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Permaculture: beyond the garden

The movement has spread from agricultural design to a way to construct more self-sufficient homes and communities. We visit the permaculture estate of a California couple whose home provides them with food, water and electricity. All in high style.

The term permaculture was coined as a fusion of “permanent” and “agriculture” in the 1970s by Australian ecologists Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who were searching for an alternative to the environmentally-destructive side effects of industrial agriculture: chemical runoff, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, etc.

In their book Permaculture One, they set out to establish a more sustainable, or “permanent”, way to view agriculture. Their original definition was an “integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.”

As the concept has gained global recognition and adoption, it has outgrown its original focus on sustainable agriculture and is now seen as the more inclusive “sustainable culture”.

Today, the philosophy is being touted worldwide as a solution to current environmental threats from pollution to diminishing resources:

Today, even Holmgren gives a revised definition for the term he helped coin as “consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to permaculture.”

A permaculture home

For many, permaculture remains a concept for sustainable landscaping: home gardening with native vegetation and edible plants can help restore local ecosystems while providing food outside of a system reliant on pesticides, monocropping and food miles.

For Mark Feichtmeir and Karen Boness, permaculture was the design philosophy behind the construction not just of their gardens, but of their home. In 2001, this California couple began designing their 2700 square foot luxury home with a focus on self-sufficiency.

Today, their home and gardens provide them with basic necessities like water, electricity and food. Feichtmeir and Boness credit the “permaculture design philosophy” for their home’s sustainable features like “passive solar design, solar pv, solar hot water, rain harvesting and storage, water filtration and purification, green roofs, geothermal heating system, non-toxic stains and finishes, Smart House automation, edible landscapes, organic gardening, native habitat and restoration, and more.”

Mark Feichtmeir gave us a tour of their Kenwood, California estate to show us just what their home provides and to break the stereotype that permaculture has to be associated with a modest lifestyle.

“In 2000 we decided we wanted to build a house and we found this beautiful parcel and came across the permaculture term very early in our design phase. Permaculture is about the sustainable integration of nature, sun, rain, wind, water, fire and how to integrate these so that we’re working with them rather than against them.”

Choosing the location: the view from the middle

“People often pick the top of the hill for a house because they want the grand view when actually that’s one of the worse places from nature’s vector in a permaculture point of view.”

“The valley floor and the top of the hill are the two worse spots, the top because it’s prone to fires and the bottom because you get all the cold winter air that comes down the hill, so if you put yourself in the middle of the hill you have an intimate view as well as a long range view and you can avoid the extremes of the fire, the wind and the cold air vectors.”

“We get breezes, but it’s nothing like what they get way up the slope. There’s a lot of wind up there and we’re somewhat protected from that.”

(Mark shows us the views in a video on ecodesign)

A home that creates energy

“We have a net zero energy consumption.” 

“Early on we decided we were going to do all electrical, no fossil fuels. With that in mind, we set up the array there and we have 96 panels, grid-tied, but battery backup. We’re now running an annual credit at this point which means we pay like a $5.75 a month utility bill and that’s pretty much it for the life of the building.”

“This solar hot water panel provides over 50% of our hot water, particularly in the hotter summer months with the longer days, even in the dead of winter it pumps out a lot of hot water. So we use a combination of the hot water and a heat pump system which provides both heat and domestic hot water.”

(Mark shows us his PV and hot water gear in a video on his solar setup)

Passive solar: 68-78 °F without AC

“The house is designed as a passive solar so we’re facing south. We have really deep roof eaves. We have PISE (pneumatically installed stabilized earth) walls which are 18 inches thick and high windows which are in that part of the roof we call the monitor and low windows which you’ll see in front for night flushing of the cool air through the house.” (Mark shows us the monitor and the eaves in a video on passive solar).

“The way passive solar works is that the sun heats the place up moderately inside during the day because of the thick walls and the thermal mass and then in the evening we flush the cool evening air through. So basically we operate between 68-70 degrees in the morning and up to 77-78 degrees. We got up to 84 in that heat wave last year when it was probably 115 outside so no air conditioning, no ducting.”

Passive solar: a 4500 sq. ft. roof for a 2700 sq. ft. home

“The roof eaves. Just to put it in perspective: the roof is 4500 sq. ft., but the interior of the house is only 2700 sq. ft. so there is a huge expanse of roof eaves.”

