Natural Building: From Pattern to Detail.

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    Ashley McDonell is lead facilitator in charge of Natural Building on our upcoming course Foundations of Regenerative Design in Tzununa, Lake Atitlan, Guatemala 2020

    The spider weaves its web starting with the outline, the initial pattern that will be carried throughout the entire structure of its creation. It begins at the furthest out point from the center and works its way slowly in. Like the spider when we design natural buildings we work from the largest patterns into the minutiae of the details. To evoke the image of the spider is to remind ourselves that before we can design a space we have to know the guiding patterns that play out the landscape it will exist within.

    The permaculture principle of designing from patterns to details offers us a first step in making informed choices about the specifics of a building. As designers we look at our site first from a birds eye view. We zoom out as far as we can so that as we begin to zoom in we base our choices on the natural patterns that govern the context we are working within. This allows for the design of the structure to be emergent from the ecosystem itself which in turn maximizes its efficiency and efficacy.

    In the case of natural building starting with the outline means to initiate the design process from the largest patterns that are playing out on your site.

    Figure 1.png

    What are those larger patterns and how do we begin to trace them? One possible starting point is to begin with the yearly cycles, taking a look at how the seasons move on the land. My process starts with a time wheel similar to figure 1, then in concentric circles around this core I write information about average temperatures, hardiness zone, rain patterns, sun angles/hours of sunlight, wind patterns, frost depth and more as they relate to each time of year. Around this, in the next ring, I include information on the geology of the area, natural resources on site, clay content of soil, significant 20/50/100 year weather events, local natural disaster information. After documenting as many patterns I can I begin to move into what I call the project details. There are the bits of information that are not yet design oriented but will act as limitations and resources which become parameters of our design. Some of the project specifics I document are the human resources are available to me (are there physical limitations that the builder/clients have), how many paid/unpaid folks will be working on the structure, budget, how long the building season is, possible risk factors, permitted/ non-permitted along with whatever other project specific details emerge. You can continue this process of working into the details using each prior ring to inform the choices you make in the next.

    The amount of information we can place in a diagram like this is endless, we are able to go as deeply or as superficially as we like. However, the more we understand about our site the more wisely we can make choices that align with its patterns. Using wheels like this is one of many possible starting places for the exploration of site patterns. I encourage each individual to find the way documenting that most fits with their learning style and aesthetic preferences. For we all know tools are only functional if they appeal to the user. For those who enjoy maps this process can be done on a site map using typical zones and sector mapping methods with overlay sheets to indicate seasonal variations in the landscape. These techniques are just one simple way of educating ourselves on the patterns present, it is by no means the only way we should inform ourselves before starting to build. It is just one step in the site specific design process, of moving from the patterns to making informed choices about your structure.

    When we take the time to do this we engage in the wisdom of the spider and like it we create a web, in our case a web of information that will support us during the design phase of the project. If you feel so called I encourage you to explore this process in your next building endeavor, noticing how the wisdom of the natural patterns inform your choices and how much more well suited to your site your emergent design is!


    Ashley McDonell is a longtime friend of ours and a super talented natural builder. We’re psyched to be collaborating with her in 2020 on our new course, Foundations of Regenerative Design. Ashley will be lead facilitator in charge of Natural Building. 

    Sarah Wu

    Sarah is a clinical herbalist of 20 years, studying and practicing planetary eclectic, regenerative herbalism with a foundation in Wise Woman Reclaiming philosophies. Influenced by global traditions, Sarah focuses on local food-based healing and ethnobotanical traditions. She leads trainings and workshops in herbal medicine, Permaculture Design Courses, Therapeutic Deep Ecology, Social Permaculture, field-to-the-plate holistic nutrition, herbal first aid and Tarot. She is a passionate mentor and educator, who believes in the teacher’s role in unlocking the innate wisdom of the student. Sarah is the co-founder of the Village Witches project, and is a Co-Founder and Co-producer of Envision Festival.

    Laura Palmieri

    Laura ‘Lala’ Palmieri is a clinical herbalist, a biologist, plant and fungi lover and grower. She offers health consultations to balance body, mind and soul working with medicinal herbs and mushrooms. Her approach to health integrates the knowledge of many ancient traditions and teachers, fusing spirituality with nature, and science with alchemy through the transformation of the elements.

