Design Criteria: Inventory

Whether you are designing your site yourself, or handing the job over to a professional Designer, you will need very specific information before you can proceed. You can gather this information yourself or work together with your Designer. Expect to collect additional information if you have a rural property, or if you plan to harvest wind or solar energy. Monthly average wind speed and direction, and maximums, monthly total solar radiation, and contour maps are just some of the data you may need to consider. Then, armed with accurate information, and a good knowledge of permaculture design principles you can start to formulate a plan. The list below is a pretty good start for our urban site.

Site Specific Information:

  • City lot with gas, hydro, sewer & water, phone, adsl high-speed internet, and cable available.
  • Facing two paved streets, with South-facing frontage.
  • 18.3 m x 39.6 m (60’x130’) lot with a 6.1 m (20’) margin along the South and East sides.
  • Big box retail store across the street with truck loading bay directly East of us.
  • Local noise, light, and diesel exhaust pollution from the East side.
  • Moderate traffic on side street with light traffic on frontage street.
  • Modest 50 year old homes with large, modern infill housing in the same block.
  • Sandysubsoil with organic content on the low end of the scale.
  • Low lying relatively flat lot, barely above street grades and curbs


  • 50 year old frame house with full basement:

80.27 m2 (864 sq. ft.) 2 bedroom and office. Aluminum sliding windows with magnetic plexiglass storm windows. 38 x89 (2×4) insulated walls with added 25 mm (1”) Styrofoam under vinyl siding. RSI 7.0 (R40) insulation in attic. Gas hot water heater and older gas furnace with masonry chimney. 100 amp 16 circuit main panel. 4.2 m x 3 m (14’x10’) covered deck at rear of house gets morning and evening sun in summer.


  • Insulated, unheated garage/workshop:

49.4 m2 (532 sq. ft.) with 1.2 m (4’) mezzanine at one end and 3.6 m (12’) high ceiling. Concrete slab floor. 30 amp 220 volt service. 7.2m x 1.2 m x 3.6 high (24’x4’x12’ high) covered storage rack at rear for building materials.


  • 4.2 m x 3 m (14’x10’) covered deck at rear of house gets morning and evening sun in summer.
  • 2.4 m x 3 m (8’x10’) wooden storage shed.

Site Additions:

  • 165 m2 (1776 sq. ft.) asphalt pavement in driveways facing two streets.
  • Four 200 l (45 imp. gal) rain water barrels connected to house downspouts.
  • 2 m x 1m (6’x3’) cold frame.
  • Seven 1.2 m x 1.2 m (4’x4’) raised planting beds.
  • 3.4 m x 0.6 m (11’x2’) brick planter.
  • Double wood crib compost bin (pallets) for Uriah Heep and Gomer Pyle.
  • A mature apple tree. Apples are tart, good for cooking and cider, but don’t keep very well.
  • Two chokecherry trees in poor health.
  • A nuisance ornamental crabapple tree.
  • A nice looking young mountain ash supplies berries for wintering birds
  • Two beautiful Japanese tree lilacs (trimmed as trees, not shrubs) shade the front yard.
  • Two lilac bushes.
  • Eight pyramidal cedars provide privacy and a sound buffer between the patio deck and the commercial activity across the street.


  • British Columbia on the interior plateau at North latitude 53o 50’, altitude 594 m (1950’).
  • Weather inversions due to location in a bowl at the confluence of two rivers.
  • Heavy industrial pollution from pulp mills, and a refinery, and odour from a sewage treatment plant are ignored by official monitors who prefer to point the finger at citizens and wood burning appliances (none of which seem to be cranking hydrogen sulfide or formaldehyde into the atmosphere).
  • Garden zone 3b with an average 85 consecutive frost free days per year.
  • Average annual precipitation = 600.8 mm (23.7”) [418.9 mm (16.5”) rainfall, 216.1 mm (8.5”) snowfall].
  • Degree days below 18o C (65o F) = 5149 (9238).
  • Annual hours of bright sunshine = 1937.
  • January design temperature = -33o C (-27.4o F).
  • Annual daily average temperature = 4o C (39o F).
  • Annual average wind speed = 9.4 kmh (5.8 mph).
  • The most frequent wind direction is South with the strongest winds coming from the South-West.

Thoughtful Observations

Over a week has passed and I still haven’t finished taking stock of our property’s attributes. Or, at least I haven’t put them in writing and posted them.  In fact, I have a pretty good idea of what our location has to offer. So what have I been doing? I put up a Facebook page for PermaPress – - and it’s been a blast. I’ve been scouring the internet for items to post on our page, and there is an incredible amount of stuff out there. I’ve been doing a little reading, working on: Toby Hemenway,  Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd ed., Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2009; Ross Mars, The Basics of Permaculture Design, Chelsea Green Publishing Company, 2003; and Edward Mazria, The Passive Solar Energy Book: A Complete Guide to Passive Solar Home, Greenhouse, and Building Design, Rodale Press, 1979. In the meantime, I completely rebuilt the rear brakes on the Forester, and I am working on replacing the front steps to the house.


