In Methods of Design & Patterns, Permaculture, Permaculture Vision & Values

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For the past 5 years I have been consulting in permaculture, which is the design and integration of:

  • renewable energy systems
  • low energy buildings
  • food system design – both annual and perennial
  • water harvesting, small and large
  • liability mitigation (financial, life, food security and disaster)
  • waste water and composting toilet systems

and I have started to recognize a pattern… People generally have no clue about how to buy the right property – one that meets their needs and goals. Typically, I get called in after they have the home or property and listen to all of their dreams and goals only to tell them that they bought the wrong property. This is usually when the tears start. This is not a criticism of them, this information is just not common knowledge which is unfortunate because I think that it should be. This is why I teach Permaculture Design. Not everyone, however, wants or has time to take a course.

Getting your property purchase wrong can cost a lot of money. On a $500k property, the real estate fees, legal fees, lost time and opportunity costs can amount to 15k or 20k over the life of the mortgage, not to mention the cost of selling the property so that you can get the right one. Placing your home in the wrong place can be even more disastrous. For example, improper orientation to south will cost you a life time of heating bills and interior thermal discomfort. Placing the home on a flood plain or in a fire sector can be financially and emotionally disastrous. It is because of all the tears that I have witnessed that I recommend that people slow down when considering a property purchase and get it right the first time around.

Setting Goals

One of the first things that you have to get right from the beginning are your goals. Goal setting is hard, and trust me, I have had issues setting my own goals in the past. It was not until I met two of my students in the last two years that I have really sat down and gotten serious about goals. Goals are a higher level expression of what you want to achieve. For example, you might think that a food forest is a goal when, in fact, the real goal is a highly productive biodiverse food system that takes care of itself. The former is just a food forest, while the latter could be so much more. There are thousands of ways to realize that goal, which works so much better with the design of ecological systems. Another example might be “I really want a straw bale home” instead of “I would like to live in a natural-built, healthy home that is energy efficient and comfortable”. The reason the latter is better is that straw bale homes don’t make sense everywhere, as you may not have the straw, clay and sand required in your particular location. However there is always a design opportunity to meet the natural built energy efficient home wherever you are.

Your goals should be set in the higher form instead of instantly going to the details because if you are fixated on the details, you tend to design the wrong things for the wrong property. We call this a type one error and I can’t count the number of type one errors that I see because people do not define their goals properly. Usually the short circuit of goals is a result of sentiment that we have about a certain building, element, property or design and this is why it is beneficial to have other family members or consultants have a look at things for you. One of the best services that I can offer people is the hard truth, which is hard to find because people are afraid to make you cry. I’m not saying I enjoy making people cry. In fact, I would love to be involved in the process from the beginning so we can avoid that all together.

After you have set your goals, finding the property is so much easier and you will be so much happier with the product. I had a student two years ago that wanted advice on a piece of property that she wanted to farm. Her question to me was “how can I drain a property that has too much water on it so that I can farm it?” My response was, why would you try and force the property to function in a way it is not good at? Aquatic systems are 28 times more productive than terrestrial ones, so get good at farming with water. If you don’t want to farm with water, get clear on your goals and find the property that suits what you want to do.

From a design perspective, having well defined goals can save enormous amounts of money. If I am the designer and I know what these high level goals are, I can whip through design much faster with a better product at the end which saves money in design, and having to redo things later.

Alternative Goals

The other way to go about design is to be much more fluid with your goals. For example, if you determined that there was a specific region that you had to live in and you found a property that was amazing and you had to have it, you could argue that your bioregional preference was your goal. In this case you can use all the same permaculture design tools to design the property by understanding what the key features of the property within the bio-region are and then design systems around the attributes and strengths of that landscape.

Where we have problems is when we set our lower level goals (the food forest instead of the biodiverse food system), purchase a property with no understanding of how that property will or will not meet our expectations and end up hitting our head against a brick wall.

Get clear on your goals first!

If you are in the market for a property and need help with your goal setting and pre-property evaluation and design, contact us! We can help save you thousands of dollars, but more importantly, lots of time which is the ultimate commodity because you can’t buy any more than what you have been gifted.

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Showing 13 comments
  • jojo

    I agree with the article to an extent. As my own research 15 years ago led to this property I live on now. but guess what?

    It’s fast becoming an urban farm rather then just a micro farm. Sadly, all the right choices at the time have now become, or starting to become, with encroachment of urban development, the wrong choice. I don’t think everyone can move to ‘the country’ some have to stay in the rural outskirts of cities, to only find themselves, in the middle of zoning, and code issues now forcing them out.