“The roof eaves are modeled after an instrument called the heliodon. What you do is build a model of the house to a one eighth scale and put it on a platform and then there’s a light bulb up above the model which represents the sun and then you can move the platform back and forth or up and down to simulate any time of the day and any time of the year. Based on this we expanded the eaves quite a bit and in the dead of summer which we’re in now the sun will not penetrate into the house at all in the afternoon so therefore it keeps the thermal gain down. That’s another aspect of passive solar design.”

A green roof that captures water

“We have a water shortage problem in our part of the country. Building green is only part of the solution. We did rainwater harvesting as we wanted to be off the water grid. Water is a huge problem looming world wide.”

“Our roofs on the house, the garage and this trellis walkway between the two structures are all “green roof.” By “green roof” I mean there’s a membrane on top. The roof is actually designed to pod. We harvest the rain water that falls on these two structures so the area of the house roof is about 4500 square feet and the area of the garage is 1000. There are four drains in there and there are 13 drains in the walls.”

“All that water goes into a 50,000 gallon cistern which sits underneath the garage out of sight. That water is used for both domestic and irrigation. We purify the domestic water with a filtration system.”

“Basically that water sustains us until this time of year, June or July, when we run out so we are tapped into a private water company which is tapped into the municipal system in the county. So we top off about 10,000 gallons a month for maybe 5 months. It just depends on how hot the summer is. It’s a dry land environment where we have a dry season from roughly May until October.”

(Mark shows off his green roof and cistern in a video on rainwater capture).

50,000 gallons of water storage

“The 50,000 gallon cistern is below where we’re standing. These are the pipes that are coming down from the roof and it looks kind of complicated.”

“If you’re doing rain water harvesting you don’t want the first flush of rain to go into the tank because it has accumulated dust over 6-8 months in California so it will fill the lower pipe first and there is a valve outside that I open up once a year after the rainy season is over. I do the same thing for the house roof. I have a pipe underground with enough volume to hold the water and then I just open it once a year and let it all clear out. Next season the process starts over again.”

“If we add a tank out there we could be off the water grid. The harvesting is fine; the storage is the problem. We have a desire to build more water storage and then get off the water grid as well as being more or less off the electrical grid in a virtual sense.”

A green roof that isn’t green

“This roof, because of the solar panels, is not the best choice for planting on a green roof although it would help the temperature which improves the efficiency of the panels. But just from an access point of view for repairs or whatever it’s not the greatest idea for us.”

“This roof can be substantially planted on and it’s something we’re looking at as a project down the road. It depends on how much irrigation water is required because we have a lot of planting already and that is a big factor. How much water do we want to consume? We try to avoid consuming from the grid and if we get some more storage in place we might have more options down the road for that.”


“In addition to dealing with energy and water I’ll just touch briefly on fire. Fire vectors come up from the south or the southwest so you’ll see on the south side of the house we don’t have any substantial vegetation that’s flammable. We also have to weed whack which is typical of this area because of the high brush, but down the road in a permaculture way we hope to have sheep that will take care of that problem for us.”

The zones of permaculture

“A key feature of the design process in permaculture is “zoning”. This is about placing things appropriately in relation to each other, and works on the principle that those things which require frequent attention are placed closest to the home. It is about using time, energy and resources wisely, which can be as simple as planting your most used herbs nearest to your kitchen, or as complex as planning a community.”

“What we’ve done in our landscape outside the fence is basically native restoration so we’ve planted two dozen oak trees, Fremontodendrons, Catalina ironwood. There are a number of trees outside that are all native and some scrubs that are spontaneously growing like coyote bush.”

“Inside the deer fence, in permaculture we call it zone 1 or maybe zone 2 means the area that you frequent on a regular basis. In the front yard when you come in the gate we have an alley of 10 almond trees, 2 apricot trees, one which we will be harvesting, a lot of ornamentals most of which are native. Interspersed in here we have currents, blueberries, pineapple guava and we have smaller beds where we have the lettuce and the far garden is the only area of the green roof that is planted green at the moment although I’m looking into much more extensive planting.”

(Mark shows us his homegrown produce in a video on his edible garden).

Eating your yard

“Having edibles is part of permaculture. One of the major points is to grow your food and plants, particularly perennials that you eventually don’t have to do so much work on.”

