Guest Column with Dr David O'Brien

July 12 / 91

Indigenous Community Development

Our 'Bower Studio' team of staff and students partnered with the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation (GAC) to help 're-imagine' the futures of Indigenous communities in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. We recently worked alongside both the Wakathuni and Bellary Springs Communities to design and build community, education and health facilities.
Gumala is committed to serving the Nyiyapali, Banyjima and Innawonga peoples of the Pilbara, preserving and protecting of the members' heritage, culture and languages. Education, health, housing and employment initiatives are also important to enhance the community's economic and community development. Gumala approached the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning after hearing of the successful 'Bower' series of projects designing and building with Indigenous partners near Darwin.
The Bower team made several visits to the remote communities in the Pilbara to discuss the aspirations of the community members and heard of the need for early education and health facilities as well as secure space for 'School of the Air' programs, meeting spaces, computer access and cultural facilities.
As a team, we understand the importance of community involvement and want to make sure we tailor our projects to the individual communities. We always ensure we keep to budget, meet our deadlines and make sure the community is on-board with us. We take the time to listen and learn, making sure the project is the right fit for the location and needs of the community.
Drawings and models help community members visualize the designs and sense how the buildings will work. Grant Divall and past students George Stavrias and Allison Stout lead input from our teams of masters level architecture students who provide much of the labour to help design and construct the projects.
Given the remote locations, the preparation phase is very complex and time consuming. A 'kit of parts' must be meticulously prepared with nothing left to chance. We transport materials and tools to the remote site in shipping containers which then become part of the structure. Some containers have been sent from Melbourne while others come from Perth (packed by our select industry partners). Our students arrived in the Pilbara in June and work on-site for 10 days to construct the large shaded roof, deck, interior and landscaping. Nothing is left behind and we include everything - including the kitchen sink, cutlery and cleaning products.
Aside from the strenuous construction work, the students were privileged to spend time with wonderful local people. Working alongside locals, the students listen and learn how to work with the community and the resources at hand. This experience then informs the designs they prepare for the next project. Our longer-term plan is to take a lead role alongside the Gumala Aboriginal Corporation and the Wakathuni Community to develop relevant and sustainable housing. We want to work together to develop the best possible housing for Indigenous needs and ensure the community plays a lead role in the development of this housing.
The Faculty of Education, through Professor Collette Tayler, has contributed to our success by developing education programs alongside the local primary school and delivering them into the communities. This ensures that the facilities we have built become particularly relevant to these disadvantaged communities.  
For more information, visit
Dr David O'Brien is Senior Lecturer in Architectural Design and Technology in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning.

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