In Contour Map Generator, Land Design, Permaculture, Water, Water Security

(A Quick Summary of Rob Avis’ in-depth article on Mainframe Design, published in Permaculture Magazine

When you’re face to face with your new property, how can you set priorities in beginning your permaculture design? What’s most important, and how do you determine what comes next?

These are the most important questions every property owner faces. And after 12 years as a permaculture designer and educator, I still look back to the answer given to me by Geoff Lawton during my apprenticeship at Zaytuna Farm, home of the Permaculture Research Institute.

After a few weeks of work and many conversations with Geoff, I found the three-step process by which he organized and ordered the complexities of his property.

The process?

Water, Access, Structures, in that order. The rest will figure itself out and fall into place.

Step 1: Water

grassland with river winding it's way through the landscape









How does this work? By effectively observing and analyzing the flow of water on your land, access and structures (in that order) will intuitively fit into their appropriate positions and your design will fall into place.

Geoff describes this method as Mainframe Design. I see it as the broad strokes of a painting or the spine of a vertebrate, giving a structure to all of the smaller details below or around it.

Let’s start with a look at Water. Capable of both irrigation and flooding, it can be both regenerative and destructive, and this intuitively guides our design. Water-focused design elements may include flows (springs, creeks, wetlands, seasonal runoff, natural drainage, etc.), which can be managed by wells, dams/dugouts/ponds, swales, diversion drains, culverts, and drainage tiles.

Step 2: Access









Next is Access, with elements such as paved roads, gravel roads, farm tracks, foot paths, zone maps, etc. These function as the main arteries of your permaculture system, allowing you to move around your property and manage your other resources.

Step 3: Structure

avis passive solar greenhouse and garden







The last design element in our protocol is Structures. These include any physical element in the permaculture system, such as dwellings, barns, outbuildings, greenhouses, workshops, and utilities.

So why does water come first, and how do access and structures interact with it?

Well, do you like perpetually wet feet? Probably not…and neither do roads, bridges, or paths (access), nor the foundations of buildings (structures). It has been my experience that any design element needs to be placed in relation to water, either close by or with carefully limited contact. For example, a rice paddy needs to be wet for much of the growing season, whereas a home needs water for drinking and cooking, but certainly does not want wet feet. Instead, its water needs to be contained in pipes, with its flow carefully controlled.

Once your water is mapped out, your permaculture principles intuitively flow out of this design, and your roads, paths, buildings, and gardens just fall into place!

So, you may be wondering, how do I begin to do this? 

Good question!

Before I answer, let me offer some context.

My very first action with a client is to map and/or survey their property; and the most important skill that I teach my students is mapping and understanding the use of contour. This gives an entirely new perspective and greater appreciation for the flow of water throughout their property.

Water flows downhill across your property perpendicular to contour, from the highest point to the lowest, eventually gathering to emerge as a stream. So it’s critical to have accurate contour data showing the lay of your land. 

SEE RELATED: You can’t do permaculture design without a good base map

However, getting a detailed, accurate contour map that includes all the information you need is not a cheap or easy process! This is why at Verge Permaculture we make it extremely easy for our students – and anyone interested in regenerative farming – to survey any property on earth in a fraction of time for a fraction of the cost with our leading-edge comprehensive mapping package, available at

Not only does it provide contours, slope direction, and local drainage layers, but also six other layers to help you design your permaculture property in precise detail. Furthermore, we’ve included in-depth online training (more than two hours of content) taught by Verge’s post-grad intern, geography whiz/meteorologist Mitch Rawlyk, with the purchase of every map for no charge. 

To learn more about this exclusive, pioneering new tool, head over to

What to learn more about permaculture design?

Verge’s Permaculture Foundations E-Book, immerses you in the promise and potential of permaculture design. Our FREE, introductory e-book, provides the overview you’ve been looking for. Hit the ground running, priming your approach to problem solving within the permaculture philosophy.


Further Reading:

Why Build a Permaculture Property – Part I

Why Build a Permaculture Property – Part III

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