“We call this the citrus slope. We have two kinds of lemons, navel orange, blood orange, kumquats. Out on the slope where we’re building our chicken house and green house we have a peach tree, two kinds of apples, an Asian pear, a couple cherry trees, a pomegranate, a fig, a tree tomato, two avocados, and lavender all over the place.”

“To be able to grow your own food and to be able to eat your own food out of your garden is a totally different experience than going into the store. You see the whole process which is one thing but the quality and the taste are far superior.”

Four or five years for a full harvest

“In permaculture in four to five years everything snaps. This is the third year and it’s incredible already so I’m looking forward to seeing what it will be like a couple years from now.”

“This is our annual garden. The shape of these beds, called keyhole beds, which in permaculture means you’re allowing more access to edge. Edge is where there is more life; it may or may not be relevant as far as a garden bed, but it makes it easier to access the interior of the bed rather than a straight row type garden.”

“We currently have strawberries, basil, corn, two kinds of squash, carrots, chard, potatoes, walla walla onions, red onions, garlic, zucchini, tomatoes, peppers, chili peppers, artichokes, and pole beans. The current prize is our blackberry crop. You can’t buy these in the store, heated by the sun right off the plant.”

Local foodshed: pressing your own oil and raising your own chickens

“Animals (including birds and wildlife) are a critical component of any sustainable system, as without their participation and contribution the ecological balance cannot be achieved. Everything gardens in permaculture, and animals are in the leadership position. Manure is needed for soil fertility. Foraging on fallen fruit, weeds, seeds and garden pests helps with keeping things healthy. Soil cultivation is frequently a benefit, especially when keeping chickens.”

“Although I can’t grow wheat here in any quantity or raise cattle this could come from a small community and I think that’s where we’re headed back to, more local water sheds and food sheds.”

“We’re putting in chicken fence so the chicken can free range and eat the bugs and, of course, free range is the best way to have healthy chickens.”

“Down below we planted about thirty olive trees so we’ll be pressing small volumes of oil down the road, but it should be sufficient for us.”

If you build for it, nature will come (even the bees)

“We are fast approaching the point where we need refuges for all global life forms, as well as regional, national, or state parks for indigenous forms of plants and animals” (Bill Mollison, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future).

“The other aspect of permaculture and also of nature is if you create the environment life will come to it. I mentioned the pond our there and all the frogs, toads, dragonflies and the bees; we’ve had an incredible increase in the diversity of birds. There are so many critters around here: we have mice, turkeys, foxes, raccoons, squirrels, quail and skunks.”

“As far as bees go and their general habitat I’ve seen about three kinds of bumblebees that prefer the native plants as that’s what they grew up with. The honeybees like all the fruits and the flowers. Our pond is a habitat for 2 or 3 kinds of frogs, mosquito fish to monitor mosquitoes, dragonflies, and lots of birds.”

“We’ve created an environment and the environment is enriching itself as it becomes more complex and continues to grow and more animals show up as a result of this. It’s clear that we live in this web of nature.”

Permaculture and stacking functions

“Permaculture is about stacking functions so we have solar panels covering the trellis. There weren’t quite enough to make it waterproof so we added the roofing.”

“The windows here under the grape arbor are nicely shaded and that’s provided by the leaves of the grape vines so the leaves drop off in the winter and the sun comes into the workshop and help warm it. So that’s another function of permaculture; stacking principles where you have multiple functions from the same item.”

“This is the green roof garden which we call the kitchen garden which is pretty much herbal plants except for the fuji apples. We’re actually standing on a “green roof” in the sense this is the roof of the workshop below us.”

Smart house: from vacation lighting to a recirc pump

“This is the guts of a Smart House: the lighting control, alarm system, weather station, and AV (audio video). I can control things like the pond pump outside and I can run it so it turns off Monday through Friday from 12- 6 which are the peak electrical hours.”

“Most people don’t quite get this. This is bleeding edge technology. I know that to be the case because Intel has a research program on integrating green- or they were interested in green design and smart house and they interviewed me for a couple of hours a couple of months ago.”

“With any of these buttons on the lighting panel I can control any electrical load in the house and I can reprogram it whenever I want to so I can set up vacation lighting.”

