Dr David O'Brien

Senior Lecturer


David O'Brien practiced as an architect before joining the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. He has since worked in community development projects with Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory, Western Australia, Queensland and internationally in Papua New Guinea and Thailand. He coordinates the award winning Bower Studio projects to consult, design and build community infrastructure projects alongside community groups, government agencies, aid workers, industry partners, engineers and sociologists.

Further information about David's work below under the following headings:

Bower Studio Projects

David’s broader team calls itself the Bower Studio after the common Indigenous shelter typology. The co-constructivist philosophy for the Bower Studio uses the construction processes and outcomes as a way for our team of staff and students to stimulate ongoing discussions with our Indigenous partners. Generally speaking, students find it difficult to have opportunities to engage with people from marginalized communities. Similarly, marginalized peoples find it difficult to make decisions about their environments and their community infrastructure.

The Bower projects address this shortfall by enabling a process whereby talking, designing and then building together opens up opportunities for useful dialogues leading to new ideas, processes and ultimately relevant outcomes tailored to the needs of the communities by well-informed student designs. With each project the Bower team grows stronger and achieves stronger results. Our Indigenous friends are also gaining communication skills and confidence with practices to improve their own infrastructure and their own community programs. We are all learning together.

Within the ongoing series of projects David’s Bower team – students, academics, practitioners, industry partners and community members – has improved housing, extended a health clinic, built an early learning center, built education facilities, a community hall and improved water collection and ablution facilities. In Australia the team has worked with communities in Darwin, the Pilbara and Cape York. In Papua New Guinea we have worked in the Bumbu and Serongko communities and in Thailand we have worked with the Nong Tong Lim and Ban Rai Kok communities.

In 2014 Bower Studio was highlighted by World Architects eMagazine as one of the top 10 design/ build programs making a difference by developing experience and skills in future architects, by contributing to local communities through their efforts, and by exploring the integral relationship between architectural design and building construction.

Visit the Bower Studio website to discover more about our projects.

Research Projects

Aceh Province, Indonesia

David’s work in Indonesia’s Aceh province is funded by the New York architectural firm Rafael Vinoly Architects. The project investigates resident’s modifications to the houses built by reconstruction agencies working in the aftermath of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. The project tests for ways to improve the provision of disaster relief and the ways to improve the environmental, cultural and spatial sustainability of housing in the aftermath of disasters.

Northern Territory

David’s research work in the Northern Territory focuses on the development of sustainable housing programs – particularly in Darwin and Alice Springs ‘town camp’ communities. He co-wrote a report, commissioned by Yilli Rreung Aboriginal Corporation, titled ‘Visions for Bagot Village’ outlining significant improvements to the facilities and housing in the community.


The Gumala Aboriginal Corporation in the Pilbara supports David’s interest in sustainable Indigenous housing policy and outcomes. Gumala have partnered with the University of Melbourne to develop a holistic community strategy based on best practice housing, education and health outcomes. Significant and on-going community consultation is of paramount importance to our research. The co-authored report ‘Our Place: Re-Imagining Indigenous Housing’ argues for community empowerment in decision-making as well as ‘sweat equity’ in the realization of the built outcomes.

Isaan Region, Thailand

David’s Thai based research has been supported by the Sir Edward Weary Dunlop Fellowship, an Endeavour Australia Cheung Kong Award and funding from the Australia/Thai Institute. In 2005 he lived in northern Thailand to complete his PhD thesis Global ideas and local practices: Unearthing the 'glocal' in Thailand’s low-cost housing market. He has worked with local community groups as well as partners including Population and Community Development Association, Thammasat University, Silpakorn University, Kasetsart University and Chiang Mai University.

Research Interests

Indigenous housing, community development, low-cost housing ideologies, low-cost housing technologies, self-help housing, informal settlements, sustainable construction materials and systems.

Current Teaching Responsibilities

  • Architectural Design (postgraduate)
  • Sustainable Tropical Housing (postgraduate)
  • Construction Technology (postgraduate)
  • Masters and PhD students

Research and Project Grants

  • 2012. PNG Heads of Mission Direct Aid Program ‘Bumbu Ablutions Facility’ ($120,000)
  • 2012. Gumala Aboriginal Corporations ‘Our Place – Re-Imagining Indigenous Housing’ ($62,000)
  • 2012. Yilli Rreung Aboriginal Corporations ‘Visions for Bagot Village’ ($30,000)
  • 2012. Gumala Aboriginal Corporations ‘Bellary Springs Community Health Centre’ ($500,000)
  • 2011. Gumala Aboriginal Corporations ‘0-5 Early Learning Centre’ Wakathuni ($500,000)
  • 2010. FaHCSIA ‘Media Box’ Gudorrka & Knuckeys Lagoon ($260,000)
  • 2010. AusAID ‘Bumbu & Serongko Shelter/Drinking Water Project’ ($40,000)
  • 2009. FaHCSIA ‘House Renovation’ Gudorrka ($50,000)
  • 2009. Rafael Vinoly Architects Research Grant ‘Transformation of Post-Disaster Housing: The Case of Aceh, Indonesia’ ($60,000)
  • 2008. Strategic Research Initiative Fund, University of Melbourne, ‘Indigenous Housing: The Sustainable Alternative’ ($25,000)
  • 2007. Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Australia/Thailand Institute Research Grant, ‘Sustainable and adaptable housing prototypes for Thailand’s rural communities’ ($16,000)


