Sitting Lightly on the Land: My Design Tips for Builders and Gardeners

We always get more from the land when we don't impose our will upon it.

cabin in a garden

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One of the most important things to remember as we navigate our world is that we are not overlords with dominion over the land. We are custodians. Those of us who are lucky enough to "own" land have a duty to care for it. 

The land can yield true bounty and provide us with what we need to survive and thrive. But we will always get more from the land when we don't impose our will upon it. When we build or grow, the systems we design should sit lightly on the land. Finding ways to minimize impact on the natural world and to work with nature is key to permaculture design.

Work With the Natural Environment of the Site

One of the biggest mistakes made by designers and those in the construction industry is thinking that one size can fit all. Sadly, development often has little regard for location, and we see identical developments popping up all over the place. 

Sitting lightly on the land demands a consideration of the terrain, the climate, and the natural environment of a particular location. Materials, layout, infrastructure, and a range of other choices should be determined with reference to these things. The choices made on a temperate wooded property, for example, should be very different to the choices made in an arid environment or in the tropics. Buildings and food-producing zones should fit around the existing terrain and vegetation, not be shoe-horned into place. 

Homes can be created on footings which work around existing trees and other vegetation. They might even not have traditional footings at all. For example, a floating home could be an interesting solution on a pond within a wetland setting. 

Derive Construction Materials Holistically While Undertaking Other Works

Using materials from the site in construction can often minimize impact. If you are digging a pond or thinning existing woodland as part of other land management practices on the site, extract some clay or coppice the timber to use. Construction and materials and resource use can be considered as part of the bigger picture in order to minimize overall impact.

Less Is Often More

Sitting lightly on the land can mean building or growing on a smaller scale, both in terms of the size of individual properties or plots, and in terms of the size of the whole community. Small and slow solutions are often best. Tiny homes come in many shapes and sizes and naturally allow people to have less impact, in a range of ways, on the land around them. 

Tiny homes obviously require fewer materials, have a smaller footprint (literally and metaphorically), and utilize less energy and fewer resources on an ongoing basis. 

Smaller, domestic-scale food production can also be more efficient, producing higher yields per acre than larger-scale systems. And of course, such systems can be more easily integrated into surrounding natural environments.

Reuse and Repurpose Existing Structures

Another interesting idea is repurposing existing structures and infrastructure to create homes and areas for food production. Often, repurposing and reuse allows developments to reduce their impact on existing landscapes. Turning old agricultural or even industrial buildings into domestic properties can be good solutions, if done properly and safely.

Rewilding Communities and Food Production

When we think about building homes and producing food, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that this naturally means diminishing the "wild" natural areas of land around us. But when we try to live more lightly on the land, we have to recognize that homes and food production do not need to deplete natural resources or despoil natural environments, but can actually work hand in hand with natural ecosystems while meeting our needs.

Rather than tilling fields and creating annual growing areas, we can create thriving natural systems for food production—valuing non-timber forest products, for example, or recognizing the potential of wild "native" foods and other natural resources in a given area.

And rather than dropping little boxes, lawns, and roads into a landscape, we can integrate all systems and create more holistic and natural housing solutions. The earthworks and structures we create can even enhance an ecosystem, allowing water and energy flows to work effectively in symbiosis with the natural ecosystem around them. For example, the right structures within a landscape can aid in catching and storing rainwater on a site; or they can create microclimates for varied and useful plant life to grow and for wildlife to flourish.