“These motion sensors are integrated into the program so if that goes off in the bathroom because you walk into the bathroom then I can have the recirc (water recirculation) pump turn on. You can cut down your consumption as the pump only runs when it’s needed to run rather than 24 hours a day.”

(Mark explains the high tech side of his sustainble design in a video on his Smart house).

A smart house

“This is a Smart House. I wrote all the software to integrate a weather station, the alarm system, the lighting system, irrigation control, and AV.”

“This is our mechanical room for the house.”

“This is the geo-exchange heat pump. There’s a ground loop outside about 6 feet underground with a number of wells. In a heat exchange pump the ground acts as a heat sink so the water circulates underground through this loop and then comes into the equipment. The heat is transferred through the heat pump into the domestic water system and the radiant tanks and then circulated into the house, as necessary.”

“This is our solar hot water piping and that goes into the domestic tank. This is the water purification system. We have 2 charcoal filters that flush themselves periodically, one micron filter and then UV so obviously we don’t need to process the irrigation water. We process the drinking water. I have it tested although I wouldn’t be surprised if the rain water is pure just by itself. This is just insurance.”

“I have a number of relay systems up there for controlling the valves. I don’t use irrigation controllers. I’ve configured my system and created software to allow for heat wave override, for rain overrides; I can adjust any valve to any schedule that I want to run. In that way we can fine tune the irrigation.”

A paint-free home

“Everything in this house was designed to keep the high air quality: no formaldehyde, there’s no paint inside the house, and all the walls that are not PISE are integral color plaster.”

“I mentioned the 18 inch thick PISE. There’s no color in it; it’s the color of the dirt. This PISE, which is pneumatically installed stabilized earth, is a mix of dirt, concrete, and aggregate. The dirt and aggregate came from a local quarry about five or six miles from here.”

“In the kitchen the cabinets are non formaldehyde MDF (medium density fibreboard) box and cherry on the face with no color in the stain which is a natural bio-shield and the grain is starting to come out.”

“We have cork floor in the kitchen which is great when you’re standing on it. All the floors in the rest of the house are concrete which has been stained and dyed to get the color that we wanted so there’s no maintenance.”

A vibrating stove

“We cook a lot from scratch from the food that we grow. We have energy star appliances.”

“This is an induction cooker which isn’t that common in the US. It’s more common in Europe. It doesn’t heat the pan; it vibrates the pan with a magnetic field and the pan warms up as a result of the vibration.”

“The nice thing about this is that it’s 35 amps 220 in terms of its electrical load at maximum level which is the same as the geo exchange heat pump which heats the whole house and most of the hot water. So you can heat a pot of pasta water in 2 minutes.”

Windows for flushing

“This is called the monitor; these are our high windows which are used for flushing at night and we leave these open all summer unless we have a serious heat spell of over 100 degrees for a few days. In the evening we open our low windows in the bedroom and dining room and that flushes the cool air through the house and brings the temperature inside down.”

Sun to replace lamps

“This is a solar light tube. A solar light tube comes through the roof, which is about two feet deep, and down into the room which allows the sun to come down and reflect off the aluminum surface of the tube and bring light into the room.”

“The reason we have this here is because when we started to sheet the roof and close the whole room in it was dramatically clear that it was going to be a really dark room. So we stuck this in and it’s almost like having a light on in here. I wish I’d put it in two other places: in the master closet and in the bathroom as well.”

“Since this is a dark room we would need a light on even in broad daylight. So this is free and during the summer months it runs about 18 hours a day.”

The price of a smart permaculture home

“Our architect said that we might pay 5- 10% more, but our operating costs are substantially less and the quality of construction and quality of life is substantially better. You pay a higher up front cost, but the benefits far exceed that and it doesn’t take long for that payback period to come.”

“We received almost 50% rebate on our solar equipment through the California Energy Initiative Program when we put it in and now we’re paying five or six dollars a month for our utility bills for the rest of our life.”

“So what is the value of this? You can analyze it on a payback situation, but we’re not only paying a minimal amount, but we’re not contributing carbon monoxide into the atmosphere. We’re pretty much carbon dioxide neutral with the exception of my car; my wife has a Prius.”

“We did some things that were over the top, but if the whole range of people in this country did it on their level it would be a huge difference just in and of itself. So we’re trying to say: it can be beautiful, it’s functional, useful and put it all together.”