What Is A Whole Site Design, and Why Do One?

What is a Whole Site Design?

A whole site design is a visually illustrated, comprehensive plan that integrates all of the elements required to realize the vision for a particular landscape, whether that be held by an individual or a group of people, into a cohesive, self-supporting whole that exists in harmony with the innate characteristics of that landscape.

A Whole Site Design is anchored in the broad patterns of Nature first (climate, geography, topography etc.) – all of the intrinsic characteristics of a site that already should have been thoroughly identified during the site assessment process – and layers on progressively finer details until the whole integrated system of systems reveals itself.

These layers (generated in this order, from most to least permanent) typically include:

  • Water: active and passive water harvesting and distribution, greywater systems
  • Access: vehicle, utility, human, and animal access routes
  • Structures: residences, storage and work spaces, animal shelters
  • Living Systems: soil fertility, food production, climate moderation, erosion control, plant propagation
  • Boundaries: security, privacy, animal confinement and exclusion
  • Energy: heating and cooling for food, water and spaces, transport of people and materials, energy production, storage and distribution
  • Economy: enterprise and home-use
The map of a whole site design developed by 7th Generation Design for a property in central California.

The property design considerations and contained subsystems listed above are all deeply connected and influence one another within the whole. The goal of the whole site design process is to develop clarity on exactly what functions those systems need to perform, the corresponding elements that will be required to perform those functions, and how each element within the system and all of the systems within the larger property can be arranged to mutually support each other. 

A whole site design and accompanying report provides a visual illustration and written explanation of these interdependencies by mapping the relationships, distances, patterns of use, and management practices between different elements (existing and proposed) on a property. allowing all of those involved to “see” how all of the pieces will integrate and support one another. A whole site design is your vision, values and desired quality of life mapped onto the landscape in a master plan.

Why Should You Do a Whole Site Design?

Developing a whole site design is energy and time intensive (if you do it yourself), or costly (if you hire someone else to do it).  It can be extremely challenging to slow down and take the time (at least a couple of months) to sit down and have the deep conversations, thoughtful introspection, and long hours putting pencil to paper when there is so much excitement  to break ground on a project or start a new phase (especially when multiple people are involved).  It’s very easy to get excited about the details, skip all that hum-drum planning and jump straight into the good stuff- building the chicken coop, installing swales, putting in the garden etc. However, we have seen, time and time again, that the decision to invest the time and energy to develop a whole site design before the shovels come out and the sleeves get rolled up, will pay huge dividends over the long run in two primary ways – minimizing the bad and maximizing the good. 

Taking the time to identify all of the inputs and outputs that go into each element in a design helps to ensure that the elements are arranged in ways that maximize beneficial relationships and minimize unnecessary time, energy, and financial input.

Minimizing The Bad: Save Yourself Time, Energy, Money and Stress By Avoiding Type 1 Errors

A Type 1 Error is an error in design and/or implementation that costs the steward(s) time, energy, money or emotional wellbeing as long as it remains present in the system. 

Committing a Type 1 Error is like building a bucket for carrying water out of wood that has been eaten through by termites – it’s going to leak, no way around it, but it still sort of works. You just lose a lot of water (valuable resource), create a mess every time you use it (create more work in cleaning up after each use) and have to make a bunch of extra trips to gather the water you need (energetically expensive).

A Type 1 Error, like a leaky bucket, creates additional work throughout its entire life that could have been entirely avoided through good design. Photo from www.ethanmaurice.com

Type 1 Errors are often fundamental – i.e. something that a lot of other systems/elements depend on or are built on top of – and are often “discovered” when it is “too late” to do anything about them but suck it up and “deal” with it. They are more often than not expensive to fix once they are built into a system – usually because so many other things depend on the system being the way it is, and would themselves have to be re-designed and re-implemented in order to solve the root issue. 

As an example – we once did an assessment of 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 3’ high and 5’ wide bulldozer-built berms that were dug in long, perfectly straight rows rather than following contour. This is a common practice in orcharding, despite it being wholly dysfunctional.  The result was that these off-contour berms would channel rainwater runoff towards the low point in each row – the valley – where it would then build up, eventually blowing 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.  This resulted in significant erosion gullies through the middle of the orchard that required annual soil additions and armoring. However, the expense associated with tearing down all of the trees and berms and rebuilding on-contour so there would 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.

Avocado trees planted on raised berms running straight downhill. Looks beautiful in this photo, but the strips in between these berms create an excellent chute for rainwater to run down, where it collects in a dip in the orchard and erodes the berms in that section year after year.

Going through the whole site design process before installing the orchard would have shown them how water moved on the landscape helped them identify this (and other) possible Type 1 errors early, on paper (the cheap way to discover a Type 1 Error), and modify their design to eliminate these expensive, perennial costs before putting the shovel (or bulldozer) to the earth.

As another example, we recently performed a Whole Site Design for a client who wanted to add an off-grid home to his property (among other goals).  Before we began the design, he had researched a variety of conventional pre-fabricated homes, and was ready to purchase one.  He then separately contacted an electrician to begin discussion about designing an off-grid electrical system to supply the home.

These two systems – home and energy – are deeply related, and they are also related to all of the other elements on the property.  To make a decision about each separately, without examining how they will integrate together (and with the other elements contained in the vision for the property) most efficiently, leaves the door wide-open for Type 1 Errors.  

