Doctor of Philosophy (Practice-based PhD)

The Practice-based PhD is aimed at practitioners operating within or across the broad range of disciplines represented in the school, from architecture and design to planning and construction. Early and mid-career, as well as senior practitioners, will have the opportunity to apply the knowledge, skills and methodologies they have developed in the field within a broader framework of critical and rigorous scholarly enquiry. In turn, the expanded range of interrogative, analytical and evaluative skills developed during the course of their candidatures should directly enhance their own practice. 

Key Information

About the Practice-based PhD

A Practice-based PhD is available across all disciplines represented in the School of Built Environment: Architecture, City Planning, Computational Design, Construction Management and Property, Industrial Design, Interior Architecture and Landscape Architecture.

In the same way as a traditional PhD, the primary aim of the Practice-based PhD is to contribute new knowledge to the field through systematic investigation. A candidate has the opportunity to apply the research value of the knowledge, skills and methodologies developed as a practitioner within a broader framework of critical enquiry and analysis. It is expected that the candidate will generate a new body of ideas-based/creative work (the Project) and a written work (the Dissertation) that together will make an original contribution to knowledge within the field.

Program details

The Project may take one of a number of different forms, for example: architectural design, urban design and planning, construction methods and technologies, industrial design, interior design and landscape design. It could also cross a number of disciplines. The chosen medium can also vary, for example it might take the form of objects, drawings, plans, prototypes, models, creative text, digital fabrication, film, virtual reality or a combination of these. The requirement, however, is that the Project can be fully documented in electronic form for the purposes of examination.

The Dissertation is a substantial research-based academic essay that bears a direct relationship to the Project. Together the Dissertation and the Project comprise the PhD thesis.

In order to assist commencing students in developing an appropriate research methodology, candidates are required to undertake a course in their first session - BENV7020 Research Seminar.

Candidates undertaking a Practice-based PhD will also be required to undertake a specialised Thesis Writing Workshop run by UNSW Learning Centre.

For information on the structure of the program, please refer to the UNSW Online Handbook.

For information on the way in which a Practice-based PhD is examined, please refer to Notes For Examiners.

Is the Practice-based PhD the right degree for me?

Who are the candidates?

  • Are you an established and passionate practitioner operating within or across the broad range of disciplines represented in the School of Built Environment like Architecture and Urban Design, City Planning, Computational Design, Construction Management and Property, Industrial Design, Interior Architecture and Landscape Architecture? 
  • Are you interested in developing rigorous critical thinking and knowledge creation to improve your practice and the industry?
  • Based on your direct experience as an established practitioner in the Built Environment industry, you will generate a project through robust critical research. 
  • The research project would result from historically and scientifically broadening and contextualising the field of enquiry.
  • Reflection, experimentation and testing boundaries within your field will narrow the PhD topic to a sharp, focused and manageable research project.

Why begin a research project? 

  • Research projects will affect, benefit and reward industry by improving and expanding your services to clients.  
  • Discipline and interdisciplinary oriented research projects will shape the future of our cities and allow you, as a practitioner, to become a global leader in your field.
  • Your research project will encourage, promote and support collaboration between academia and industry. 

Where to look for funding sources? 

  • Your close working relationship with the industry can potentially lead to funding, in particular where the research topic is aligned with the industry’s future visions. (E.g. Design-Construction-Developer Companies, Construction Material Industries/Associations)  


Examples of research projects


Architecture and social agency 

Project aim: The broader aim is to contribute to the growing discourse on community development and social agency in vulnerable communities. The history of humanitarian concerns in development delivery stem from colonisation and top down practices. Practice-based PhD Candidate Renate Carius’ research project focuses on participatory design processes set within the context of post disaster reconstruction in Nepal. Current fieldwork serves as a case study to explore how reflexive design can contribute to local agency in informal settlements. 

Project findings: Findings from the process could contribute to future knowledge on co-design strategies and policy in vulnerable communities for social agency.  

Architecture and urban condition 

Project aim: By integrating the building to the city and its urban landscape, the aim of the Practice-based PhD in architecture and the urban condition is to question the role of architecture in responding with contemporary and progressive design of volumes, spaces, public/private human activities and use of materiality to the existing urban fabric.

