For many people, applying the principles of permaculture to their property involves redesigning the land to include productive vegetative ecosystems, and modifying the house to improve energy efficiency and minimize water waste. However, for those who by a piece of land with the intention of building a new property on it, permaculture ideas, techniques and analysis can be used from the ground up, as it were. They are important for deciding where and in what position the property will be sited – for cohesion with the surrounding environment and for functioning as efficiently as possible whatever the local climate conditions, and making life for those inhabiting the property as pleasant as possible.
One of the first things to analyze when assessing where to site a new property is the native vegetation that is currently on the plot. As permaculturists, we always look for ways to work with what nature has provided, and native plants already on site can influence where you put your new property. For instance, they can help to modify temperatures in the property, with trees providing shade or acting as a windbreak to divert temperature-lowering breezes. Vegetation can also help to prevent moisture runoff affecting the property, or provide screening of neighboring land. On a new property, you will likely replace some vegetation – perhaps invasive species that have established themselves, or converting grassland to vegetable beds, or replacing cover crops with cropping species. However, don’t take out any vegetation until you are ready to replace it, as soil does not like to be left bare.
The climate conditions of your land will play an important role in determining the location of your house. If you are in a cool climate, site the property so that it gets exposure to the sun (you may want to incorporate large windows and skylights into the design of the property to aid heat absorption). If you are in a tropical climate, look at ways existing structures or vegetation can offer the house shade, or consider positions where the house will be acted upon by cooling breezes.
Always check with the local authorities what restrictions they have on the constructions of dwellings on your site. There may be limits imposed according to the natural heritage of the site, by the provision of municipal services such as electricity supply and sewage disposal, or by the size or height of the property in relation to neighboring land use.
One of the things that a local authority can demand of a property owner is that they construct a suitable access road. This is typically a safety issue that would allow emergency vehicles to get to the property if necessary. However, you may need to build access roads regardless of local ordnances. Where you site the property may mean that you need to build a bridge over a river (you may think buying a four-wheel drive vehicle to traverse the river would be a better option, but bear in mind fluctuations in the level of the river, particularly in winter with snow melt. If you do need to construct access roads, try to build them along the natural contours of the land. Not only will this mean less energy to actually create the road, or to maintain them, the roads can act as forms of swale, slowing water down as it runs off the land.
If your land has slopes and hills within its boundaries, these can be used to help site your home. For instance, siting the property behind a hill can protect it from strong winds, as well as help with the capture of surface water – in swales, for example – that can then be used to irrigate cultivated areas closer to the house. Slopes that face north or south can be susceptible to cold winds, while western facing slopes often have the hottest temperatures. As a general rule, you don’t want to site a property on a slope of more than 15 degrees, as this makes controlling the water and soil around it harder.
Before commencing construction, research and analyze rainfall patterns on your site, and how the water that reaches the land moves and collects. This can influence where you site your property in terms of the quality of the ground and how much you need to harvest and store water. If, for instance, you are in a location that experiences three months of heavy rain but nine months of drought, you would look to design your land use to store water from the wetter months for use when moisture is scarcer. This may mean you change the original position of the house so water harvesting is made more effective.
The ability of the land to hold water is directly influenced by the qualities of its soil. Very sandy soil will see water drain more quickly, and so may require larger water bodies to be constructed to hold enough water for all irrigation and water use purposes. This can have a knock-on effect on where you site your house. In contrast, areas of soil with high clay content should be avoided for property construction as they can shrink and swell considerably in response to moisture or the lack or it. This may undermine house construction. While in zone 1 permaculture gardens you can use organic matter and other techniques to improve soil quality, over large areas this is impractical.
There are also elements that are not actually part of your property that can influence where you site your house. Land use on neighboring plots can impact upon your site. These may be things that are already in place, such as noise from roads or nearby businesses, which can determine the siting of your property (as well as aspects of your garden design, such as the placement of trees to block noise), or developments planned for the future. Check with local planning authorities so you know of any planned to changes to the surroundings that may affect where you build.