  • Matthew Perry

    Rob this is an excellent article, but I was wondering about the next steps 🙂 My wife and I are looking in the next year to purchase property. Are there any books, web, certified consultants, etc. for additional guidance you can point us to, for actually mapping our goals to a property. We also need help in setting realistic expectations (i.e. to use alternative energy in the Northern MW US, it will require xx$ for example), so that we can properly budget and plan.
    Thank you!

    • Michelle Avis

      Matthew – I fully agree with a previous comment – the Edible Forest Garden book has a fantastic section on goal setting. I’d also recommend looking into Holistic Management – another fabulous goal setting framework. And of course, this is something that we can consult on – but geographically it would be difficult to assist you!

  • Russ Purvis

    Of course if one is looking to buy a house in an urban neighborhood, suburban landscape, etc. potential land use options may not be of much concern. You can glance around the neighborhood and you are not likely to miss the cell towers, high voltage power lines, etc. However, if you are shopping with a rural purchase in mind existing zoning restrictions will limit the number of dwelling units, their size, out buildings, type of permitted sewage treatments, etc.., as well as a myriad of other issues. Take the time to learn about zoning in your area of choice. In Alberta in particular you do not own the subsurface water or mineral rights. This can be a huge problem for farmers or a rural retreat when you discover ground water pollution, or are notified a fracking operation will soon arrive on your property.In BC you may discover rural property where you can still own the subsurface rights. 🙂

  • Nolan

    The goals part shot me straight back to Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier and all the time Sherry and I spent trying to get them right. The books had an excellent section on goal setting and were very helpful. It’s like you’ve read them…

  • kurtis

    Another vital topic well explored; great job Ser!

    As someone who has been involved with permaculturally developing an inherited landbase that was in severely degraded condition upon reception, I would like to elaborate on one thing I’ve found.

    Though it is not necessarily the most obvious, or easiest path to take, I highly suggest that those looking to purchase a piece of land consider the merits of acquiring a property that has already had a relatively high level of degenerative disturbance meted out upon it.

    The reasoning for this is three-fold.

    First, there is not much pristine wilderness left in most margins of the domesticated-primate-occupied earth. If you can take an overgrazed, eroded flatland and bring it into undulating, tiered abundance, you will not only be saving a more ecologically rich zone from unnecessary pressure but you will also be exampling one of the big permacultural goals of being a biped involved in good earth repair doingness.

    Secondly, something that looks bad in terms of conventional landscape aesthetics is oftentimes more financially affordable. The money saved on real estate/legal/bank fees can be productively set to task in greater degrees of earthworks, biological remediation, and (re)afforestation.

    Thirdly, it is more rewarding from a psycho-spiritual perspective to assist a small fragment of earthspace in transitioning from unstable, dry, desert to some semblance of a bio-diverse, resilient fountain of ecological productivity. If we sacrifice the short-term comfort of immediately having ‘nice surroundings’, not only do we appreciate the ecological services that come with hard work and time, but we also have a greater degree of freedom to experiment, make mistakes, and learn the patterns of optimal energy/resource/element flow for our particular site.

    Thanks for sparking this conversation.

    Be Well,


    • Rob Avis

      Great points Kurtis!

  • Paula Blundell

    Thanks Rob! Great blog post. I’ve been thinking a lot this year about my future land purchase and that was a great reminder on how to be smart about it. If I want to enlist your services at the end of next year, 2014, for help with a purchase on the west coast, how much notice will you require and what type of financial down payment or investment should I budget to hire you?



    • Rob Avis

      Thanks for the comment Paula. As much notice as possible as finding a piece of land can take time. As far as the investment, this will depend on a number of factors. It is best to contact us when you are ready. Cheers,


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  • […] to me was that he had his entire property designed by a local permaculture designer. Finding and purchasing the right piece of property based on your goals (the topic of a future post) and then designing it and building it so that it […]

  • […] to me was that he had his entire property designed by a local permaculture designer. Finding and purchasing the right piece of property based on your goals (the topic of a future blog) and then designing it and building it out so that […]

  • […] to me was that he had his entire property designed by a local permaculture designer. Finding and purchasing the right piece of property based on your goals (the topic of a future blog) and then designing it and building it out so that […]

  • […] to me was that he had his entire property designed by a local permaculture designer. Finding and purchasing the right piece of property based on your goals (the topic of a future blog) and then designing it and building it out so that […]


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