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Design salon 2: skilling up the local group

by Russ Grayson

Read the earlier story — Design salon 1


IT’S A REAL-WORLD INTRODUCTION to permaculture for those participating in the design of the small garden and the tour trails at Barrett House in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs.

Engaging the local permaculture group — Permaculture Sydney East — in the design process was the idea of Fiona Campbell, Randwick City Council’s Sustainability Education Officer. She is working with Steve Batley, landscape architect and director of the design and construction business Sydney Organic Gardens (Steve also has a Permaculture Design Certificate) in the reconstruction of the small patch of garden in the tiny front yard of Barrett House, once the home of 1920s silent filmmaker, Franklyn Barrett. Fiona’s motivation is to skill-up permaculture people so that they can play a more effective role in our cities and so that they can interact constructively with local government and professional designers. It was to employ the permaculture principle of ‘obtaining a yield’, the yield in this case being in the form of local group capacity as well as the edcuational yield of Barrett house that will come though the tour stops.

Busy at work at the perticipatory design salon
Busy at work at the perticipatory design salon

Permaculture Sydney East is a relatively new group. What better way to introduce them to practical permaculture than working with a local government and a professional landscape designer to design and build an actual project in a public area, Fiona thought. That way, they would learn to work with councils and professionals with all the constraints and opportunities that offered.

The project involves the redesign of the small garden, the design and planting of a large street verge garden and designing themes, key messages and stops for guided tours of the house and garden. Barrett House has been renovated to demonstrate energy and water efficiency and the tours will introduce visitors to ideas and simple technologies that they could install at home. The permaculture group’s involvement in developing the garden and nearby verge will create a link between house and garden for visitors.

Building on work already done

The design salon started with the group taking a walk around the site to reacquaint themselves with it. This made use of the permaculture design principle of ‘observe and interact’ and built on the group’s earlier site analysis.

They then reviewed what has been done since the first meeting. Steve took the group through the concept plan he had drawn from their site analysis and the ideas they had developed. Being an educator as well as a landscape architect, he explained how he goes about designing sites based on the information gleaned during needs analysis and site analysis and from the intended use of the site. This made clear that effective design is based on the needs of the client. It enacts the permaculture principle of ‘designing from pattern to detail’, the pattern in this case being the information about sun and shade patterns, winds, drainage and soil found during site analysis.

Rather than taking Steve’s concept plan and going out to build it, the permaculture principle of’ ‘protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless action’ was employed. This started with the group conducting a PMI — Plus, Minus, Interesting — analysis of Steve’s concept plan. PMI is a thinking techniques developed by Edward de Bono. It classifies information in an orderly way.


For planning the tours, Fiona outlined the Thematic Interpretation (also known as Thematic Communication) process. Thematic Communciation develops:

  • a strong theme
  • is well organised
  • is relevant to the tour groups
  • and that engages them.

It’s a set of characteristics nicely summed-up with the acronym TORE (thematic, organised, relevant and engaging).

Having devised a theme for the tours, the group developed the key messages at each of the tour stops. These will make up the  ‘stories’ that will be conveyed to visitors in an engaging way, each stop having its own package of information. The stop at the rainwater tank, for example, could have a package of information developed around it that includes: rainwater harvesting and storage; the use of a natural resource; water conservation; thermal mass; the use of vertical space around the tank. The rainwater tank also exemplifies the permaculture principle of ‘using and valuing natural resources and services’.

In the previous design salon the group had developed tour concepts, such as a tour linking kitchen and garden. There had been discussion about how the small garage might be used — as a cafe or as a showroom for sustainability organisations for short periods, perhaps. The idea of installing a garden over the roof and up the walls was raised, however the garage is a further stage so the ideas were noted for that time. Another theme developed by the group was ‘permaculture for small spaces’, a fitting theme in the Eastern Suburbs where medium density living is the norm and home gardens tend to be small, at least in the northern part of the region.

Part of the front garden of Barrett House that is being redesigned by the permaculture team
Part of the front garden of Barrett House that is being redesigned by the permaculture team


The verge

The verge planting occupies the area between the house and the adjacent park and Frenchmans Road. It’s incorporation in the design adopts permaculture’s principle of  ‘use edges and value the marginal’.

Ideas developed for its redesign include replacing the agapanthus that presently occupy the planter and their replacement with a cultivated mini-ecology of fruit trees and shorter plants arranged as a small food forest. Placing a community composting bin, similar to others Council has introduced elsewhere, adjacent to the verge planting might lead to its use by the nearby fruit and vegetable shop for disposal of their wastes and the compost could be used on the verge and in the house garden.

Designing the verge planting will introduce participants to preparing a plan and planting list for council’s landscape department — Council has a policy on verge planting that requires this. Doing so is all part of learning to work on public projects and learning to work with councils and their requirements, a valuable learning experience for groups intending to do work in public places.

Scalability — designing plans that can be expanded from a small core — is a useful permaculture design principle that allows the modular construction of a project according to a team’s capacity, time, budget and knowledge. Scalability will be used in the verge planting, starting with the area closest to the house and progressively moving on from the edge of what has been done. Scalability is compatible with David Holmgren‘s permaculture design principle of ‘small and slow solutions’.

Next steps

The next step is to finalise the design then construct elements of it in time for Sustainable House Day. Longer term tasks include gaining Council approval for the verge planting, developing a planting plan and planting it out, building a raised vegetable bed and container gardens. The key to effective development of the plan lies in focusing on an area and completing it.

See photos of the Barrett House permablitz garden construction with Permaculture Sydney East

See photos of the Barrett House permablitz garden planting out with Permaculture Sydney East

Read a report on the earlier design salon.

Read more on permaculture principles.

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