate matter.

I’ve also been told that the Edible Forest Gardens book, provides a pattern language for forest gardens.

Let us say, then, that extension, enhancement, and deepening of the whole are the crux and target of all living process. Living process has to do with the creation of wholes. Artistically, the essence of the builder’s art is always to create a whole. When a building succeeds, it is because we perceive it, feel it, to be a magnificent whole, whole through and through, one thing.
It is not common to find this today. We may even say that the ugliness we see all around us, comes largely from the fact that builders – architects, contractors, developers – no longer know, or only rarely achieve, the making of a building which is truly one with its surroundings.

Thus, whatever a living process has to say about architecture, whatever it can teach us, and whatever it can give us, above all it must give us this: the ability to make a living whole.

This is problematic, of course. It is an enigmatic subject. We cannot make something whole, for example, unless we make it united with its surroundings. So, to be whole, it has to be “lost,” that is, not separate from its surroundings, part and parcel of them. And the pieces within a living whole, they must also have this special quality. So, the thing which is to be whole, and extends out into the world around it, must also contain wholes within it, and these smaller wholes must be part of the larger whole in feeling. So each is to be distinct, to be an entity. Yet it is to be invisible in order to be lost and not separate from the larger whole. Making a building whole is an immensely complicated task. But, in any case, making the whole is the essence, the beginning and the end of our work as artists. And (according to chapter eight) this is to be done going step by step.
Let us then start articulating the way that a living process can help us to create a whole. It is possibly helpful to remind ourselves that although this may tax our creative powers, nature manages it more easily. When a crashing wave breaks, it is whole. When a mountain rises up from the landscape over the eons, it becomes a whole. All this is achieved, apparently, by structure-preserving transformations. So if we hope to live like nature (and we can hardly aspire to anything stronger) we should, in principle, be able to extract the whole in what we make, derive the whole – the shape and substance of our work – always going step by step, and concentrating, at every stage, on the emergence of a new, living, breathing, feeling, whole. – The Process of Creating Life, by Christopher Alexander, page 251-255.
In short, every design has to be part of, or integrated into, a whole. Only this way can we create wholeness. Without wholeness we cannot be whole as human beings, and our lives cannot be wholesome.

The Fifteen Properties of Life 
The Fifteen Properties Are the Glue which Binds Wholeness Together. – Christopher Alexander
  • Levels of Scale
  • Strong Centers
  • Thick Boundaries
  • Alternating Repetition
  • Positive Space
  • Good Shape
  • Local Symmetries
  • Deep Interlock and Ambiguity
  • Contrast
  • Gradients
  • Roughness
  • Echoes
  • The Void
  • Simplicity and Inner Calm
  • Not Separateness

These 15 properties are thoroughly described in the book The Phenomenon of Life, which was the first book I read from Christopher Alexander. It changed my view of the world, and especially gave me a new look at nature. When I went skiing on cold winter days it was like I saw a revelation everywhere. For our design to reflect nature, these properties have to be integrated into our design and design systems, so they can come alive.

The understanding of these properties is partly derived from the study of ancient Turkish carpets, which are Alexander’s big passion. Isn’t it wonderful that the wholeness of the universe is to be found in an ancient oriental carpet!

I simply urge you to read The Phenomenon of Life, the first book in The Nature of Order series. It’s the smallest of these four books, and also the one easiest to absorb. By understanding these properties, becoming aware of them, our design and design systems can be part of nature in a much deeper and profound way.

For a neighborhood to be pleasant it has to be unfolded, or generated, like in the creation of a flower, or a natural forest, or a flower meadow, or a tree. An integrated design cannot be fabricated; it can only be generated, going step by step, and at every step integrating the design into the forces or structures of the design itself and in its surroundings. This is a wisdom based on genuine feeling for the whole:
  • As far as possible, try to become aware, intuitively, of the deep structure on your site.
  • Act in sympathy for your own instinct about the deep structure that you can sense is there.
  • Do not play with words when it comes to judging this. Be true to the feelings you carry inside of you, and do your best to protect the earth.
  • Try your best to make a new thing which, as far as possible, reflects, respects, and honors what is there already. –

Unfortunately there are many practices that are harmful to an unfolding process, which cannot make unfolding happen, life destroying processes that have become common to us, like a bad habit difficult to get rid of. The Center for Environmental Structure has given some examples.