  • 2012 Citation for Outstanding Contribution to Student Learning
    Australian Awards for University Teaching

    Australian Government Office for Teaching and Learning
  • 2012 Neville Quarry Architectural Education Prize (Commendation)
  • 2012 Rio Tinto Excellence and Innovation in Indigenous Higher Education
  • 2005 Endeavour Australia Cheung Kong Award, Australian Government’s Department of Education, Science and Training
  • 1999 Sir Edward Weary Dunlop Asia Fellowship, Asialink

Design Awards

  • 2005. Best Use of Timber Award at the Architeam Awards for the Littlewood House, Bunbury O’Brien Architects.
  • 2004. Exhibit award from the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria for the Trail of the Elephants at the Royal Melbourne Zoo, Green and Dale Associates and David O’Brien.
  • 2003. National Award for Excellence in Heritage Interpretation from the Interpretation Australia Association for the Trail of the Elephants at the Royal Melbourne Zoo, Green and Dale Associates and David O’Brien.
  • 2000. S Whitford, D Radovic, Q Guo, D O’Brien, et al. International Urban Design Competition for Shenyang University Campus and Student Housing, (Third Prize).

Recent Publications

Chapters in Books

  • O’Brien D & Ahmed, I. 2012. Donor-Driven Housing, Owner-Driven Needs: Post-Tsunami Reconstruction in Aceh, Indonesia. In N Kaufman (ed), Pressures and Distortions - City Dwellers as Builders and Critics. New York, US: Rafael Vinoly Architects, pp. 237-338.
  • O’Brien D & Ahmed, I. 2012. Resident Initiated Modifications to Reconstruction Housing in Banda Aceh. In E Blakely, E Birch, R Anglin and H Hayashi (eds), Managing Urban Disaster Recovery: Policy, Planning, Concepts and Cases. Berkshire, UK: Crisis Response Publications, pp. 163-169.
  • O'Brien D. 2003. Hybrid space: New housing prototypes in north-eastern Thailand. In J Haswell & D MacCallum (eds), Liveable communities. Perth, Australia: Black Swan Press, pp. 107-116.
  • O'Brien D. 2003. Modernity's Legacies: from Corb to CBIRD. In RJ King , O Panin & C Parin (eds), Modernity, tradition, culture, water, Bangkok: Kasetsart U.P., pp. 269-274.

Journal Articles

  • Ahmed, I & O’Brien D. 2012. Self-Initiatives and Transformations, The International Journal of the Constructed Environment. Volume 1, Issue 4.
  • O’Brien D. 2011. Home to Own: Potential for Indigenous Housing by Indigenous People, Aboriginal Studies Journal. (1): 65-80.
  • Natakun B & O’Brien D. 2009. Extending the house/extending the dream: Modifications to government-built housing in Bangkok Metropolitan Region, Journal of Architecture/Planning Research and Studies. 6 (3): 45-64.
  • O’Brien D. 2009. Regrowth Pod. Architecture Australia, 98 (4): 27-29.
  • Morton J & O'Brien D. 2005. Selling Your Design: Oral Communication Pedagogy in Design Education. Communication Education. 54(1):6 - 19.
  • O'Brien D. 2004. Eurocentrism: Do Thai and Australian Housing Developers Have a Case to Answer?. Na Jua – Journal of the Faculty of Architecture, Silpakorn University. 20:130-138.
  • O’Brien D. 2002. Moderated Influence: Globalisation and Thai Housing. Na Jua – Journal of the Faculty of Architecture, Silpakorn University. 18:59-75.

