What is a Site Assessment, and Why Do One?

“…a philosophy…of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labor” – Bill Mollison

What is a Site Assessment?

A site assessment is the thorough observation, recording, compilation, and organization of all of the existing conditions that are present at or affect the design and function of a piece of property.

For a landscape, this includes not only the physical features of a site (like landshape and structures), but also the larger off-site factors, or “sectors” that affect it (like climate and nosy neighbors) and the existing patterns of interaction within it (zones and frequency of use – and not just by humans) that may already exist. Ideally, all of these observations, once compiled and organized, are then represented as layers on a map, like the ones shown below from a recent consultancy, to aid in comprehension and subsequent process of developing a whole site design.

And notice that we (and Bill) said “observation”, not “interpretation” – at least at first. As Jessi Bloom and Dave Boehnlein distinguish in their book Practical Permaculture, “… an observation is a fact, a statement of an observed phenomenon. An interpretation is a guess at why the phenomenon is happening.” Beginning in observation mode will help keep our eyes option to future possibilities rather than begin filtering because the brain is in problem-solving mode.

Our first observation can be (and ideally, should be) performed long before we even find a site – and that is the thorough (and ongoing) observation of ourselves, the most frequently interacted with part of any future landscape we inhabit! The desired quality of life, goals, available resources, and existing constraints that we have as individuals (and share as a group, for projects with multiple collaborators) will be the largest factor in determining whether a given element is an asset or a liability. If you haven’t spent the time exploring your own desired quality of life and how it may affect any projects you’re undertaking, we think our Minimum Holistic Goal-Setting process is a great place to start.

permaculture zones
The individual (or group) that a site is being assessed (and designed) is sometimes referred to as “Zone 00”, as shown in this zone diagram. Image: Permaculture Zones, by By Felix Müller [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

In terms of site-specific observations, there are many questions worth answering. A few of the questions that we ask and answer when we perform site assessments for clients include:

  • What is the lay of the land?
    • How does water move through the landscape, and how can on-site hydrology be improved to support desirable species and forms of production?
    • What is the water harvesting potential on site? Where are the highest-leverage intervention points for increasing water infiltration, retention and putting it to productive use throughout the landscape?
    • What areas are protected or exposed based on topography?
    • Are there temperature variations in different areas of the site?
  • What are the site-specific climate factors that every built or living element will need to harmonize with? These include but are not limited to…
    • Daily and seasonal wind and weather patterns.
    • Solar aspect and total annual solar energy, potential for off-grid solar and wind energy generation.
    • Precipitation – annual distribution, intensity, historic extremes (both low and high).
    • Temperature (including historic extremes).
  • What vegetation is currently present on-site?
    • What can it tell us about the land use history, productive analogue species likely to thrive in that climate, soil health and mineral profile?
    • What are the native plant guilds, and what non-native species are thriving?
  • How healthy are the soils?
    • Is the soil biology active and healthy, or is it anemic and lacking? What changes in management will help restore it to vibrant function?
    • How does this influence existing and future plant communities and which species or cultivates are likely to thrive there?
  • How is access patterned throughout the property?
    • How is the site currently accessed, and do the existing access patterns need to be retrofitted to repair erosion damage, improve on-site hydrology, and increase function throughout the property?
    • Who is already living on-site (humans and wildlife), and how will their daily activity patterns need to be incorporated into a functional property design?
  • What is the state of repair, location, orientation, and climate suitability of all existing built structures on the property?
    • What are the highest-ROI repairs, retrofits and adjustments to maximize function and enjoyment while minimizing ongoing costs of maintenance and operation?

It has been said by more than one person that, ideally, at least a year should be spent observing a site before any designing begins so a site can be personally known in all of its seasons. A mentor of ours even spent his year of observation in a tent on the new large property he had just began stewarding, moving from ridge to valley to mid-slope knoll to adjacent valley every few weeks, so he could observe and interact with the differing solar aspects, wind patterns, temperature gradients, views, wildlife patterns and other features of each location before making any decisions about where to place his home, garden, etc.

While there is no substitute for extensive time spent on the land, fortunately for land stewards with tighter time constraints (or designers like us who provide site assessments to clients but can’t spend a year at every site!) there are resources for quickly gathering a significant amount of data about a site. A few include:

  • Talking to the previous owner(s) and any neighbors. Not only will they have very likely spent at least a year observing the site and surrounding area through all of its seasons, but having good relationships with neighbors usually proves to be one of the largest assets our clients have as they develop their sites!
  • The local library and nurseries also likely have some resources written by nearby residents about the climate, biome, or land history that may prove insightful.
  • The internet now has an immense amount of information available (including databases of hourly weather data uploaded by wifi-connected personal weather stations, some of which likely exist near your site). This enables the compilation, and, with some spreadsheet skills, organization and representation of detailed and accurate historical information, even stepping on-site!
PWS Overview Map
Weather Underground has data from over 250,000 weather stations!
A plot of solar insolation values that we developed and included in an assessment we recently performed for a site in Santa Barbara, CA. The data was collected from a weather station within 2 miles of the site over the course of several years and uploaded to the internet for public use. We plotted it against the values for Death Valley, CA and Fairbanks, AK, considered to be among the most and least sunny places in the USA, respectively, for context.

