Permaculture Principles – Stacking Functions and Stacking Elements

in permaculture •  last year

In one of my first posts I promised to look at the various Principles of Permaculture in greater detail. Today I want to analyze two principles listed by my PDC teacher Scott Pittman, which interestingly neither Mollison nor Holmgren used as separate principles in their sets, even though they both keep referring to them throughout their works as important aspects to an efficient design. These two principles are essentially opposite sides of the same idea: every function is served by multiple elements and every element serves multiple functions, or more concisely: stacking functions and stacking elements

What Do We Mean by Elements and Functions? 

Elements are parts of a system. They can be plants or animals (wild or domestic), structures (greenhouse, driveway, rainwater tank), or even established systems (chicken orchard, fishpond). Functions are everything an element does, independently of whether we like it or not. So yes, the wild hawk flying over our farm on occasion is an element, and among its functions is to take our chickens. At the same time, I should point out, the same element also serves other functions that may be more desirable for us, for example keeping the rodent population in check.

As a good friend of mine once pointed out, elements have by nature many functions, and normally there are many elements fulfilling a certain function. There is really no need for us to “make them” fulfill a certain one in our design. Either they do it or they don't. Our job is to recognize this, and connect them to each other. That way we can get the most out of our design for the least effort (which interestingly is Mollison's principle of maximum effect for minimum effort - more on that later).

Examples Please! 

The two most frequently used examples to illustrate these principles are that of a tree and water. Let's consider the tree first as an element. What are it's functions? 

  •  Fruit (for us, or for our livestock, or both) 
  •  Foliage for the soil (especially in case of deciduous trees) 
  •  Produces oxygen 
  •  Slows down the wind 
  •  Reduces the impact of rain 
  •  Provides shade 
  •  Offers habitat to birds, insects, small mammals etc. 
  •  Offers food to creatures directly (fruit, leaves, wood, pollen) 
  •  Offers food indirectly (predators eat those who feed on the tree) 
  •  Roots protect soil from erosion 
  •  Regulates evaporation 
  •  Offers wood for construction, furniture, tools, instruments, firewood 

The list could go on and on. We can even include things like a place to hang your hammock, or build a tree house, or simply beautiful to behold. Functions everywhere! Even once it's dead and gone, the remaining stump can serve to feed mushrooms. Amazing all the things a tree does! So we better not ignore all these functions. If we just focus on the fruit or the wood, we'd be wasting all the effort the tree is already providing, and we'd have to include other elements to serve them. Sure, it's possible, but at the cost of efficiency. 

Water is an excellent example to illustrate stacking elements. It is one of the most vital elements needed by most other elements, including ourselves. So where does our water come from? Let's say there is a good well on our property. That should be enough to cover all our needs, which is nice. On the other hand, if we are 100% dependent on the well, it is not that great. This is where stacking elements comes in. Could we cover our water needs from additional elements? 

  •  Rainwater catchment 
  •  Surface water (from a nearby stream, for example) 
  •  A small-scale solar desalination system (if you're by the sea) 
  •  Gray-water filter 

Once again, the list can continue infinitely, potentially including such things as catching condensation from our greenhouse windows, or even being connected to the water main. Some people may regard this last one as something to be rather avoided, but in combination with other elements it will reduce dependence on any one element, which is the idea here. 

What's important with both stacking functions and stacking elements is our creativity. Just by having an element in our system gives us a number of functions. As good designers it is up to us to recognize these and connect them with the needs of others. The same is true vice versa: A need is potentially already served by several elements. We just have to recognize them and make the necessary connections in our design.

Creativity erm... let's see some more examples:  

 Consider a wood stove. It's main function is to heat the cabin. So far so good, but in a good design that should be only the start. Better if you can use the same heat for cooking. And baking! Still better, if it includes a wet-back. Then it can even heat water for showers. (Note: Unlike in the US, the term 'wetback' in New Zealand refers to a system of copper pipes on the back of a wood stove. The hot water is pulled up into an insulated tank by a thermo-syphon.) 
 Consider a porch. Under the transparent roof is a great place for a laundry-line. Even better, if you run grapes under it as well. The clothes will dry just as efficiently, but in the Summer the grape leaves provide a comfortable shade (and offer low-hanging fruit for breakfasts). Also, the roof protects the plant from the wind, making the grapes ripen sooner. In the winter the lack of leaves will allow more sunlight into the house. 

Finally, to give one last example on stacking elements, let's see an example that's not related to gardening at all: 

Consider Earning an Income:

For most people with a regular day job the answer will be one place of employment where they spend most of their waking hours at one type of activity. Just like with the well, this job may be paid sufficiently to cover all expenses. In fact, in the case of highly specialized professionals it may pay more than any combination of other elements. Still, relying on only one source of income makes us dependent on it. Having two part-time jobs is a bit more stable, of course at the cost of double the hassle that comes with it. If you are like me, you may not have any regular employment at all, but offer certain goods and/or services. In my case these include language classes, translating / proof reading gigs, as well as home made soft-drinks and spirulina products for the producers market. Additionally you may have some passive income coming your way in form of royalties to a book you've written, or from renting out a property. Though none of these apply to me, I do count my trading of crypto-currencies, and the rewards from posting on Steemit. While some of these elements may be close to insignificant in terms of financial yield, they all contribute to the end sum, which could even rival the aforementioned day job. 

Looking around on Steemit, there are not many mentions of these two principles. However, there is one post by @apollomission giving a great example for stacking functions. 

