Design Principles

The principles and strategies outlined below detail our approach to place making. They will eventually form a complete pattern language of land development. Some of these we have adapted from pioneers such as John Todd, Christopher Alexander and Bill Mollison. Many are simply the result of engaging with the living world. Such principles are inherent and ever present in an ecological design approach. Ask your designer what principles they draw from in their creation of spaces. Most of the industrial world is the product of design drawing on principles limited to visual appeal, initial cost and ease of construction. For millennia, durable and joyful places have been the result of a more deeply rooted frame of reference.

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The problem is the solution

  • Transform challenges into opportunities.
  • Match the output of a component with the needs of another.

Capture and store energy

  • Use biological material to capture and store energy.
  • Use mass to capture and store energy.
  • Disperse yields over time.

Favor living technology

  • Substitute living elements for their abiotic counterparts.

Sustainability = most fun

  • The most regenerative system yields the most fun, net, over time.

Design for change

  • Plan for changes in physical and social conditions of site and society. A successful design is dynamic, a process without end points. Design for the endless horizon.

Design for global and local climate change.

The living world is the matrix for all design (biomimicry)

  • Use nature as “model, measure and mentor” (Benyus, 2001).
  • Learn and act from biological intelligence on site.

Experience is a yield

  • Design for inspiration, contact and pleasure.
  • Design and build to last
  • Quality is prioritized over quantity.

Cultivate connectivity

  • Components in a system are alive to the extent of their relationships.
  • Design for human mobility in the site and promote access between elements.
  • Find and encourage the relationship between ecological elements of the site.


Good human habitat = good wildlife habitat and ecosystem services

  • The land system should not compromise one habitat for another. Habitat is synergistic and human habitats are developed to be beneficial, not simply less destructive of wildlife habitat and ecosystem services. Inspiration, joyful human spaces can be the healthiest spaces for the more-than-human world as well.

Favor passive energy use over active

  • Rely on natural energy flows and harness with as little inputs as possible.

Encourage the sacred

  • Design spaces and transitions to enchant, promote connection to seasonality, other people, site details and expanses.

Promote participation in the site’s living systems through design. Design rituals indirectly through layout, form, connectivity, orientation, materials of the built and cultivated environment.

Disaggregate the problem

  • Break site challenges into pieces, address and then put them back together in the plans.

Close energy and material loops

  • Minimize throughput of resources in the system.
  • Waste equals food.

Steer succession

  • Align actions with local ecosystem patterns as much as possible.
  • Internalize the site’s natural history and manifest through site development.
  • Use disturbances as opportunities; gain leverage on the site's evolution at opportune times. (See also Harness Cycles).

Capture and store water

Optimize edges and gradients

  • The areas between components in the landscape as well as the period between steps in the design process offers clues not present in the middle of components and steps. Transitions are fecund.

Design from context

  • Design from the outside in as well as the inside out
  • See through property boundaries and other imaginary restrictions
  • Connect the site to the larger landscape and insulate where necessary

Preserve biomass

Cultivate biomass

Low embodied energy

  • Use the most local, minimally processed materials possible.

Replace technology with technique

  • Wherever possibly improve and leverage skill rather than force.
  • Favor quality over quantity.

Optimize microclimates

  • Across time and space. Craft the climate to help achieve site goals.

Design for learning

Design for contact

  • Encourage the user’s direct experience with the site wherever possible.

Promote diversity and redundancy

  • Design multiple layers of genetic, energy, water, nutrient and other resources.

Garner multiple yields

  • Harvest numerous outputs of each component.

Favor local resources

  • Prioritize resources from the site outward.

Harness cycles

  • Each change across time in the system presents challenges as well as opportunities. Variations in time (in addition to space – the extent of most design) offer bursts of potential usually requiring living/biological elements to utilize.

Streamline actions

  • Obtain multiple benefits from single expenditures.
  • Least change for the greatest effect – landscape Aikido.

Look, Listen and Feel

  • Knowledge of the site is primary
  • Passive observation before active
  • Engage all the senses
  • Vary types of activities to more fully experience the range of site qualities and conditions
  • Internalize and articulate the story of the site, both cultural and natural