Design in Co-Development

The ‘community engagement’ stage of the design process has long been shrouded in mystery– whether unspoken because it has been tacked on at the front, or at the end, of the design process. In this ongoing series we will unveil the minutiae of our approach to this crucial aspect of any good design, step-by-step.

Early study depicting grassland vs regenerative landscape. These series of diagrams were created as a visual tool to explore within workshops and with community their preferences and vision for the site.

Photographs taken on site helped inform the design.

Native plants informed the establishment of palette and concept.

The rich plant diversity on site was regenerated by Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative.

Woods Bagot has worked to lay bare and reconsider our ideas of engagement, developing a format such that ‘engagement’ is not an encompassing enough a word, for it implies an eventual disengagement. Our vision is ‘design in co-development’. This is a term that acknowledges the need for deep listening and relearning so as not to allow Western views and experiences to lead the conversation and define the design.

It is not simply about swapping out the architect’s ego for the end-user’s vision. It is about critiquing an approach that places humans at the centre at all. Embracing a non-Western approach is to think about humans as an equal part of a larger ecosystem with plants, animals, and country- not at the top nor at the centre.

With this as the guiding principle, architects are transformed into mediators between communities and the design process, egos are set-aside, and it becomes about placing Country and Ecosystem at the project’s centre.

For these projects, the architect’s role is markedly different, extending beyond the drafting table into a space of community empowerment. A new responsibility emerges, that is showing the end-user, tangibly, that they are heard and that their contributions are meaningful and authoritative.

After a competitive tender process, in February 2022 Woods Bagot was announced as the architects on the reimagining of Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative in North Geelong, Victoria. The project will reimagine the current Co-operative into a place that can set the direction for the organisation, capable of growing and supporting Community into the future. Providing holistic wellness services, gathering spaces, office space as well as event and celebration spaces, all reflective of the Wathaurong Community.

We catch up with the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative CEO Simon Flagg and Woods Bagot Principal Bronwyn McColl as they begin the project’s ‘co-development’ process.

Woods Bagot’s Bronwyn McColl, Jasmine Kerdel and Tahlia Landrigan with Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative’s Simon Flagg and Rose De Jong.

Early visioning that begins to identify key elements of the Cowies Creek ‘microclimate’ as a result of multiple visioning, aspiration and strategic workshops held with Woods Bagot and Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative.

Early exploration of the sites’ volcanic plains, basalt and ochre – ancient elements that will be woven into the new design.

Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative’s Ambitions:

From the outset and through our initial tender process, we were clear we wanted and needed architects that would listen, understand, engage deeply and dream with our organisation and the community we support, to bring to life our future home.

For our community, the site is a home, and we wanted to redevelop this site so it supports the foundations of who we are as an organisation, where community, culture and country is at the centre of everything we do. We’re not building just for the now, it’s also for future growth.

This is one of the complexities for Woods Bagot: how to make it so it still has a cultural and connected feel, and not a model straight off the shelf. It should not be mainstream, it’s really important that it fits the landscape that we’re in – because we’re all about looking after Country, and Country looks after us – so it has to fit this place and also the way we want to operate.

We are excited to embark on a busy next few weeks as we broaden out the engagement with our staff and commence our outward engagement with community. Woods Bagot have been respectful of our advice and patient with our process. We look forward to continuing through the design journey and working collaboratively with the Woods Bagot team to bring our vision to life.

– Simon Flagg, Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative CEO.

Woods Bagot’s Ambitions:

“Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative turned 40 in 2020 and have recently appointed a new CEO Simon Flagg, who has a strong vision for supporting the Wathaurong Community. They are currently in a process of reviewing their organisations strategic pillars and undertaking their 10-year plan. Working with the organisation at this juncture in their journey allows us incredible insights into their evolution as an organisation and provides us with clear direction that we can assist translating into a physical environment to support their growth.

As an Aboriginal organisation for Community, Community is at the heart of everything the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative does, so engagement and deep listening is fundamental to the success of this project. They have been heavily influenced by Government requirements and Western values for a long time and this engagement represents an opportunity to have their voices heard with a design process that places Community, Country and Ecosystem at the centre.

This consultation process is also fundamental for us as designers, to challenge our Western training and preconceptions. We have to rethink and relearn, which can be confronting. Even when you have the best intentions, you are still interpreting another person’s experiences and vision through your own lens. Therefore, we need to support each other through this journey and call each other out if we make assumptions or mis-interpret.

It is by acknowledging that Western society and values have been imposed on First Nations peoples for so long that allows us to open-up our ideas of what is possible and translate what they need and want. This might not look like what we would usually create or design. Just because something is the way we have been and trained, doesn’t make it the right solution for everyone.

– Bronwyn McColl, Woods Bagot Principal.

Early sketch responding to the concept of creating a gathering place.

Early sketch outlining the sensorial connection to site.


The road so far…


The unique design process for the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative is at the ‘Briefing and Concept’ phase that sets the foundation and fundamentals for the project. During this phase Woods Bagot explore the vision and aspirations, the strategic drivers of the project and the opportunities for growth and areas of diversification in order to create a tailored result from concept to final outcome.

It’s important to note that this process is not linear. Rather, it is an iterative journey that sees ideas and concepts overlap in time. 

The road so far: Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-operative. It’s important to note that this process is not linear. Rather, it is an iterative journey that sees ideas and concepts overlap in time.

Community Meeting.

Woods Bagot’s first engagement piece was a community meeting which was vital in order to meet the community we were designing for before commencing the project. We were incredibly honoured to be invited to the Community meeting on Country and be welcomed to be observers in a gathering with all Aboriginal people. A humbling experience we feel incredibly grateful for being a part of. There will be many more Community meetings and engagement throughout the project to ensure Community are listened to and a part of the journey. Our next Community Meeting is this week, which is followed by a dinner, helping us to all get to know each other and have a yarn in a more informal setting.

Employee Interviews and Surveys

We are interviewing a broad range of people across the organisation and surveys are also being undertaken to ensure all voices are heard that can help set the direction of the project. The Co-operative provides a range of services and therefore each business unit needs to be consulted to ensure their specific needs are addressed. We will be presenting back to each group engaged with throughout the process to ensure that we have listened, understood and interpreted correctly.

Visioning, Aspirational and Strategic Workshops

We are at the early stages of conducting a series of workshops to allow a range of voices to be heard and contribute. These range from Visioning, Aspirational and Strategic direction workshops followed by more functional and operational workshops. The conversations will be ongoing and develop into more focused areas as we progress.