The following examples are all harmful:
  • Conventionally: Roads are built before the buildings they serve.
  • Conventionally: In a tract development, street sewers are laid long before the houses are built.
  • Conventionally: Houses are placed, and the garden – whatever is left on the lot – comes second.
  • Conventionally: Windows are designed and positioned at the time the building’s plans are submitted for plan check.
  • Conventionally: Drawings are completed before any construction work is done.
  • Conventionally: Neighborhood plans are completed, before any construction work is done.
  • Conventionally: Public spaces are designed after individual buildings.
  • Conventionally: Changes are done by change orders, and therefore become very expensive.

These practices do not support the creation of living neighborhoods!

We too, as permaculture designers (even I’m still not one), should be observant and see if we haven’t ourselves also become used to bad habits. If we find bad habits, harmful to the creation of life, we better write them down and share them with the world. These habits are artificial, just like GMO, and should therefore be wiped out from our design systems!
IF ONE THING, MORE THAN ANY OTHER, distinguishes a real neighborhood from the corporate machine-architecture of the 20th-century developer, it is the fact that real people have — together — conceived it, planned it, and built it. It is this human reality which makes it worth living in, pleasant to be there, and valuable. –
Without real neighborhoods we cannot be real people, or more correct, to be people for real. We miss the chance to experience the joy of life in its deepest context. Here we see the difference between our modern towns and the towns of ancient times:
In early times the city itself was intended as an image of the universe – its form guarantee of the connection between the heavens and the earth, a picture of a whole and coherent way of life.

A living pattern language is even more. It shows each person his connection to the world in terms so powerful that he can re-affirm it daily by using it to create new life in all the places round about him.
And in this sense, finally, as we shall see, the living language is a gate. Once we have built the gate, we can pass through it to practice the timeless way. – The Timeless Way of Building, by Christopher Alexander, page 348 – 349.
One of the worst things ever done to humanity was to segregate the creation of our neighborhoods from its people. To establish a neighborhood before you establish the community is like destroying the new neighborhood, because it leaves the creation of the place to people not knowing the passion and the love of its inhabitants. In fact, these bureaucrats, speculators and entrepreneurs who today have occupied the role of the people, mostly look at this process just as a technical matter only, ribbed of feeling.

In a world so thoroughly poisoned with modernistic thinking as in today’s world, we turn everything on its head and break apart every meaningful connection. Today we simply miss a picture of a whole and coherent way of life, and therefore we are surrounded by ugliness and lack of meaning worldwide.

This is why we, in every permaculture design, should integrate the people in the creation of our designs. In every ecovillage, in every transition town, always keep this in mind: Establish or integrate the community before you create or transition a neighborhood, before implementing any new design!

An Integrated World
A world in which we value ourselves according to the beauty of the places we have carved out, and modified, and taken care of, and in which we have woven our lives together with that of other people, animals, and plants. – Christopher Alexander
When it comes to patterning or weaving our lives together with the lives of other people, animals, and plants, the permaculture designer is the (holistic) expert. Integrate rather than segregate, this is what life is all about. This means to design systems which set humans and the natural world in harmony with each other:

Observe current systems of both human and non-human invention
Learn from their success and failures
Design systems that put humans and the natural world in harmony
Apply designs to current and new human infrastructure
Integrated Design

We are design, and design defines who we are. There is only one way to save our civilization, and this way goes through design. Not just any kind of design, but integrated design, which means permaculture design. Let’s design our way to Paradise, on earth!

Further reading:

This article is published at The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia on October 6, 2010.


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