The Twelfth Annual Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectual Design Excellence 2010
Berkeley Prize 2010

Jessica Clark Report

Ms. Jessica Clark, University of California, Berkeley, USA, for travel to the Permaculture Institute’s Design and Sustainable Communities Program, New Mexico, USA.

Reflections on Permaculture and New Mexico 

What is Permaculture?

Upon arrival at the program I knew very little about permaculture and New Mexico.  My program consisted of a two-week course in permaculture, including lectures, hands on workshops, and culminating in a final design project.  Scott Pittman and Jen Zawacki taught the course.  Scott Pittman is the founder of the Permaculture Institute ( and has traveled the world teaching permaculture for the past few decades. 

The course was taught at the Lama Foundation (, about 20 miles north of Taos, New Mexico at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  The Lama Foundation is a spiritual community accepting and practicing all religions, and is also one of the oldest intentional communities in the nation.  Activities at Lama included meditation and yoga at dawn, as well as weekly Shabbat and Zikr ceremonies.

Permaculture was created by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970s.  The word “permaculture” is a combination of “permanent” and “agriculture,” but has also been defined as “permanent culture” as the principles deal with both sustainable agriculture and social systems.  Growing up in Tasmania, Mollison studied the natural systems that have persisted for thousands of years.  He believed that humans should be able to make sustainable systems as well.  Looking at nature as a whole system, he applied these ideas to human settlements.  This holistic belief system has been applied to all scales of environmental design, from regional systems to individual properties, as well as architectural design and personal belief systems.  Mollison divided the principles of permaculture into two catagories:  the visible structures (e.g. gardens, buildings, agriculture) and invisible structures (e.g. legal, financial, social).  

Week One

The first week of instruction began with the fundamentals that formed the ideological basis of permaculture.  According to Scott, permaculture ideas evolved from a metaphysical system that was comprised of three ideas:

  1. Care of the Earth
  2. Care of People
  3. Return of all excess to the earth and people

Another important fundamental to all systems is animals, as there is no ecosystem other than man-made environments that do not include animals.  Keystone species are vital to the environments we live in.  An example of this is in Western Texas, where rain cannot penetrate the thick root zone of Bermuda grasses without being opened up through gopher tunneling activity and buffalo wallows. 

There were several key principles Scott and Jen went over which guide all permaculture planning and design:

  1. Cycling:  Using energy or resources (sun, water) entering you system to meet all needs before it leaves, e.g. capturing as much of the sun’s energy and transforming it in several steps (photosynthesis in trees®mushrooms®humans (consumption)®compost®soil®nutrients back to trees).  This also includes capturing water and storing it in trees or water catchment systems.
  2. Redundancy of functions: Providing necessities, such as food and hydration, in more than one way to protect against disasters.  An example of this is collecting water by using a water tank, ponds, and using utilities as a backup.  I believe this principle is crucial at all scales, and is one element of permaculture that can be translated well into city and regional planning.  To me, it is the reason why solar panels are becoming more widespread, or why the government is investing in technologies to decrease our dependence on oil.
  3. Diversity leading to Stability:  Stressing the importance of the number of species, as well as maintaining the connections between species in a system.  This point uses the example of polyculture as a way to create resilient agriculture that can withstand seasonal droughts, infestations, and markets flooded with subsidized monocultures.  I believe this also translates well to environmental design, and speaks in a way against sprawl, encouraging mixed-use design and the walkable city.
  4. Biological Resources: Giving back to the land and rediscovering low-tech resources that do not rely on oil-powered machinery and the unseen social and environmental consequences that are associated with it.  Creating self-renewing systems producing enough on their own to maintain and renew.  Working with nature and “seeing the problem as the solution.”  An example of this comes from Bob Dixon, a man who is renewing thousands of acres of over processed, lifeless farmland by simply running a spiked wheel over the land to create divets.  The wind blows seeds into the divets, which also collect enough water to support the seeds and begin re-vegetation in a relatively short time.
  5. Observation: Observe natural processes and using all of your sensed to understand the natural cycles before imposing your own system.
  6. Placing Elements in Relationship to Each Other:  The classic permaculture example of this is that of the chicken.  To keep chickens, you must analyze their needs, behaviors, functions, products (eggs, meat, feathers, warmth), and intrinsic characters before deciding where they should be placed in relation to other elements.  You may want to keep a chicken in a greenhouse to take advantage of their warmth and keep them close to the house to keep an eye on.  Or, you may want to utilize their scratching behavior by keeping them under a rabbit hutch, so they can work the natural fertilizer of the rabbit waste into the ground.
  7. Zones of Use:  Placing elements in zones in a design that will save energy and allow for overlapping functions of each element. 