Why Should You Perform a Site Assessment?

While postponing the fun design phase to perform a site assessment takes time (or costs some money), we feel confident that doing so will pay for itself many, many times over for one reason:

It will help ensure that you are creating a design that works with nature, rather than against it!

Knowing yourself well enough to know that you don’t like being on your hands and knees crouched over small plants for hours every day, or don’t really like all that many vegetables, will help you avoid spending time and money designing for an extensive vegetable garden and perhaps instead design for a tree- and livestock-based food production system.

Knowing what vegetation thrives in an area (and what that vegetation indicates about weather, soil, etc) helps us avoid spending time and money selecting, planting, and maintaining species for wind- and privacy-screens, shade, and food-production systems that will struggle or simply die due to lack of compatibility and instead select species that will grow quickly and thrive without extensive irrigation systems or amending of soils.

Knowing where animals tend to congregate and their movement patterns at a site (and that they tend to congregate in the most desirable micro-climates and near the most reliable water and food sources, and move between these locations following the path of least resistance) helps us avoid spending time and money designing shelter or food systems in less hospitable locations or creating access routes that we won’t feel motivated to transit on a daily basis and instead place them in supportive locations (unless they are animals we want to stay away from – which is also informative!)

Zones of use at an outdoor school.

Knowing what external energies (ranging from the powerful influence of the sun and floodwaters to the subtle influence of the moon and planets) affect a site helps us to avoid spending time and money designing systems that channel these energies in harmful ways and create expensive problems later on and instead possibly capture and utilize these energies in ways that increase productivity and decrease maintenance!

We once visited a property that had an orchard planted on an undulating hillside with 1600 avocado trees.  The trees, 7 years old by the time we arrived, were planted on 2’ high and 5’ wide bulldozer-built berms that were created in long, perfectly straight rows across a valley where water was already collecting during major rains and creating erosion. The result was that these berms would channel rainwater even more quickly towards the low point in each row (the valley), where its volume and speed would blow out the downslope berm in that location.  The water would then flow with more speed and in greater volume down the valley to the next downslope berm, knocking it out with even more force. 

Avocado trees planted on raised berms running straight across a valley. Looks beautiful in this photo, but the strips in between these berms create an excellent chute for rainwater to run down, where it collects at the low point of each row and erodes the berms in the section year after year.

The consequence of this design decision was significant erosion gullies through the middle of the orchard that required annual soil additions and armoring – and got worse every year. However, the expense associated with tearing down all of the trees and berms and rebuilding on-contour so there would be no low spots in each row for water to collect was so large that the owners chose to continue to deal with it and expend annually smaller amounts of time, energy, and financial resources year after year instead of completely retrofitting the entire orchard. This annual drain on their profit margins was also coupled with stress about what they’d wake up to every time it rained.

Performing a thorough site assessment process and understanding the information gathered before designing and installing the orchard would have shown them how water moved on the landscape and may have led them to determine that there was a more suitable site for the orchard or – better yet – a different berm layout that could be utilized to not only prevent exacerbating the existing erosion problem but actually eliminate it and simultaneously reduce their requirements for irrigation water!

Berms designed in such a way as to move water AWAY from the valley, spread it out along the ridges, and allow it to soak in. The details of this projects can be found here, including a full video walk-through of this system after implementation.

When we knows what IS, and then figure out WHY it is as best we can, our brains are then thinking in terms of processes and connections, and we are able to select design elements that maximize the number of mutually beneficial relationships between existing and proposed elements. Bill Mollison, the founder of Permaculture, has said: “Design is a connection between things. It’s not water, or a chicken, or the tree. It is how the water, the chicken and the tree are connected…as soon as you’ve got the connection you can feed the chicken from the tree”.

Need Help?

Our modern societal paradigm incentivizes short-term, reactionary thinking, often under the guise of best practice.  Our neighborhoods and communities are characterized by poorly-designed, maintenance-intensive landscapes that are becoming more like deserts year after year and leave the landowner’s spirits and bank accounts drained.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Slowing down enough to observe a site and what Nature already wants to do there helps us align our actions with the larger patterns and forces at work.

We can design landscapes and homesteads that infiltrate millions of  gallons of rainwater into the soil every year, that build fertility and produce more abundantly with each successive year, that explode with life and all its beauty, and that require less maintenance as they mature, not more. 

We can create homes and landscapes that create freedom in time, health, wealth and spirit – for current and future generations. We share many of the techniques and methods we use to design landscapes to do just these things on this website – and of course, we are also available to perform a turnkey Level 1 Site Assessment for your property.

Your legacy is yours to create – what do you want to leave behind?

Start a conversation with us today.

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We’re a central California based regenerative design consultancy. We restore ecological function to broad acre landscapes and create regenerative ecosystems that are beautiful, productive and resilient. We help you optimize your home, landscape and enterprise to create more freedom in time, health, wealth and spirit. Abundance by design is what we do.

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