Here are some posts I have written about other Principles of Permaculture: 

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, Pics: 1, 2, 3 and 4 are mine

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Epic! We need more permaculture on steemit! Thank you for posting this @stortebeker !

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Oh, more permaculture is coming! Thanks to good folks like us. ;-)

Beautiful! Really enjoyed the article and the examples. Only thing I didn't understand is HOW you concluded that "neither Mollison nor Holmgren put that much emphasis on" these two principles. Wouldn't some of the 12 Principles from Holmgren ie Design From Patterns to Details – AND
Integrate Rather Than Segregate – “Many hands make light work”
By putting the right things in the right place, relationships develop between those things and they work together to support each other. Plus Bill's Designer Manual is FILLED with dozens of examples emphasizing the importance of stacking functions.... Don't get me wrong, I loved the article, I just couldn't find any truth to that claim in my own observations or study. Maybe you could clarify.

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You're right, it's my wording that's poorly chosen. It's not that they don't put emphasis on these concepts, but they both structure their set of design principles in a way that they are not treated as separate principles. Of course the same ideas can be found in principles such as work with nature not against it (elements serve functions by their nature) or everything gardens (another way of saying they serve a function), integrate rather than segregate as you pointed out, or even make the most of energy which ironically is another principle from the same set. But no, it is incorrect to imply they don't consider it important. They just never turned it into it's own principle.
So I will have to rephrase that part (while I still can edit it). I think a couple more attempts at explaining myself should let me come up with the best wording. Thank you for pointing this out, by the way.

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I really appreciated you doing the same and calling me out in a previous post I had done and I just wanted to encourage you to make a fantastic post EVEN BETTER. I got your back, and that will come in the form of unreserved praise (your stuff IS great @stortebeker! )and the occasional prod or bit of constructive criticism. As a community, if we can put all our skills together, we can do all the things......and have fun improving our craft in the process. Great clarification man, thank you for the wise retort. My friend commented on a video I had posted and quite correctly pointed out how dry and difficult it was for him to watch. I was irked at first but then saw exactly what he meant and replaced the video with one more flashy, shorter and to the point. He was right. Been having a lot of awkward but ultimately worthwhile teachable moments lately so I guess it's just my mood. The editing in the first week is AWESOME, just wish I also realized the only thing you can't really edit are the title and main category you wanna post in. May the Forces of Nature be with you..... @ecoknowme :)

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Done! And it sounds so much better this way. Once again, thank you for nudging me towards the right direction. And yes, once I notice something that doesn't sound quite right (or outright wrong) I'll make sure to say something.
You know, I think we are not yet used to actual dynamic writing. After centuries of one-way communication in print-media the above interaction seems still unusual. Changing a published article? Unheard of! But had we been talking, you would probably have asked to clarify this point right there and then. But given our current abilities, we still can do it. Now the text is changed, and we both feel more comfortable about pointing out things that may need a bit more work. I'd say it's a win-win.

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Best. Agreegument. Ever. Total win/win and reminded me of the cultural anthropology guy who studied this phenomena and made a cool video called the 'Machine is Us/ing Us"

What an educational read! The principles you outline make so much sense, I think about if planning and strategy would really go a long way in stacking elements and improving the efficiency of a homestead.

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Thank you @jaymorebeet! You are right, all these principles help us get the most out of everything, not specifically just a homestead. However, living elements are generally so diverse that they tend to offer a lot more ways of combining them, and so increasing the overall efficiency of the system. Honestly, I believe anyone reasonable enough already does this, calling it common sense. So now, the same principle can be applied to less obvious areas.

I really appreciate you sharing these permaculture principles. I feel like a lot of people who should be learning this information don't because of the cost of a course and that it should be open to everyone as you're doing here.
Thanks!

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Well, it's a challenge, that's for sure. Since there is no X number of principles, the list could go on and on. As many teachers of permaculture, as many lists of principles there are. Of course Holmgren's 12 points are the most famous set, but these two for example, I learned about at my PDC. So I'm trying to review the ones I can relate to most, and then... then tackle the rest. Thanks for reading! ;-)

Excellent post @stortebeker!

IMHO the web created by stacking elements and associated functions to create resilience is one of the most vital parts of design.

If I may add something... Consider the dimension of time when designing your stacks. Time stacking allows us to expand our design functionality and forge even more layers of resilience in that way.

A simple example of this would be planting fast growing tree species as a pioneer to provide shade and shelter in which secondary succession is established. The pioneers are then cut back after several years and used as timber or firewood.

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Awesome @qholloi, thank you for this great example! Indeed, time is an important factor that's too easily ignored. Certain systems can be put together almost immediately, while others need time to get established. So it is up to us to make use of the functions of quick elements, like the pioneer trees in your example, to help us get the slower ones working.
Let me see if I can apply the same idea in the kitchen: For example, by using the hot water drained from pasta to make the base of a soup, I'm not only taking advantage of the starchy water, but the fact that it's just been boiling. Okay, not exactly the same, but I think the idea is to design for an element to be not just in the right place, but to be there at the right time, and for the duration it's needed.
I appreciate you bringing up this conceptual exercise! This helps us reveal more valuable information hidden behind an idea.

Some really great permaculture info here. I'm looking to start implementing a few more principles here where I live, and all this provides some ideas. Thank you!

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Nice to hear, @cosmicorder. Which principles would you like to implement, and in what way? It's exciting to hear about the practical applications of these theoretical concepts.

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Well, I'm not certain as of yet. The main focus here though is finding better ways to grow my vegetables. I'm in a temperate climate region.