Reflections on our approach to two growing Indigenous community-driven projects: Dardi Munwurro in Preston, and the First Peoples' Health and Wellbeing centre in Frankston.

Dardi Munwurro is a not-for-profit Aboriginal family violence service, offering training and support tailored to Indigenous men, and the broader community. The group approached us after purchasing a vacant block of land and building near their Preston headquarters, seeking a planning permit to create a gathering space. Our original brief was to design the outdoor space, introducing two food offerings on the site. From that small scope grew a more ambitious discussion about how they might use the land next door.

“We thought about it more as a master planning exercise, asking: what is the broader potential for the site? What are some different scenarios for how we might develop it?” says James Murray, director at TANDEM Design Studio. “We were interested in how we might create a development that keeps the qualities of an outdoor space, working the building around it.”

We responded with a porous vertical infrastructure which would adapt over time, flexible enough to have contained spaces inserted into it as needed. This would be an inviting, open environment with a strong connection to the outdoors – the antithesis of the spartan, intimidating institutional buildings that hold negative experiences for the Indigenous community. 

“Our idea was that some floors might be completely open, so you could build new spaces, or have vegetation throughout – not a conventional, closed hermetically sealed box,” says James. The gathering space has been well used for events and informal gatherings, acting as an extension of the office. We continue to work with the group on smaller design projects.

The First Peoples’ Health and Wellbeing centre in Frankston offers a range of health services across the board – from medical support to family medicine and mental health, with a children’s play area on site. Our initial involvement was to help obtain a planning and building permit to upgrade the underutilised site, built in the 1980s.

On surveying the heavily engineered building, we found the original structure had been geared to hold additional floors, and identified great potential for a vertical extension, to include a function venue on site. As with Dardi Munwurro, we began with a small brief, and worked with the client to find opportunities beyond that. We provided a clear architectural solution to enable councils, user groups and funding partners to visualise and secure a future for the project.

“Naturally, not-for-profit, social housing-type work can be constricted by budget – but our job is to find what’s possible,” says James. “Strategic planning and staged development allow for incremental growth.”

We developed a number of proposals for Dardi Munwurro, modelling the various functions and configurations possible on the site, to suit different levels and types of funding. And, while a single storey iteration of Frankston First Peoples’ Health and Wellbeing has been submitted to town planning, recent conversations have favoured a two-storey design, which will require pursuit of a different grant.

“One of the key learnings from working on projects dependent on various funding pathways is that we need to have a viable contingency plan for if a grant doesn’t go ahead,” says James. “Our strategy is to develop multiple designs, so the organisations have options.”

While each project is purpose-built for its unique community and range of services, one common thread between Dardi Munwurro and Frankston First Peoples’ Health and Wellbeing is an architectural solution that is intentionally non-prescriptive. 

Rather than trying to build to the maximum area as cheaply as possible, our role is to create a forward-looking framework, where the structure can expand alongside the organisation it houses. By working closely with user groups and staff to understand their specific spatial requirements, we can allow for potential changes in program and future upgrades in the building fabric, to ensure our designs can continue to respond and grow in a modular way.

“Occasionally there is a misconception that architects just make pretty buildings. And sure, the end result should look great, but that’s a bonus – what we do is put a rigorous process in place to achieve a better result on all measures,” says James. “With both Dardi and the Frankston First Peoples’ projects, we aimed to step away from the design as much as possible, so it can be inhabited by the community and evolve internally.”