One of the most interesting discussions our class had was on the State of the World.  Scott raised concern about the several issues that affect our lives now, and in his eyes will severely alter life as we know it in the very near future.  Corporate agriculture and Genetically Modified Organisms were as always a highly contested subject, as they have affected the patterns of land development with monocultures, the subsidized food system (and thus political and social consequences in the global food market), and the natural ecosystem, mainly the GMO ties to the recent widespread honeybee disappearances.  Corporate citizenship and the lack of accountability have also greatly affected our landscape, with the development of superfund sights in America and environmental degradation in third world countries.  What I thought was most interesting was our discussion on the culture of Greed in America that has developed, which I suppose is another way of looking at the American Dream.  Our culture and media encourage ambition and accomplishment, which without the values of restraint and conservation can be very destructive behavior.  This is fueled by ingenious marketing of consumerism, which has made more of an impact on our present landscape than anything else.  I found this discussion very interesting because it is exactly the opposite of the ideas of permaculture and any system that could possibly work with nature in a sustainable way.  Scott pointed out that plants and animals in a natural system never take more than is necessary without somehow being neutralized.

The remainder of the week was spent on much more practical and less theoretical aspects of permaculture.  Vegetation was an interesting subject for me, especially as it pertained to urban settings.  I had no idea how important vegetation was in the weather patterns of an area.  Trees are essential in the formation of clouds.  In the Savannah, cloud formations have been found to follow the same patterns as tree formations.  In Borneo, rain was increased by 12 inches in just 15 years on deforested land by planting trees.  This made me realize just how important urban forests are to the weather patterns, not to mention water collection and aquifer recharge, of a city.  It makes me think what the impact of a massive adoption of vegetated roofs on an urban scale would be. 

More practical permaculture solutions included food forests, guilds, swales and berms for water collection, small-scale dams, drip irrigation, methods for cistern construction, and Watson-Wick greywater filtration systems.  Food forests are a permaculture invention of mimicking the vegetative layers of a forest to create a self-sustaining food production system.  The food forest is composed of “guilds,” or assemblies of species that work well together and support each other by providing protection, shade, wind blockage, thorns, assist in the health of each other, and aid in management.  Guilds are created by finding the niches of plants and creating systems where each can excel.  Although the practical solutions were interesting, they did not pertain to me as much as the theoretical ideas, me being a landless college student, whose garden space is currently limited to a 4’x8’ balcony.  At the end of the first week of instruction, I was looking forward to the second week, which would focus on green building techniques and our group design project.

Day to Explore

At the end of our intensive week, which consisted of long lecture sessions punctuated only by meals and short hands-on sessions, we finally reached our one day off.  A group of us took this opportunity to pack in as much sightseeing as possible in nearby Taos.  We started our day walking across the Rio Grande Gorge Bridge.  The bridge itself is a beautiful structure, yet it was hard to notice against the drama of the sudden 800-foot drop to the thundering Rio Grande racing through the bottom of the gorge.  Standing above the gorge, surrounded by the vivid red rocks and mesas, it was easy to see nature’s influence on the indigenous adobe forms and color palette that are faithfully replicated throughout the state.

Our next stop was at the Earthships Demonstration Site (  Upon first glance, I did not know what to think of them.  The small cluster of undulating mound houses rising out of the ground seemed to have been composed of every hippie/green/back-to-the-land/environmental activist/techie fad that has come and gone over the past 50 years.  The walls were embedded with “trash”; some made of old tires, bottles or cans.  It was like a recycling center masquerading as a house.  The houses were designed to be completely self-sustaining, with an elaborate solar photovoltaic system and water collection/filtration system that required so many filters and tiny parts that you wondered just how many days without water the inhabitants would be when they had to wait for the UPS man to deliver the spare parts.  Although I was not completely sold on the stacked tire walls (off-gassing?), I was very impressed at how much the houses responded to their specific site.  The houses were situated in order to take full advantage of the sun’s path throughout the year.  The angles of south-facing windows allowed for maximum solar heat gain in the winter, while being shaded in the hot summer months.  The geometry of the water-collecting roof was elegant.  I loved the beautiful detailing and creative flourishes that personalized and distinguished each house as distinct.  The Earthship building movement seems to attract unique, creative minds that have expressed themselves through the form and detailing of the structures. 

