Taking Permaculture Indoors: How I Am Designing My New Kitchen

For my new kitchen, I am using many of the same strategies and principles that I use in garden design.

Herbs in flowerpots at the kitchen window
Observe the ways in which sunlight comes into your space. Westend61 / Getty Images

My husband and I are working (slowly) on the renovation of an old stone barn that will be our forever home. Since we are self-building on weekends and the occasional evening, it is taking a long time. We're still working on the basics but I have had plenty of time to think about what I would like it to be like when it is finished.

I thought I would share with you how I have used my knowledge of permaculture and its ethics and design principles to design what will (eventually) be my kitchen, using many of the same strategies and principles that I use in garden design.

Sectors and Passive Solar Design

In permaculture garden design, we begin with observation. The same should be true when we think about design inside our homes. In this case, I spent time thinking about the ways in which sunlight comes into the space throughout each day and throughout the year.

Since we are working from a basic stone-walled shell, some of the first work we undertook in our barn conversion involved making new openings in the exterior and making changes to the internal layout. This included making a new opening for French doors to a garden to the east and removing a portion of an internal wall to make a more usable space. A small north-facing window was altered but retained, as was a large arch opening to the south.

This south-facing arch now leads from the kitchen into a large porch. This porch will catch south-facing light, and the sun's heat, and play a role in maintaining temperatures in the kitchen.

Internal walls are insulated, and where possible inside stone walls have been retained to preserve the original character, and for thermal mass to catch and store energy, and keep temperatures even over time.

In the northeast corner of the space that will be our kitchen, we have created a new walk-in cold store/ pantry. This is outside the insulation envelope of the building and will remain cool year-round for food storage and preservation.

Thinking about light and heat requirements was key to us in developing the basic layout of our new home. And these things remain crucial as we consider and begin work on the interior. The sun's light and heat and how these enter the space are key considerations for the placement of the different elements that will be in the kitchen.

Permaculture Zoning

In addition to considering the patterns of sunlight and air throughout the space, another key consideration in determining the kitchen layout and design were patterns of human movement. In permaculture design, we often think about zoning. Those items visited most frequently are placed closest to the home or center of operations.

Thinking about placement in terms of zones radiating out from key operational areas – such as the stove and kitchen sink, for example, can help work out where elements and items should go. For example, we need pots and pans by the stove – so they will be stored close by, while items we use only occasionally can be stored farther away.

Moving From Patterns to Details

In kitchen design, people often talk about the key triangle that defines easy movement between the cook top/stove, sink, and fridge/pantry. This is an example of how patterns of human movement can be used to create good design.

Along with the patterns of sunlight and other environmental factors, I also thought a lot about how we will use the space when creating my design. I thought about workflows when cooking and otherwise using the space, and where and how my husband and I will spend time there.

The takeaway: The big picture is ultimately far more important than small design details and aesthetic decisions.

Systems Analysis

Thinking about the best use of time, and how to streamline processes to save it, is an integral part of permaculture design. Looking at the inputs, outputs, and characteristics of certain kitchen elements can help us work out where to place those elements in relation not only to the main "operational zones" but also in relation to one another.

Thinking about the inputs, outputs, and characteristics of each element can also help us not only determine the best layout but also think of new ways to use the characteristics of an element to our advantage.

For example, the Rayburn stove (a cast iron range cooker made by Aga) that will be the main source of heating and hot water for our home, as well as being used for cooking:

Inputs: Wood (from sustainably managed woodland in the neighboring property, via seasoning area), food and water (when cooking, to make meals).

Outputs: Hot meals, hot water, heat (direct and via radiators).

Characteristics: Generates heat for cooking and room heating. (Also beneficial for sitting nearby in cold weather, keeping food hot, drying produce, etc. – but the fridge and cold pantry storage should be farther away.)

Key Elements and Materials Choices

Finally, though we have yet to actually create our kitchen, we have already made key decisions about the elements we want to include and materials choices.

Key elements are simple:

  • The Rayburn, and an electric hob (burner) for cooking when we do not want to light the stove in summer.
  • A Belfast farmhouse sink unit.
  • A small area of countertop, with cupboards beneath, and open shelves above.
  • A farmhouse style kitchen table, a fridge and freezer, and the walk-in pantry. I do not need a huge amount of storage since I don't have lots of gadgets or cooking equipment. And I plan to keep things to a minimum.

We intend to use reclaimed or natural, eco-friendly materials as much as possible – reclaimed timber flooring (and reclaimed stone slabs we removed during renovations in the pantry), clay plaster on the walls, with ceramic tiles behind the stove and above the sink and worktop. And reclaimed timber worktops and shelving (some from our own renovations).

Designing a new kitchen is not about looking at glossy magazines or inspiration articles online. It's about thinking practically and aesthetically about what works in your particular home, for you.

No matter where you live, designing a kitchen while keeping core permaculture ethics and principles in mind can help you create the perfect kitchen. It has certainly helped me move closer to my dream.