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This is the beginning of the process, where observation is the main activity. There are two key aspects to the survey stage of a design - surveying the land and interviewing the people. 

Making a Base Map


The base map can be thought of as the foundation of your design. It will include a scale e.g. 1:100, site orientation (showing north), site title and location, and key features. The base map shows the important and permanent features, not every detail. When a base map has been produced it can be copied and used to record observations, as a base for transparent overlays, to test ideas and to build the final design.


Knowing your pace

You can work out the length of your own pace by marking out 50 metres, and walking there and back and counting the number of paces. 100 divided by your number of steps equals your pace in centimetres. Do it a few times to be sure. Very helpful to work out good estimates of distance when out in the field.


Understanding your Soil 


It is important to identify and understand what your soil is like before you begin your project. Soil maps provide general information about an area. You can conduct simple soil surveys yourself to identify texture (hand manipulation), soil type (jam jar test), ph (litmus paper).

If you are in an urban area, site contamination and pollution may be an issue, and advice should be sought. Consulting old maps in your local library will help you to identify any previous uses for the site. for simple information on the jam jar test


Using an A-Frame


The ‘A’ frame is designed to help determine the most level points between the two legs. It is used to map contour lines – a level line across your property

Finding a contour line with the A-Frame

1. Start at one end of your property, and set one leg of your A-Frame down and mark it with a stake.

2. Move the other leg on your ‘A’ frame to the next place it is level. Then mark the other foot with a stake.

3. Move the level over so the first leg is on the second stake.

4. Then move the second leg again until the ‘A’ frame is level. Then mark the foot with a stake.

5. Keep going until you have marked the area that you need for your swale


Using a Bunyip

A water level is a device used for matching elevations of locations that are too far apart. it uses water inside a clear plastic tube with two measuring sticks on either end. Water is the ultimate teller of a level and this device is very accurate and can be scaled-up for larger properties by making the tube longer.

Client Interview

This can help you to understand the needs and resources of a group that you are working with, or you can use it to ask yourselves important questions about your own wants, needs and resources. Use pre-prepared questions, but don't feel you can't ask others, or need to ask them all. Remember the point is to listen. The less you say, the more people will talk. Questions could include:

  1. Name(s) of the client(s) (Maybe a person or a project.)

  2. Address, email, phone, fax details.

  3. Property size (square metres / acres / hectares.)

  4. The number of people on the site.

  5. Groups that use the site (e.g. user groups, staff, volunteers, schoolchildren.)

  6. Physical challenges that need to be considered (blind, wheelchairs etc.)

  7. Occupations and skills

  8. Lifestyle/ethos of the group

  9. Eating habits

  10. Age ranges

  11. Financial situation and budget for the project

  12. Onsite resources

  13. How site is owned/rented (freehold, leasehold, rented from council, etc.)

  14. Any restrictions on how the land is used (detailed in lease agreements etc)

  15. Potential catastrophes, known problems and site difficulties (frost pocket, fire, flooding, persistent vandalism.)

  16. Plans and drawings available

  17. Level of food production wanted

  18. Existing energy efficiency measures, and energy usage

  19. Privacy (views, neighbours, respecting other people’s privacy where site is overlooking others)

  20. Priorities for the site

  21. What do you most like about the site?

  22. What would you most like to change?

  23. Water catchment (quality and amount)

  24. Water general

  25. Soils

  26. Erosion

  27. Aspect

  28. Clients wants and needs (PASE sheet)

  29. Names and addresses of supportive groups and people (councillors, voluntary service support etc.)

  30. Utilities (gas, electricity, mains water)


Sector Analysis

The site is drawn (use the base map) and lines showing north, south, east and west are added (sectors). Winds, the path of the sun (in winter and summer), water movement, wildlife patterns and movement, vehicles and pedestrian flows, fire movement, and other energies are added to build up a picture of how different energies flow across the site. By understanding this we can devise strategies to trap the useful energies, build fertility and yields, and divert or reduce unwanted energies such as cold winds.

The site is drawn and lines showing north, south, east and west are added (sectors). Winds, the path of the sun (in winter and summer), water movement, wildlife patterns and movement, vehicles and other energies are added to build up a picture of how things flow. By understanding this we can devise strategies to trap the useful energies and build fertility and yields.



This is a way of designing to maximise energy efficiency. Activities are put in different zones, depending on the frequency of use, maintenance, visits etc.

Generally, activities and structures are placed as follows:

Zone 0: Centre of activities - the house. This is high maintenance, high use and requires a considerable investment of time and energy.
Zone 1: Annual plants, herbs, compost, plant propagation, construction and maintenance, bike store and other high-use activities, greenhouse. Often irrigated
Zone 2: Dense planting, poultry and small livestock, orchard, polytunnels.
Zone 3: Large water storage, main crops, sheep, cows, field shelters.
Zone 4: Forestry, wood-pasture, dams, forage.
Zone 5: Wild zone, where nature is in charge and where we go to learn and harvest only that which is abundant.


A Planting Plan

Following the principle 'design from pattern to details', this work takes place after the decisions have been made about how the site will work overall. Once intensive growing areas, orchards and other planting sites have been allocated, you can then decide which specific plants to use (species list) and how to arrange them in the areas (planting plans). This may or may not be a level of detail needed in the initial design.


Creating a Planned Maintenance Scheme (PMS)

All aspect of the system you have designed will have maintenance required, this might be as simple as a spot check once a month, or linseed oiling the chicken coop once per year. These jobs can be classified as daily, weekly, monthly, yearly or whatever periodicity you deem fit. All jobs can be added to a planning board for an overview of the work that you need to do over any given period. Creating Maintenance Schedules makes all the important jobs, very easy to plan and fit into your daily routine. 

NB. it also makes it very easy for you to hand over to anyone who is going to look after your place should you need to go away for any amount of time.


Champion 'Permablitzes'


An excellent way to implement and maintain your site, especially if it is a community project, is to organise regular parties. Food to share and a very sociable atmosphere can encourage regular volunteering and support. Also works well for large one-off implementation days – often called 'permablitzes'.

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