Research being undertaken by PhD candidate Emma Whettingsteel explores how student housing design can create a better sense of belonging for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander boarders leading to enhanced student wellbeing and education outcomes.

The Interior Architecture student moved to Perth to study when she was 17.

She lived on campus for two years before working as a Residential Assistant for two years after that.

‘I was lucky to have an existing family network in Perth and friends also moving at the same time, but I met a lot of people who didn’t have the social experience they expected, and it affected their life at university,’ says Whettingsteel.


Emma Whettingsteel says, ‘interior design and student accommodation can be overlooked as really important factors that impact education, which is why I want to design genuinely special and supportive living spaces for young people living and studying in Western Australia.’


‘I wrote my honours thesis about reducing social isolation in university student accommodation through interior design, so I was keen to look at this idea at a more local level in boarding schools for my PhD.’

‘To me it seems quite extreme that students deal with so many of the challenges I faced when I was 17 when they’re only 12 or 13 years old.’

‘When I started reading and talking to people about this in relation to secondary school boarding schools it became clear that there are some similar and important differences in cultural needs for the increasing numbers of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students in mainstream/metro boarding services.’

‘Supporting these students is important in itself, but also the kinds of design responses that are helpful will benefit the whole student population as well.’


The winning Nownup design illustrates the idea of expansion, adaptability and space for the land to breath, demonstrating thoughtful detail and cultural consideration.


Whettingsteel was recently involved with a team of students in the ‘Nowanup Bush University’ architecture ideas competition winning first prize with a concept for an architectural ‘breathing space’ that acts as a membrane for two-way knowledge exchange on country.

For further information about Whettingsteel’s research read, Belonging by design – research into how interior design can increase a sense of belonging in student housing from the perspective of female Aboriginal boarders in Western Australia. 

Written by Rachael Hakim