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30UNDER30’s Emma Whettingsteel has heritage and community advocacy in her DNA

30UNDER30’s Emma Whettingsteel has heritage and community advocacy in her DNA


Australian Design Review (ADR) recently revealed the 30UNDER30 Architects and Innovators of the Built World for 2023/2024. To celebrate, we are getting to know this exciting multidisciplinary cohort, the passions that drive their work and what makes them tick creatively.

Emma Whettingsteel has design, heritage and community advocacy in her DNA. Growing up, her mother was an active heritage advocate, taking Emma to council meetings and on heritage bushwalks. Today, Emma describes herself as a lover of underrated local parks and is dedicated to bringing sectors and communities together to generate better outcomes for the community and the environment. 

Currently project lead at Innovation Unit, she is driven by a belief in using architectural skills and opportunities to care for others. Emma prides herself on her ability to bridge gaps between sectors and worldviews in order to bring about greater understanding and cohesion. 

Emma’s approach to work is exemplified in her diverse projects, including a PhD on the sense of belonging for Aboriginal young people in boarding schools, commercial research on collaborative practices with First Nations stakeholders at COX Architecture and the development of ‘Place Imagination’. This toolkit, created in collaboration with Innovation Unit ANZ, industry leaders and a local transitional housing provider in Perth, focuses on enabling conditions for architecture with social impact.

ADR: How did your love for architecture/the built environment originate and how does it relate to your current line of work?

EW: While I was growing up my mum did a lot of advocacy work to protect local heritage sites. I inherited her interest in buildings (and being bossy about them) by osmosis. She took me along to council meetings and for bush walks at heritage sites — from these experiences I had to assume there was something pretty important going on with architecture. 

My parents were also restoring the property we lived in while my sister and I were little, so we saw first-hand how much work and love goes into bringing places to life.

I’ve now spent a lot of time researching the psychological impact of the built environment, and I also know from my own experiences how connection to place impacts the rest of our lives. 

My role now sees me working in service and systems design, so I get to see the role of physical place across a lot of different communities and sectors.

ADR: Is there a particular project that you’ve worked on that has been the highlight of your career so far?

EW: In 2021, I had the opportunity to work on the design of built form principles as part of a feasibility study for student accommodation in the Kimberley. This was my first experience working with Innovation Unit (where I’m now a project lead), and it was also my first opportunity to apply the findings from my PhD in practice. 

I’d never heard of service design, personas, or journey maps. The facilitation of design with so many stakeholders using those types of tools felt like magic. The pace and level of collaboration blew my mind a little bit but it also made real — from conversations with the community — how big an impact design could have. The project hasn’t been built yet, but I still haven’t stopped thinking about how services and architecture can be co-designed together.

ADR: What drives your work and what do you hope to achieve in your career?

EW: This sounds nerdy, but nothing beats the feeling of being in a room with amazing people and knowing that you’re working on something good. The thing I’d most like to do in my career is help create the types of projects where that energy is there for people. 

At the moment, I’m interested in how service design can help to [create meaningful spaces for people] in the early stages of commissioning architecture — or before it’s commissioned — and especially considering how to do this in a way that embeds better social outcomes. 

I’m interested in the role of the built environment in emotionally complex spaces, and how places can go beyond creating psychological safety to become an active tool for empowering people. 

ADR: How did it feel to make it into Australian Design Review’s 30UNDER30?

EW: Genuinely thrilled. I’m so excited. It can be difficult to stay connected from slightly outside the architecture industry and being based in Perth. It’s amazing to have the opportunity to plug into a network like this. 

ADR’s 30UNDER30 Architects and Innovators of the Built World stream is brought to you by major sponsor Neolith, alongside Miele, Interface and Tongue & Groove. The program is also supported by practice partners BVN, HDR INC, SJB, Richard Stanisich, Williams Burton Leopardi, and Billard Leece Partnership. To find out more about the final 30, including their places of work and discipline areas, head to the 30UNDER30 page.


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