Conference Proceedings

  • O'Brien D & Sellers WW. 2013. Trees and Rhizomes: Students as Masters of Learning. The Asian Conference on Education 2013 Official Conference Proceedings. Japan: International Academic Forum (IAFOR).
  • O'Brien D. 2012. Indigenous Housing: Rethinking the Provider Paradigm. Housing in an Era of Risk and Crisis. Adelaide, Australia: Centre for Housing, Urban and Regional Planning. University of Adelaide.
  • O'Brien D & Ahmed I. 2012. Stage Two and Beyond: Improving Residents' Capacity to Modify Reconstruction Agency Housing. Proceedings of Disaster Management 2012. 309-317. Japan: Kumamoto University.
  • O’Brien D. 2011. Policy and reality: Patterns of everyday living in Darwin’s Indigenous ‘town-camp’ communities. Proceedings of the 5th Australasian Housing Researchers’ Conference. Auckland, New Zealand.
  • O’Brien D. & Stout A. 2011. Migrations: Housing and Population Movements in Papua New Guinea. In Elkadi, Hisham, L. Xu and J. Coulson (eds), Architecture at the Edge, AASA Conference Sept 2011, pp 288-296.
  • O'Brien D. 2010. From Humpies to Houses: The Development of an Indigenous Town Camp Community.  In Chapman M & Ostwald M(eds), SAHANZ - Imagining. Proceedings of the 27th International SAHANZ Conference. 1 (1):  311-317. Newcastle, Australia: SAHANZ.
  • Stout A & O'Brien D. 2010. Giving Voice to indigenous Housing: Consultations with a 'Top End' Town Camp Community.  In Chapman M & Ostwald M(eds), SAHANZ - Proceedings of the 27th International SAHANZ Conference. 1 (1): 414-419. Newcastle, Australia: SAHANZ.
  • Ahmed K & O'Brien D. 2009. Sustainable organic building materials for housing: the case of post-disaster reconstruction in Indonesia.  In Loo S, Nolan G, Sequeira S & Soriano F (eds), Proceedings of the 43rd Annual Conference of the Architectural Science Association, ANZAScA 2009. 0-0. Launceston, Australia: School of Architecture and Design, University of Tasmania.
  • O'Brien D & Hill H. 2009. Safe 'n' sound: Building with indigenous workforces in Australia and Thailand.  In Lingard H, Cooke T & Turner M(eds), Conference Proceedings: CIBW099 Conference 2009.  Melbourne, Australia: RMIT University.
  • O'Brien D, Ahmed K & Hes D. 2008. Housing reconstruction in Aceh: relationships between house types and environmental sustainability.  In Lizarralde G, Davidson C, Pukteris A & De Bois M(eds), Building Abroad: Procurement of construction and reconstruction projects in the international context. 361-370. Montreal, Canada: The University of Montreal.
  • O'Brien D. 2007. International Temperature Variations in Hot/Humid Climates. In Coulson J, Schwede D & Tucker R(eds), Proceedings of the 41st Annual Conference of the Architectural Science Association ANZAScA.  174-181. Adelaide, Australia: The Architectural Science Association.
  • O'Brien D & Hes D. 2007. The Third Way: Developing low environmental impact housing prototypes for hot/humid climates.  In Wakefield R & Blismas N(eds), Proceedings of the XXXV IAHS World Congress on Housing Science 2007. Planning, Design, Construction, Performance. 1-9. Melbourne, Australia: RMIT University.
  • O’Brien D, & Dovey K. 2006. Reality/Television: Hype, Tradition and Everyday Life in Rural Thailand. In N. Al Sayyad (ed), Hypertraditions. International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments (IASTE). University of California, Berkeley.
  • O'Brien D. 2006. Lightweight tropical: Reconnecting construction technologies with thermal comfort. In S. Shannon, V. Soebarto & T. Williamson (ed), Challenges for Architectural Science in Changing Climates, ANZAScA 40th Annual Conference of the Architectural Science Association, The University of Adelaide.
  • O'Brien D. 2005. Can New Construction Technologies Drive a Sustainable Housing Industry in Rural Thailand?. In F Shafii & MZ Othman (eds), Conference on Sustainable Building South East Asia. 484-492. Johor, Malaysia: Construction Technology and Management Centre, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
  • O'Brien D, Sintusingha S & Dinh QP. 2004. Regionalism and the Global Suburb in Southeast Asia. In A Kasemsook (ed), Current: Reflection of Society. Silpakorn Architectural Discourse 2003: 3rd Mini Symposium. 23.1-23.15. Bangkok, Thailand: Faculty of Architecture, Silpakorn University.
  • O'Brien D. 2004. Modeling Asian Modernity: New Technologies and their Impact on Rural Spatial Structures. In J Wu , Z Wu & S Muramatsu (eds), Modern Asian Architecture Network 4th International Conference Proceedings: Safeguarding and Revitalizing Local Heritage. 346-351. Shanghai, China: College of Architecture and Urban Planning, Tongji University.
  • O'Brien D. 2003. Regional housing development: pitfalls and possibilities. In T Trong Hanh, T Hong Doan, D Hau & U Dinh Chat (eds), Creating better cities in the 21st century. 550-556. Hanoi, Viet Nam: Hanoi Architectural University.
  • O'Brien D. 2003. Timber, earth or concrete? Towards a new housing industry in South-East Asia. In G Gilbert , C Langston & JRW Robinson (eds), Proceedings of the Postgraduate Construction Research Conference. 1-15. Melbourne, Australia: RMIT University.
  • O'Brien D. 2001. Mediating Cross-Cultural Exchange: Curriculum Design for Teaching Programs in South East Asia. In S Pullen , V Mehrtens & G Zillante (eds), Proceedings of the Australasian University Building Educators Association 26th Annual Conference. Constructing and Managing the Built Environment: Education and Research for the Future. 27-31. Perth, Australia: Australasian University Building Educators Association (AUBEA).



Research directions

Cultural and Sustainable Landscapes Design and Creative Research Indigenous Place Practice and Construction Innovation

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