Human 2.0 Project

Permanence * Adventure * Culture

Tutorial 08 - Research tools for permaculture design

2014-05-13 00:00:00 Erik Lee

This post is part of a series on how to do permaculture design with free software and tools. The other parts of the series can be found here: Installing software, getting background imagery, contours part one, contours part two (google maps), contours part three (DIY surveying), making mosaics, drawing swales, trees, and roads

I was originally going to move on to drawing shapes and picking colors at this point, but a student from the online PDC suggested a tutorial on research resources, which I thought was such a good idea that I wanted to get it in here as early as possible (really it should be the first tutorial). This is a collection of resources that I use, along with some that have been suggested by others that I haven't personally used. I'm very much expecting that you will have other suggestions that should be added here, and if you do please comment at the end and I'll add them to the post for future reference. You'll notice that my list is heavy on the US-based data sources, so I really could use some help with international stuff here. This is the kind of thing where the power of the Internet can really shine...

On to the list!

Permaculture Research Tools

Before we go any further, I have to point out a resource that's been compiled by students of this year's and last year's online PDCs. You really have to check this out:


  • Analogues - climates like yours but in different places, good for finding ideas for new plants and species, shelter ideas, and agricultural patterns

    • The Koppen-Geiger climate map is a great resource for finding places with similar climates around the world. They provide a google earth overlay as well (kml file). To use it, download it to your machine, then open google earth and click File->open. Browse to the kml file, and open it. Your map will be colorized with the new data, and you can browse around the globe to find similar locations.
    • This is a climate analogues database that seems like it would be a powerful tool. I haven't been able to get it to give me useful data, however, so I mostly put this link up in the hopes that you will have a better experience.
  • Precipitation

    • The NOAA National Climatic Data Center has a wealth of historical climate data. You can download detailed reports organized by weather station for temperature, precipitation, wind, and a few other climatic measures.
    • A Rain catchment calculator that uses Google Maps to calculate area and rainfall. It's pretty cool, you just draw a box over the area you want to know about and it calculates the annual average catchment (metric units) for the area. Unfortunately, my house isn't covered in their rainfall data (?!), but maybe yours is.
    • Detailed rainfall and pressure loss caluculators from These are in excel format, but work with libreoffice (and other free office spreadsheet programs) as well.
    • Evaporation/seepage loss calculator for those in Australia or analogous climates. This estimates your annual and monthly loss to evaporation and seepage of water in various types of storage.
  • Weather extremes

    • NOAA Storm Events Database provides a relatively easy to use listing of the most extreme weather events since 1950. A wide variety of events is included, definitely worth checking this out.
  • USDA Zones


  • FAO's Harmonized World Soil Database- This is a long document describing the soil database and how to use it.
  • Harmonized World Soil Database Viewer- This is an exe file (Windows executable) that displays the HWSD so that you can browse around it and see what's in there for your site. The database itself is a raster image linked to a Microsoft Access database, which means that you'll need to have GIS software installed in order to use it unless you download their viewer.

    • Grass GIS is a free, open source GIS system that works on a number of platforms. I'm still a beginner on this one, so I can't offer much useful advice... It appears that it can import mdb (access) data files, so we should be able to get this to work with the soils database. Stay tuned for a future tutorial after I get this figured out.
  • For the US, the USDA Web Soil Survey is a great resource.

  • Soil testing services:

    • Kinsey's Soil testing service- This is the lab that does the Albrecht method of soil mineralization analysis. They're more expensive than many, but they also give you more actionable information than the typical extension office survey.

    • Soil food web testing labs- This is a bunch of labs that will tell you about the microbiology of your soil, and give recommendations for how to steer the system toward your intended use (mostly forest vs annual systems).

All about the Sun

  • Insolation (Available solar energy)

  • Sun Angles

    • Sun seeker is a very cool smartphone app that gives you sun angle data, and other sun-related data in a very easy to use interface. Highly recommended by many users.
    • UO SRML Sun Chart Program - This is what I use to get my sun angles data. It's not very fancy, but I really like the chart format because it's easier to translate the data into my designs than it is with the fancier visualizations. I'm a data nerd though, so your mileage may vary...
    • is a great site for getting a quick handle on the path of the sun at your location, and the basic sun angles. It has a simple map visualization that I find easy to use.

Invisible systems

  • Social
    • is a great resource for getting a quick picture of the structure of urban spaces. It rates their walkability, which is an indirect measure of how well they support mixed function environments and interaction between residents. Knowing how the culture works can be a great tool for designing interactive features in urban settings.
  • Legal
    • Reed Construction's Building Code Directory Handy one-stop shop for finding building codes information. Also, googling for your state's codes is quite productive.
    • GeoCommunicator is the US BLM's site to distribute geographic information to the public. It has tons of interesting stuff, including a lot of information about government structure over the various pieces of land.
    • Estate Planning: No link for this one, but I think it's an important thing to discuss with design clients in many cases, basically encouraging them to do it. We are building systems that will outlast their owners by a large margin. The greatest risk to our systems is not from the natural world, it's from the legal system, but there are things we can do to mitigate it.


  • USGS Tree Species Range Maps - maps showing the native range of North American tree species.
  • USGS Ecosystems Data Viewer This is kind of another take on the climate classification, but oriented toward the physical properties of the site that lead to specific kinds of biodiversity. I haven't made use of this data to any big extent yet, but I think it has some potential.
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