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.
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.