Sustainable Design around your Home: Elements and Function

Elements and functions in an efficient landscape

In the previous two articles, we looked at the patterns of movement across a landscape and setting up zones to do various activities in based on efficiency and ease. In this segment, we will fine-tune the placement of different objects in a landscape, so they perform as many useful functions as possible.


Before we define what goes into each zone, we need to define ‘elements’. An element is simply a discrete object in the landscape. It could be a tree, a fence, a shed, a pathway, a pond, a gazebo, anything that can be defined as solid and discrete. In Permaculture, each element performs many functions


A function is any yield that the element may perform in the landscape, more on this below. Certain functions can be grouped to form themes such as energy production, food production, wildlife habitat, water harvesting etc. As we go through the process, the picture will get clearer. In Permaculture, each function is supported by many elements.

Each element has a primary function in the landscape. Let’s look at a tree. Most people plant a tree for either its beauty in shape or flowers or for it use i.e. fruit. And wherever you place that element ‘the tree’ in your landscape it will perform that function. But trees can also perform many other functions. They can create shady microclimates with their shadows (which may be good for a swing during a hot afternoon). They can become an effective windbreak (or block out a neighboring view that’s not pleasing). These could provide critical shelter for all different types of birds and other wildlife (or rare trees in your back yard can become your role in conserving biodiversity). Their roots may help hold up an area that would alternatively require an expensive retaining wall. Their leaves, when dropped, could create amazing mulch and soils if positioned somewhere where the leaves can be quickly used up instead of them becoming an unsightly mess…! All these often overlooked functions then become important criteria of where you place the different elements in your design or how you can now design around the elements that may be in your design that you can no longer move. A bare lot is quite different from an established 20-year-old house and garden. In Permaculture, we are always looking for multifunctional elements. The more functions an element can perform in your landscape the more valuable it is to the overall design.

Elements and function in an efficient landscape
(photo via

Exercise 1 a

List out all of the elements in the space that you are designing. Try to be as exhaustive as possible. This exercise will also enhance your observation skills as you become aware of all the different elements in a landscape.

As you walk through your landscape try to imagine where your different zones may lie and list the elements that may fall in each zone. Zones are the areas in your landscape the move from often visited to hardly visited.

Exercise 1b

Take your list of elements that you have created and list what the primary function of it is in your landscape. In a separate column list all the other functions that element could perform in your landscape if it is left where it is or theoretically moved somewhere else. There are no right or wrong answers. Each landscape is different. Again, this exercise will enhance your ability to observe landscapes better. Doing this

Connecting Elements

Trying to establish connections between elements is critical…can the leaves for the tree be used to mulch beds or put in the compost?…is the compost bin close to the leaf source but also on a route someone in the house normally takes so that kitchen scraps are quickly removed from the kitchen?  Trying to find connections with each element and linking their functions to support other elements in your landscape will be both a challenging and enjoyable exercise.

Sometimes the process of random assembly is used where all the elements are listed, and then two elements are randomly connected with a connector word like ‘beside’, ‘around’, ‘over’ to create new linkages that you may not have thought of before. An example is below.

Connection elements and functions in an efficient landscape
(photo via:

Functions are supported by many elements

A permaculture landscape is a landscape supportive to human habitation with as little impact on the natural environment as possible. Now that we have identified the elements in our landscape and the little functions that each one can potentially do, let’s look at the larger functions or themes that could be supported. Having many elements support a single large function adds redundancy and security into the system. Instead of a linear flow of energy, you are creating a web where if one element is lost the entire system doesn’t crash.

Function – Water in the landscape….. look at all the elements associated with water…these include taps, ponds (large or little), drains, tanks, the roof of your house and where it drains to, your driveways and your soil. From a holistic view point of view, the soil is the cheapest element to store your water in to feed your landscape, ponds next and then water tanks (per gallon of water stored). By analyzing the flow of water both free and piped across your landscape you can optimize where you could catch and store it before it leaves your property. Please remember that most flooding is caused by the acceleration of water off people’s roofs and driveways into drains, that can longer cater for water dropped by larger and larger climate change-induced storms, while the permaculture response would be to slow and hold it in the landscape.

Function – Food in the landscape…..growing your own food can be one of the most rewarding experiences in your landscape. Look at your landscape as a site where little microclimates can exist to grow hardy perennial food crops and shrubs and fruit trees. Each of these elements will support your function of food security, and if you lose one or two of them to pests, there will be others that will still supply you with something. Look at all the little herbs, root crops, edible grasses (sugarcane, bamboo, corn, lemongrass), bananas, vegetables and vines. There are an amazing amount of edible plants you can add to a landscape that can feed you year round.

To conclude this article, think about what other major functions you would like your landscape to perform for you and spend some time seeing how the existing element around you can help you reach that goal or what new elements you need to bring into your design.

Additional reads:

Erle Rahaman-Noronha

Erle Rahaman-Noronha is a farmer and Permaculture designer. He has been practicing Permaculture on his farm, Wa Samaki Ecosystems, in Trinidad for over 2 decades ( and has been teaching and designing, throughout the Caribbean, for the last 10 years through his consulting company Caribbean Permaculture Consultants Ltd. His TEDxPortofSpain talk Bringing Nature Home ( shows how we can use Permaculture to design Caribbean sites to encourage and maintain biodiversity and wildlife. He is currently the lead implementation consultant at Walkers Reserve Barbados (, one of the only quarry rehabilitation projects in the Caribbean.

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