The Collective Environment (bringing together both the natural and constructed) requires diffusing siloed thinking and allowing for a circular process through time where design informs the brief and briefing informs design. To achieve this approach, we can learn a lot from Indigenous ways of thinking. In this article from the Integrative Briefing for Better Design project, Marni Reti explains what it means to design with Country.

An Indigenous world view is concentric, not linear. All people and things are a part of Country, inclusive of all things that were and all things that will be – both naturally occurring and constructed by people. Therefore, what we design, what takes up space, becomes a part of the Country it occupies. This is one of the many reasons why we, in Australia, acknowledge Country at every event and encourage everyone to know which Country and whose land we stand on. It also means designers have an inherent responsibility to Country and the communities that it affects.

To do this, briefing must include a critical Country component that considers the individual Country, its cultures and communities. They are deeply interconnected, all affecting and supporting one another. This ethos is already present. This is not about how to interweave culture and Country into design but how we can begin to understand and appreciate those existing connections and design to support them. I see it more as interweaving design into the fabric of Country, cultures and communities. Briefing should take on a more holistic and grounded approach. This begins by walking Country with Elders and Traditional Owners, engaging and respecting Country and its caretakers first and foremost, and extending far beyond traditionally understood briefing stages of each project. If done correctly, designing with Country, co-design, culturally competent design and participatory design does not sit neatly in a box. I believe this way of thinking and designing bleeds into all facets of projects and becomes a core part of their DNA.

It is also a commitment to the ongoing engagement with these communities, from inception through to completion and beyond – and this includes participatory construction. A commitment to listen, learn and respectfully integrate cultural knowledge into the design. From Country to Country, project to project and even groups within those communities, this looks different. It is critically important to be responding appropriately to the Country and community specific brief. Looking at Country-specific details of each place: Indigenous seasons, creation stories that may be reflected in the landscape or the skies, understanding the cultural practices tied to spaces and flora.

We connect to Country by knowing the architecture is Country and vice versa, and considering how a design can be woven into the richness that is already present. Engage with Country as a customer, with requirements, needs and a level of satisfaction that must be met, and a reminder that the value Country gives back to us is far beyond monetary.

We design with local materials, for the sustainability of locality but also because it grounds the building in its place and allows it to grow from the Country beneath and around it. It is familiar to the people and to the place. We integrate art for multi-fold purposes: ornamentation, shading, security, identity, wayfinding and ownership. We recognise and value art as stories and maps that enrich the building. It’s another opportunity to work closely with communities and to make space for them in our design process and outcome.

We value local endemic landscaping for its sustainability, but also because it belongs on that Country, in that climate. The interconnectedness becomes apparent again, the cultural value and uses of local plants for cultural practices. What the native species tell us about the seasonal changes – this is often a part of a regenerative approach to healing Country.

Connecting with Country is connecting with culture and communities by collaborating with Indigenous suppliers, contractors and builders where possible. This upskills the communities these projects are for and creates jobs in the construction phase that imbue both a sense of ownership and belonging amongst the community, ensuring growth and opportunity far beyond a singular project. We connect to community by engaging with them every step of the way to successfully connect to Country and culture and this begins by embedding this ethos and way of thinking into the foundational structure of each project.

Marni Reti is a proud Palawa and Ngātiwai woman, born and raised on Gadigal land. She was one of the first recipients of the prestigious Droga Indigenous Architecture Scholarship while completing her Masters of Architecture degree at University of Technology Sydney, where she received the NSW Architect’s Registration Board 2021 Architects Medallion in her graduating year. In 2022, she was awarded the Sustainability Award for Emerging Architect/Designer. Marni is a registered architect and Associate at award-winning firm, Kaunitz Yeung Architecture. She has dedicated her professional and academic career to engaging Indigenous knowledge.

This article is part of a series of guest articles on the Integrative Briefing for Better Design website, which covers themes relating to integrative briefing and design for transformative change. If you would like to contribute a 500-word guest article to this ongoing discussion, please email Fiona Young.