 In a nutshell, our place is on a corner lot across the street from the loading bay of a big-box retail outlet. They contribute noise pollution at all hours, air pollution from diesel trucks idling all night, light pollution, and traffic. There is a small house with a full basement, a good sized insulated, but unheated, garage/workshop, and a storage shed for implements of grass destruction. The house faces South, and the roof ridges on the house and garage both run East/West.

A 6 m. margin runs between the property line and the curb on the East and South sides. What do we do with that? City snow crews dump tons of snow laden with gravel, salt, and weed seeds on it all winter long. How do you rehabilitate an environment that is systematically destroyed every year?

We have a mature apple tree in the backyard, a chokecherry tree in poor health, and a nuisance ornamental crabapple tree. The berries on a small mountain ash are popular with the birds in winter. A row of pyramidal cedars add some privacy for the deck at the rear of the house, and act as a bit of a sound buffer. In the front yard, a couple of beautiful Japanese tree lilacs fill the house with a delicious perfume in Spring. Most of the garden space is comprised of raised beds, and far too much of the yard is covered in lawn or asphalt.

The subsoil is sandy and is very well drained
once the frost comes out of the ground, but it does not hold water very well. That said, the back of the lot where the garage is located is so low compared to the street and the rest of the property that meltwater floods the garage in the spring until the frost leaves the ground… don’t know how the home inspector missed that one.

Gwynn tells me we are in Zone 3b, whatever that is. It gets cold in Winter, and not warm enough in Summer. About the only thing you can say about our climate is that it is consistently unpredictable. Snow cover in mid-Winter varies from a metre or more to zero. It may rain right through Christmas, and then drop to -40 in January with no snow on the ground to protect the soil and wintering plants. Every year is different. In Summer, we may harvest fresh tomatoes all summer long, or have a Summer like last year. It was so cold and rainy that, when frosts came in September, not a single tomato had ripened. Essentially we are faced with a short growing season, moderately warm Summers, severe Winters, and variable rainfall.

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What’s Next?

The first of the Permaculture design principles is Observe.

Thoughtful observation of all the elements in all seasons with consideration of the specific site, client, and culture should precede any action.

In other words, careful, intensive, thoughtful observation beats careless, energetic, thoughtless action any day of the week.  We can’t properly develop our own little site without preparation. Do this: take a careful inventory of all the assets the site has to offer as well as all external factors affecting the site. Don’t forget to look ahead and consider all of the design principles, particularly number 6: “Make the least change for the greatest effect.”

So that’s it then.  Our next step is to take stock of what we have going for us and determine what strokes are already against us. Then we can make a wish list of things we would like to do, and make some plans.  Keep in mind that we need to figure out how to get the maximum benefit for the least amount of change ($).

Even on a city lot, I think it’s do-able!

Permaculture Design Principles


Core principles condensed from Toby Hemenway.*:

  1. Observe. Thoughtful observation of all the elements in all seasons with consideration of the specific site, client, and culture should precede any action.
  2. Connect. Place design elements to create useful relationships and as many beneficial connections as possible for a healthy, diverse ecosystem.
  3. Catch and store energy and materials.Opportunity for yield is enhanced by collecting and storing resources.
  4. Each element performs multiple functions. Stack elements in space and time to add function and beneficial connections.
  5. Each function is supported by multiple elements. Apply multiple methods to important functions.
  6. Make the least change for the greatest effect.  Understand where your efforts will achieve maximum benefits—“leverage.”
  7. Use small-scale intensive systems.  Start with the smallest system that will do the job. Repeating a small system that works, with variations, is called “chunking.”
  8. Optimize edge. Diversity at the intersection of two environments encourages energy and materials to accumulate.
  9. Collaborate with succession. Accept the trend for systems to grow from immaturity to maturity and work with it.  Mature ecosystems are most productive.
  10. Use biological and renewable resources. Renewable resources reproduce and grow.  Favour them over non-renewable resources.
  11. Turn problems into solutions. Look for the seeds of solutions in the problems themselves and use the opportunity for innovation.
  12. Get a yield. Design for immediate and long-term returns.
  13. Be creative. The limits of diversity and productivity are often found in the designer’s limited imagination and skill.
  14. Mistakes are tools for learning. There are few penalties in mistakes you learn from.


*Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, pp. 6-7.