    Lala has spent her years in dialogue with Nature, which has fueled her passion to integrate scientific knowledge and the connection with all beings to help humanity. She integrates her practice with cooking, gardening, and exploring ecosystems. She teaches and facilitates herbal clinics and programs in permaculture, herbalism, botany, fermentation, and medicinal mushroom cultivation, with a regenerative earth care approach and techniques that are accessible to most. She and Sarah co-created the Envision and Cosmic Converge Herbal First Aid Clinics, other relief Clinics in Guatemala for the volcano eruption. You will find Lala crafting remedies for her diverse communities in Guatemala and Costa Rica, where she is actively creating a world with integrated healthcare.

    Holly Mech

    Holly fell in love with yoga because of the sense of connection she felt every time she came to her mat. She began teaching yoga in Chicago in 2011. Her desire to deepen her teaching and personal practice led her to continue her yoga education in California, Bali, Australia and Guatemala. Holly now travels around the world teaching yoga and facilitating yoga teacher trainings. She enjoys helping new teachers sequence yoga classes and incorporate philosophy into their teachings. Her classes are creative and dynamic with an emphasis on making yoga accessible to everyone.

    Holly studied English at the University of Illinois at Chicago and frequently draws inspiration for her classes from literature and poetry. When she’s not on the yoga mat she enjoys exploring nature, singing, dancing and working with textiles.

    Ashley McDonnell

    Ashley’s work focuses on resurrecting our relationship to the natural world through the development of earth based skills that deepen our connection to place while increasing our sense of sovereignty and resilience. Devoted to the arts of permaculture, natural building, herbalism and birth work as her mediums, Ashley explores with humility the diverse modalities that support us in living in right relationship with the world around us. She views permaculture as a practice that not only creates healthy ecological communities but one that helps to reweave the very fabric of who we are as people. Her work is an offering to the future.

    Zach Loeks

    Hailing from Ottawa, Canada where he and his partner run the 50-acre Kula Permaculture Farm, Zach brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the course. He works as an educator, designer, consultant and farmer, with an emphasis on integrating diversity, conserving soil and maximizing farm ecosystem services while maintaining high productivity.

    Last year Zach published The Permaculture Market Garden, which explores ways that permaculture can be scaled up be a profitable whole-systems enterprise. Zach is a leading figure in permaculture, who brings a new and exciting vision of how it can be integrated into the wider community and marketplace.

    Rony Lec

    Rony is one of the world’s leading experts in permaculture and Mayan ancestral knowledge. Rony has spent the last 20 years teaching and implementing permaculture throughout Central, South and North America focusing on promoting food sovereignty and preserving biodiversity for the survival of Indigenous communities.

    Through his extensive work with Indigenous communities on traditional ecological knowledge, seed saving, native plants, local/global food movements, livelihood security, and the interaction between communities and the environment, he has made a key contribution to the empowerment of Indigenous people around the world. Rony is a co-founder of IMAP.

    Neal Hegarty

    Neal is originally from Ireland. He grew up on a dairy farm and has been around animals all his life. He studied agriculture in Ireland and has worked as a permaculturist for the past 10 years. Neal was the Volunteer Manager at Atitlan Organics for 2 years before co-founding his own Permaculture-based enterprise, Abundant Edge Farm, in Tzununa. He brings a wealth of experience, enthusiasm, and energy into each Intro to Permaculture Course and Permaculture Design Certification Course and we’re happy to continue to collaborate with him!

    Shad Qudsi

    Shad Qudsi has over 13 years experience in organic and commercial gardening and farming. He is certified in Permaculture Design and has over 3 years experience in permaculture design consulting. After graduating from Johns Hopkins University with a double major in Applied Math and Psychology, Shad and his wife, Colleen, moved to Central America with only vague goals of farming at some point in the near future. In January of 2010, Shad and his wife bought and moved onto a very small farm located in the traditional Mayan village of Tzununa, which on the north shore of Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala. The farm developed into Atitlan Organics and now mainly focuses on greens and chickens, a large edible and useful plant nursery, a food forest, and training and education.  Shad is an enthusiastic teacher who truly believes in the work he is doing. Human resiliency cannot be erased from the landscape and now, it is coming back with a loving grace.