Our next stop was the Taos Pueblo, the oldest continuously inhabited community in the US, as well as the first UNESCO World Heritage site.  I was very excited to visit this site, as I greatly admire the simple, beautiful functionality of adobe architecture.  Although our visit was interrupted by a vicious sandstorm, I still enjoyed walking amongst the 1000-year-old pueblo.  After the Pueblo, I somehow coerced my overheated, exhausted, and wind-stricken classmates into visiting the San Francisco de Asis Church at Ranchos de Taos.  My only impressions of New Mexico before this visit were of Georgia O’Keefe paintings, especially those of the church, so I was determined to make this stop on my visit.  The church was a highlight of my entire trip, a manifestation of the beauty and elegance of the minimalistic adobe form against the dramatic background of the mountains.  The church was sudden, vertical form rising toward the shock of a pure blue sky.  It seemed to be an immovable constant in the landscape, untouchable by time and space.  

Week Two and Final Project

As much as I enjoyed our day off, I was looking forward to our upcoming lectures on natural building techniques and our group design project.  I was fascinated by the ingenious indigenous building techniques Scott has witnessed around the world.  It was very interesting to learn that the Taos Pueblo, one of the oldest structures in the US, is built on a foundation of flat river rocks, a far cry from what I learned as appropriate foundation in architecture school.  I also enjoyed learning about earthbag construction, where a polyethelene continuous bag is filled with sand and stacked in a circular pattern to create a honey pot shape.  This is a low-cost, rapid building technique for earthquake prone areas.  Another interesting subject was the various uses of evaporative cooling in food preservation as an alternative to refrigeration.

The majority of the week was devoted to working time for our group projects.  The project was based on the visible and invisible systems of the Lama Foundation, our home for the past week.  The prompt was simple:  redesign a system at the Lama Foundation using permaculture principles that could be utilized by the community in the future.  This gave us an opportunity to learn about the Lama Foundation, one of the oldest intentionally communities in the country.  From the short time I had spent living at Lama, I understood why it has persevered throughout the years while so many other intentional communities that formed in the 1960s had burned bright and faded quickly.  The spirituality of the place and its complete connection to its natural environment are ever-present.  Lama also has tremendous support as well, both by the local community and the large network of people throughout the world who have been touched by Lama. 

The most incredible thing about Lama though is that the community is built on what seemed to be one of the most inefficient leadership structures imaginable.  Even the smallest details are passed slowly through a convoluted set of consensus based checks and balances.  I was struck by the fact that through the maze of meetings and committees that this place ran on, a completely civilized and tight-knit community was thriving.  I had never been a part of such a respectful, open, group of people before and had never felt so welcome.

Although I believed the invisible structure of Lama was based on something much more civilized than the society I came from, the community members requested some help with their visible structures.  My group decided to focus our design project on increasing the productivity of the Lama Foundation’s cottage industries.  The community had a long tradition of hand-printed flag production.  These colorful and unique flags are purchased by people throughout the world.  The flags had at one time brought in a substantial amount of profit, but production and sales had dwindled in recent years.  My group proposed supporting the existing industry sales by increasing food production on the land.  We created a design that utilized a large abandoned garden space to create guilds of fruit and nut trees.  Herbs and vegetables grown in existing garden spaces around Lama Central and sold to local restaurants would supplement off-season profits.  Surplus herbs would be made into balms and salves that could be sold on their website along with the flags.  Our plan was based on the permaculture ideas of zones of use, diversity, and redundancy of functions.  We took into account the cyclical nature of our production system and strove to utilize or cycle all waste back into the system.  Overall, my experiences at the Lama Foundation and in the permaculture course have shaped my beliefs on environmental design, nature, and the human spirit and how they are linked.


Of all the thought-provoking ideas and examples I learned in the permaculture course, I learned more about myself and the world around me through my extraordinarily varied and ever-passionate classmates than I could have through any class or textbook.  My classmates traveled from all over the country, as well as Canada, to congregate in an isolated corner of New Mexico.  Our backgrounds ranged from highly urban to living off the grid for decades, from people at a crossroads in life to those settling down and creating a home.  The one constant was that everyone was very passionate about the principles of permaculture, which lead to interesting and thought-provoking discussions.

I believe what I learned in New Mexico will resonate in my work and values for years to come.  Being at a spiritual community in such a dramatic, raw natural setting was truly inspiring.  I learned so much about the human spirit by spending my days with the diverse group of people I met at Lama.  I learned what a beautiful community can form by the simple principles of respect and acceptance.  From what I experienced in New Mexico, respect and understanding for people and nature are the true ingredients to sustainable environmental design.

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Ms. Jessica Clark, University of California, Berkeley, USA; for travel to the Permaculture Institute’s Design and Sustainable Communities Program, New Mexico, USA.
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