In this case, the home he had selected and nearly purchased was designed with all-electrical appliances (cooking, heating, cooling, lighting, etc) that required an AC-grid connection.  In order to provide for the energy input needs of the home, he would have had to install a solar PV system and battery bank 3-4 times larger than would be required if he selected or designed a home that was set up for an off-grid, direct current (DC) input (the kind provided by a solar PV system and battery bank) for lighting and devices, and chosen gas- and wood-fired cooking and heating systems instead of electrical (making use of the abundant deadfall around the home site as a fuel source, which also helps to reduce the threat of fire to the home). Taking these design considerations into account, he was able to save $10,000-$15,000 on the initial cost of the solar PV system and battery bank, and will save several thousand dollars when replacing the batteries in 5-7 years.

The energy systems in a house of this size (or any size, for that matter) could be designed to use far, far less solar panels than this. Image: www.goodhomesdesign.com

See our article on Type 1 Errors for a running list of other major Type 1 Errors we’ve seen while performing site assessments.

Maximizing The Good: Increase Productivity and Yields While Having MORE Of A Life

Thoughtful design can not only save you time, energy, money, and stress in the long run, but actually increase the productivity and yields of the systems you plan to put in place – often with little to no additional work when compared to conventional design, especially when accounting for the long term.

One way that this can happen is by thoughtfully locating elements relative to each other so that the outputs of one element (like greywater from an outdoor kitchen) become a high-value input for another (greywater mulch basin growing food for the kitchen). .

This outlet is delivering greywater from an outdoor kitchen into a mulch basin, where it is filtered by the mulch and allowed to infiltrate into the soil, providing nutrients and water to surrounding fruit trees. This arrangement boosts yields and eliminates costly septic or sewer systems and the need for supplemental fresh water to the trees. Image: Michael Dorman, excerpted from Greywater, Green Landscape

Take, for instance, two elements found on many homesteads: the apple orchard and the pig.  On many homesteads, a barren, muddy pig pen is permanently located in the corner of the property, some distance away from an apple orchard, also looking a little forlorn and lonely. The apple orchard produces fallen, immature, pest-ridden apples: an ideal food source for a pig, and one that needs to be removed from the orchard if pest control (and thus fruit yields) is a priority. Pigs produce manure – an ideal food source for an apple tree, and one that needs to be removed from the pen if pig health (and odor control) is a priority.  

Hopefully, the landowner in this scenario is collecting the fallen apples and carting them over to the pig pen, and composting the pig manure and carting it over to the apple orchard. In this way, the two systems are feeding each other in a mutually-beneficial way.  However, with a bit more thought into the design, these two elements (the apple orchard and the pig), could be arranged in a way that delivers the beneficial functions that each provides the other while decreasing the workload for the landowner. By building a mobile pig pen and seasonally grazing the pigs in the understory of the apple orchard, the pigs will clean up the fallen fruit, fertilize the ground under the fruit trees, and enjoy the shade of the orchard without any carting back and forth on the part of the landowner. While this design does not eliminate energetic input from the landowner – proper management of the animals in the orchard understory is critical, or the orchard could become a wasteland from too much pig activity – it reduces the workload of a repetitive task that doesn’t need to exist. .This saves time, physical energy, and money (especially if the apples or pigs are part of an enterprise).

Pigs enjoying the fallen fruit and shade of an apple orchard. Image: Kelsey Smith, Alluvial Farms

There are countless other examples demonstrating how thoughtful design can lower costs and increase yields (and how thoughtless design can hugely increase costs and limit yields) throughout this and many other websites, books, and videos. We’re sure you can take a short walk down your street (or rural road) and identify quite a few yourself!

The Best Time to Do a Whole Site Design Was 20 Years Ago… the Second Best Time is Today!

Nature is the master whole-systems designer. Meadows, forests, jungles, and oceans are Type 1 Error-free and abundant in their yields because their wonderfully diverse array of elements (living and non-living) are arranged relative to each other in ways that maximize mutually beneficial relationships – otherwise they die or relocate.  Our human brains, opposable thumbs, and historically recent access to ancient energy sources have allowed us to innovate and create amazing things in the world, but also to create systems no longer tethered to an ecological umbilical cord – systems that can only survive so long as we ceaselessly donate our time, energy, money, and well-being to keep them on life-support.

There is a better way, however, a way that mimics nature’s approach – and this way begins with observation, whole-systems thinking, and thoughtful design. Even if you’ve already made some Type 1 Errors on your property, it’s never too late to rectify them – and prevent future ones. Investing the time to perform first a site assessment and then a whole site design will help you to see the many and varied elements and systems that are required to bring your vision to life, and place them on the landscape in such a way as to produce greater yields and freedom in time, health, wealth, and spirit.

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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, increasingly maintenance-intensive landscapes that are becoming more like deserts year after year and leaving the landowner’s spirits and bank accounts drained. It doesn’t have to be that way.

When we put our big brains  opposable thumbs to work following guiding ecological principles, it is possible to create landscapes 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 we use to design landscapes to do just these things on this website – and of course, we are available to perform a turnkey Level 2 Whole Site Design for your property.

Your legacy is yours to create – what do you want to leave behind? Please reach out and start a conversation if you think we can help!

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