NiTRO Creative Matters

Perspectives on creative arts in higher education

Building dignity: Human-centred design and social conscience in design studio outlines

By Samantha Donnelly — "Architecture is really about well-being. On the one hand it's about shelter, but it's also about pleasure." Zaha Hadid (Iraqi-British Architect)

Recent design studio curriculums in architecture schools reflect a significant shift towards projects focused on socially conscious design and humanitarian challenges. This change in focus has emerged partly from recognising that sustainability is not enough and that the design of built environments must encompass an expanded ethical, political, and social position towards regenerative place-making that responds to a world in crisis. To meet these objectives, design studio descriptions must integrate multi-disciplinary perspectives and ideally include the lived experience of those living and working in the proposed facility. This article explores three examples of design studio outlines that challenge students to consider regenerative practice by working closely with stakeholders and building users. The following section explains studio outlines for a women’s refuge, a social housing precinct, and an Aboriginal keeping place.

My previous NiTRO article on spatial design studio curriculum at the University of New South Wales explored the adaptive reuse of abandoned commercial buildings and reimagined the value of ideas and services rather than objects – prioritising human-centred exchanges over economic gain. More recently, design studio outlines in the School of Architecture at the University of Technology Sydney include regenerative systems thinking and social sustainability in proposals for built infrastructure, reflecting French sociologist Bruno Latour’s statement that critical attention be shifted from architecture as a matter of fact to architecture as a matter of concern (Awan, Schneider, and Till, 2011). Studios that demonstrate a shift from sustainable to regenerative design emphasise the development of structures that not only use limited resources but also aim to reverse ecological damage through the integration of biophilic design and technological systems that enhance climate-responsive performance.

The following design studio outlines expand on regenerative design by challenging students to design built environments in which the consequences of architecture are more significant than the objects of architecture. The development of these outlines includes the lived experience of those who work or live in marginalised communities. Stakeholders and building users participate in the analysis of design proposals to extend students’ experience of real-world projects to include real-world communities. Disadvantaged groups often overlooked in designed environments include women and children escaping violence, older women, people living with mental and physical disabilities, low-income earners, and public housing residents. Those excluded from mainstream environments based on culture, age, sexuality, religion, social background, or gender are prioritised in design discussions.

The first studio outline example is a Women’s Refuge project, one of five live studio briefs in a third-year interior architecture design studio that explores architecture’s potential to positively contribute to the conditions and wellbeing of people, cultural practices, and environments. The Women’s Refuge studio outline asks students to design a series of independent crisis accommodation units organised around a support office space and communal areas for women and children leaving domestic and family violence. Students engage with a service provider and case worker as the clients at the start of the project to help define the types of user needs experienced within the women’s refuge setting. The clients are integrated into each assessment submission to provide ongoing feedback and advice for the student works.

The second example is a social housing design studio integrated in a post-graduate (fourth and fifth year) architecture design subject. It asks students to design various housing types, with activity spaces for residents and housing support staff located in an area of economic decline, low employment, and social inequity. Students engage with a community housing provider and developer, do research on national and global examples of social housing and work in collaboration with a series of social housing experts throughout the session.

Fig. 3: Marcela Dounis: Women’s housing, Social Housing project, 2022Fig. 4: Rachel Liang: Shoptop housing, Social Housing project, 2022

The final studio outline example is a Keeping Place project for an Aboriginal community in regional New South Wales. It provides a safe place for artefacts returning to country and includes a community centre, land council offices, and associated women’s and men’s business shelters. This studio is part of the third-year interior architecture design stream. It considers the dynamic relationship between social and architectural spatial formation and the relationship between architectural and social space. Students meet with and work alongside elders from the local Aboriginal Lands Council and local high school students to design concepts and talk about their needs and aspirations for the project. The studio’s objective is for students to learn how to design with, not for, community members.

In conclusion, three spatial design studio outlines illustrate how regenerative design can consider the wellbeing of communities disadvantaged by social, cultural, or economic circumstances by integrating lived experience and collaboration with stakeholders and building users. The studios encourage students to tackle gendered violence, poverty, discrimination, and cultural safety through design and highlight the possibility of design for good.


Awan, N., Schneider, T., & Till, J. (2011). Spatial Agency: Other Ways of Doing Architecture (1st ed.). Routledge.

Attia, S. (2018). Regenerative and positive impact architecture: Learning from case studies. Springer International Publishing, London, United Kingdom.

Drake, C. (2022) Design studio: Spatial Agency, 86533 subject description.

Samantha Donnelly is a Lecturer in Interior Architecture at the University of Technology Sydney. She teaches in design and construction studios and leads gender focused drawing workshops. She is currently completing her PhD on trauma-informed design for refuge accommodation helping women and children leaving violence in New South Wales.

More from this issue

More from this issue

By Jenny Wilson — The first edition of NiTRO was published on 30 June 2016. It emerged in an environment of policy change with the National Innovation and Science Agenda pushing research towards greater industry connections, collaboration and end user engagement in response to the Watt Review of Research Policy and Funding Arrangements.
The following perspectives of the DDCA Forum held in Melbourne on 24 November 2022 by some of those who attended gives a flavour of the discussions that took place as our focus turned to the achievements – and challenges – to date and the future direction for DDCA.
By Professor Marie Sierra — With the Federal Government pausing the next Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA) round, now is a good time to consider the value, and growing influence, of non-traditional research outputs. 

In 2015, The Australian National University’s School of Art and Design’s Environment Studio launched a unique field-based program, The Balawan Elective, honourably named with guidance and permissions of the First Nations community on Yuin Country, after their culturally significant mountain Balawan … Seven years on, much has come from these cherished relationships.

For some years now, I’ve taught a course called Pop & Trash … It’s always struck me as entirely odd that I teach a course that attempts to critique such constructed cultural hierarchies, and the next day I need to report to my university my ERA outputs based on the same outdated and outmoded cultural hierarchies and notions of impact.

By Jen Webb — In 2018 I wrote a piece for NiTRO subtitled ‘Are we there yet?’, tracing some of the practical and institutional effects of the Dawkins reforms that folded art schools and other creative teaching programs into universities. At that stage I felt reasonably sanguine about the futures of creative disciplines: despite a variety of hurdles, creative practice seemed fairly well embedded in the Australian academy.
Professor Barb Bolt is well known here and overseas for her work in creative arts research and particularly the creative PhD. Now that she has stepped away from the university “day job” we took the opportunity to get her perspective of the past and current state of play in tertiary creative arts in this extended Q&A with NiTRO Editor Jenny Wilson. 

In 2016 I wrote an article for NiTRO titled “Styling Australia’s New Visual Design Identity”, which sought to explore how to incorporate the amazing features of Indigenous iconography into design without denigrating or disrespecting the original owners and creators.

For those following the intensifying links between the economy, equality, sustainability and democracy deficit (clue: problems in the first three, create problems in the fourth), the absence of culture as a domain of serious policy attention is startling.

In June 2016, we launched the first issue of NiTRO and it is hard to believe that that was over seven years ago. It feels both a short time and a very long time with the last two to three years, stretching time in uncanny ways.