Rock Farm Residency, West Sussex, UK

A 6 week residency showcasing permaculture design, natural building, mindfulness practices and appropriate technology

Rock Farm is a unique horticulture therapy space and a productive market garden. It provides a radically inclusive safe space for people from all backgrounds, experiences and challenges to get hands on and access vital nature-based therapy. At the same time it has productive yield and output of fruit, veg  salads, nuts and herbs while providing a refuge space in nature. In permaculture style, the farm has a mix of some purpose planted annuals and perennials, as well as some foraged nuts and salads from wilder parts. The farm showcases the key three ethics of permaculture: Earth Care, People Care and Fair Share. Three staff members focus on each part: Ali, Amber and Ben.

SAWA co-created the six-week residency bringing together a broad team of residential and day visiting volunteers to showcase and learn how we can thrive with nature, creating harmonious, nurturing and regenerative relationships within our communities and environments. Over the six weeks we took on various projects: building a passive solar seed cabin, making a compost heated shower and loo, digging and planting a pond and swale, a community kitchen, a pop up classroom meditation tent, planting some fruit tree guilds, making biochar and lots of compost!

The Solar Seed Cabin

Also known as ‘The Germination Station’ or ‘The Seed Store’, this was the key build during the residency. This structure was designed to passively germinate and grow seedlings in winter. The passive solar design employs techniques to naturally harness and store the heat from the sun, with carefully positioned south-facing glazing and adobe earth walls. The solar energy is trapped inside the building by the greenhouse effect and stored in the earth blocks to be re-radiated slowly through the night. The structure is made of a combination of natural, donated, foraged and recycled materials, such as wooden pallets, clay dug from site, wheat straw from local farmers and reclaimed glazing and polycarbonate.

The build sits on old donated beach groynes on levelled ground and an inch of gravel. The suspended floor made of reclaimed scaffold planks spans between the groynes. The structure reused a timber frame from a previous structure and harvested goat willow for columns, beams and braces. The timber frame was infilled with reclaimed pallets from nearby business units for the external face of the walls. An earth block wall made the internal face with slip straw filling the gaps between pallets for a cosy thermal mass to retain heat in the store. The south facing elevation is made of recycled double-glazed units in timber frames. The roof is a mixture of reclaimed and new poly-carbonate. The back window at high level makes for an openable vent during summer to control the temperature.

Friday Course Days

Throughout the six-week residency, we conducted five Friday course days to teach permaculture. Focusing and theming each day on The Five Elements: Fire, Earth, Wind, Water and Spirit! Each week sought to illuminate with new eyes the same site, with a new awareness of the cycles and processes of how energy and matter moves through the landscape. These workshops directly related to the objectives of the farm and propelled the design and construction process forward at the same time.

Swale and Pond Design 

Water is life. We must relearn indigenous wisdom and knowledge of how to work with water across the landscape. Harsh modern methods of trapping water in concrete drains, pipes and septic tanks create unhealthy cultures of water. Water retention is crucial for plant health and productivity. What better way to store water than in plants and in the land. The more water we can catch and store on the land the more life we can create. We designed and built a swale and a pond, to catch excess run off from across the site. The excavation of earth from the pond had a dual purpose: as a positive asset of clay for adobe brick fabrication, and as a negative asset of a hole for the pond and connecting swale.

Swales are a great example of lazy permaculture: With minimal interventions we can create opportunity for so much. As in the diagrams, the swales provide a range of habitats for plants. In the ditch we have water-loving, nutrient-loving comfrey as well as pumpkins. On top of the mound we can plant fruit trees like apples, cherries, crabapples and sea buckthorn, whose roots can grow deep to hold soil structure and exchange nutrients and water. These also create shade for the understory of lower lying shrubs and bushes such as strawberries and raspberries which have been interplanted with rose hips for mutually beneficial companion planting.

A ‘Permaculture’ Shower

The site needed a shower for the campers/ caretakers of the site. With a cold shower not being ideal in the ever-changing British weather, we once again turned to permaculture technologies to design a environmentally friendly hot shower unit for the residents to build and use.

The water is heated by a compost heater, a system that captures the heat generated from the decomposition of biomass via water pipes directed through the compost pile. This is know as the Jean Pain method. Therefore, while you’re making your compost for the future it is already working for you in heating your water. Two birds, one stone.

Circus  Tent (pop up classroom)

The Circus Tent stood as a key space to gather each day, offering shelter from the sun, wind and rain. This temporary structure is made from an old parachute tent top, wood chip floor and straw bale walls. The straw bales were slowly removed and used for slip straw, cob and adobe brick making. They are an excellent, configurable seat and wall built up for an amphitheatre-like arrangement.

Community Kitchen

In the daily ritual of eating together, we realise we are connected with the web of life and give thanks for the people, fungi, plants, animals, microorganisms and soil minerals and biology for creating the health and nutrition from which we benefit.

Biochar Production 

What is biochar? Biochar is made from plant (bio) materials that have been heated in the absence of oxygen – a process called ‘pyrolysis’ or ‘charring’. Charring wood to make charcoal fuel and using horticultural charcoal have long histories. The term biochar has been adopted to specify a material designed to improve soil and enhance plant growth. But, biochar also describes production using sustainable methods and resources, i.e. a material that helps mitigate climate change.

Why use biochar? When the right type of biochar is added to soil and compost, it can dramatically improve water retention and nutrient supply to roots, reduce nutrient losses due to ‘run-off’ and support microbes and mycorrhizal fungi.

Tom of Old Tree Brewery and The Compost Club showed us two great methods of making biochar, Top-Lit Up Draft (TLUD) and the hanging barrel method. This became an integral part of the evening heating and gatherings outside during the residency. We then used the biochar for the farm compost and added ground biochar to the plaster mixes to help stabilise them further.

A Fruit Tree Guild

We created, designed and built a fig tree guild on ‘The Wind’ course day. Head grower Ali and farm manager Ben conceived the design, showing how plants can be planted in companionship and relationship with each other. Fig trees create the over story, with bulbs planted in the drip line of the fully grown tree. Each plant provides a range of complex symbiotic functions from insect pollination, insect repellent, ground cover, nitrogen fixing, green manure and habitat creation.

Build Cost



14th October - 24th February 2021


Co-Designer, Teacher and Self Builder