Observe and Interact: On Buying a Shed and Camping

Observation is the first principle of permaculture.

Writes Mollison:

“Collecting a large set of observations on occurrences, or samples of a set of phenomena, and sorting them on the basis of likeness-unlikeness (by establishing systems and system boundaries, categories, and keys to systems).  This process often reveals common characteristics of diverse elements, and leads to an understanding of common traits, suggesting (by analogy) strategies in design” (Mollison, 1979).

Writes Holmgren:

“Good design depends on a free and harmonious relationship between nature and people, in which careful observation and thoughtful interaction provide the design inspiration” (Holmgrem, 2002).

All the other permaculture principles and techniques rely on this one principle. Without observation, one does not understand their situation.

I am working through this principle at the moment–not that observation will ever cease. I am working out exactly how I ought to interact with my land. I want to build a house and have gardens but where should I place that house and the gardens? Where’s the best place to build the house to keep in cool during long, hot summers? How might I deliver nutrients and water to the plants? Conventional thinking doesn’t require us to go through this phase–at least not to a meaningful degree. You can effectively plonk the house where you like, and the garden, and tweak it with an array of inputs until you get the result you’re after. Place the house in a spot that gets thumped by the hot afternoon sun? No worries, air conditioning will take care of that. Place the fruit and nut orchard above the dams? No worries, an electric pump can keep it irrigated. Permaculture is about creatively solving problems. Out of the box thinking.

The first piece of my design will be applied in the coming weeks and it is the result of careful on- and offsite observation. You see, the scenario isn’t constrained to the block of land. It also encompasses state of mind, relationships, time, location, and monetary costs. The first piece will be a storage shed-cum-camping hut. I have settled on a 20’ shipping container. The reason I chose a shipping container is:

  1. Versatility–it’s essentially a watertight metal box that can perform, to quote Mollison (2011) again, “many functions”;
  2. Cost–a secondhand 20’-er costs about the same as a similar sized garage that would require a lot more work to place onsite;
  3. Environmental–I liked the idea of reusing something with a relatively high level of embodied energy rather than buying / building new; and
  4. It will double as a storage unit down here in Adelaide, which I can use to store salvaged building materials I acquire and then transport up to the block when it is full.

These reasons all stem from observations I have made of the situation. You will note, most are offsite elements. What about onsite? Well the key things I have had to observe are to do with the siting of the container. Fact is, my analysis confirms that I do need a storage shed. But how to site it? I have observed things such as where there is habitat and vegetation, where the water runs and pools, how intense the sun is in particular spots, where the cool spots are, and access for delivery. Sure, it could be placed under a big tree for shade but what about delivery, because there are other trees in the way? And what about the bushfire risks? And what about having a nice northerly aspect for winter solar access? I have settled on the spot that will cause the least amount of disturbance as possible, and will provide the most benefit. This spot is relatively open and clear with some protection from the hot afternoon summer sun. Further, there is space to build shade if required. The container will have the closed end facing north, the doors facing south onto the road, for easy receipt of materials I may need to store. The north end I will turn into a camping hut. I will line, with stud work and insulation, around 1/3 of the container and install a large window overlooking the view and to benefit from the winter sun. Shade from the summer sun will be provided for by a structure covered in edible climbing plants like grapes, passionfruit and choko. A large rainwater tank will be placed to the west of the living space to provide further insulation against the hot afternoon sun. The west side is also a prime candidate for some straw bale treatment. Not only to improve insulation, but as a way of learning the ropes–a non-structural project that I can stuff up on is probably the best place to start.

The fact that I want to have a comfortable camping space on the block comes back to observation. I realise this project is going to take a while. The straw bale house is at least a year off. In the meantime, I want to have the ability to visit the block as much as possible and observe a lot and interact a little. To not afford myself this ability would potentially see me rushing into things without having a good understanding of the situation, which could compromise the quality of the design and overall experience. Some weekends–I can picture it now–will see me head to the block on the Saturday morning bus, and just sit there and look and listen, before coming home to the grind on the Monday morning, having learnt a lot.

The observations I will make–that I am making now, too–will aid in making educated decisions and respecting the land. And it will make the whole experience a lot more intimate.


Holmgren, D. (2012). “Essence of Permaculture: A Summary of Permaculture Concepts and Principles Taken From ‘Permaculture Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability”. See: http://holmgren.com.au/downloads/Essence_of_Pc_EN.pdf

Mollison, B. (1979). “Permaculture: A Designers’ Manual”. Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Tasmania.

Mollison, B. & Slay, R. M. (2011). “Introduction to Permaculture” (Second Ed.). Tagari Publications, Sisters Creek, Tasmania.

3 thoughts on “Observe and Interact: On Buying a Shed and Camping

  1. Observing, or rather, immersing yourself in your block is the best way to learn how the current ecosystem works and how you and your elements (house, garden, chooks) can fit in without changing things too quickly or too radically. It is sometimes hard to remember that wherever you go there is a pre-existing ecosystem that will be disrupted to some degree by your presence. I have found this on our land and try to change things very slowly to allow others to adapt.

  2. I don’t know if you read her blog but Linda Cockburn from Living the Good Life (http://lintrezza.blogspot.com.au/) built a straw bale house, trying their best to use local materials where possible and avoiding the lovely PVC where they could too. If you haven’t already read the blog there might be some great info in there that may help you. 🙂
    As for living lightly and learning the true lie of your land before building, well that will likely prove an experience all in itself I’d say and I can’t want to hear about it. 🙂

  3. The wonderful thing about Permaculture is that most of the hard yakka is situated right at the beginning of the process when you are the most keen to get going and once those amazing cycles start to kick in, its all go :). I didn’t get to choose where to put anything as it was already here. Now we are just doing our level (ha…level is a joke on our steeply sloped property 😉 ) best to do as much as we can to return this property to something that will be self sustaining and that will be able to survive with very little human intervention. Observation is the MOST important thing and something that we all want to bypass and just get stuck in. You are so right to watch, wait and think about it. Still, we live and learn 🙂

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