Project findings: Research findings from critical forward-thinking and imaginative practitioners will enhance research about ‘urban contiguity’ - how considering the existing urban context and envisioning a new project complement each other; how rethinking and integrating urban high-density and public infrastructure with multigenerational/affordable housing, public activities and educational institutions will create a more liveable community.   

Architecture and housing 

Project aim: Diane Jones’ PhD proposal looks at the cultural shift and interest in urban settings which are not age or otherwise segregated for integrated communities embedded within the existing urban context. This intersects with the perceived benefits and realities of high density living in a compact city. The aim is to understand the architectural design attributes of well-being for people who are aging within purposefully designed high rise living settings- in an integrated (across generations and uses) community within an urban context. How do architectural design decisions in practice align with people’s experiences of well-being? 

Project findings: The proposal will work towards the development of a suite of principles that are evidence based - that can be organised as an evaluative matrix which can be used to brief, design and evaluate the spatial experiences that contribute to people’s well-being and continuing vitality and vibrancy as they grow older. 


Construction and project management 

Project aim: Despite its contribution to the global and national economies, the construction industry is notorious for being unsafe. In such an environment, project management personnel play an important role in leading safety task implementation and creating positive safety climate in construction projects. This, subsequently, leads to accident prevention through the efforts of eliminating unsafe acts and conditions. In order to do so, project management personnel need to possess sufficient skills. Therefore, this present research has investigated the role of project management personnel’s’ skills (comprising conceptual, human, political, and technical skills) in implementing safety management tasks and developing safety climate. 

Project findings: This research has identified four essential skills and 15 skill components of project management personnel to manage construction safety. Visioning, self-awareness, and apparent sincerity are the foundation skills; scoping and integration, and self-management are the first-tier mediator skills; whilst social awareness, social astuteness, and relationship management are the second-tier mediator skills. A significant contribution of this research to construction safety practice is the development of a model that portrays skill applications and development processes for project management personnel to implement safety management tasks and develop safety climate. The model recommended assists construction organisations to identify skill shortages and make decisions on their human resource development strategies and plans. 


Computational design 

Project aim and findings: Computational Design is moving from promise to practice. Where PhD research in the early years of Computational Design often engage with provocative form finding and experiments in computation and computing, a Practice-Based PhD in Computational Design aims to tackle problems in industry. The Computational Design degree and its HDR extensions sees itself as the Research and Development department for local, national and international firms investigating third horizon challenges spanning from Machine Learning / AI, to bio-mimicry, to AR/VR, robotic and digital fabrication, to smart cities and responsive environments and performance and optimisation of design, architecture, structure and cities. As established practitioners, PhD applicants are able to bring firm specific third horizon challenges into the PhD investigation and answer the research question through academic supervision within the school, but also, depending on the topic, within the university. The PhD student can further make use of the Design Futures Lab with its extensive range of collaborative and industry robots, AR/VR and sensing and capturing facilities as well as conventional making.

Industrial design 

Project aim and findings: A Practice-based PhD in Industrial Design is aimed at mid-career, as well as senior practitioners operating within the field of industrial design. Candidates will contribute new knowledge to the field through critical and rigorous self-reflection, systematic investigation, scholarly enquiry and analysis of their own design practice; including the knowledge, skills and methodologies they developed as a practitioner. The aim is to document, make explicit and voice this research knowledge, which is otherwise inherent and implicit in their ongoing design practice. In return, the candidates’ own practice will be enhanced with the expanded range of interrogative, analytical and evaluative skills developed during the Practice-based PhD. Outcomes of a Practice-based PhD are expected to be in the form of a combined project, generating a new body of ideas-based/creative work and a written dissertation, that together will make an original contribution to knowledge, enabling the candidate to become a recognized authority within the field. 


City planning 

Project aim: The development of affordable housing in mixed-tenure neighbourhoods is frequently meant with opposition from local residents, planners, politicians and the media. This opposition can lead to costly construction delays and amendments for affordable housing developers and in some cases may even force the abandonment of projects. In the most high-profile cases, the opposition threatens to undermine political and public support for affordable housing provision. There has been much research on the phenomenon of community opposition to affordable housing development in the USA, but there is almost no equivalent research in Australia.  

Project findings: Gethin Davison’s PhD research found that most affordable housing proposals are not controversial but a small number of high-profile cases undermine political and public support for affordable housing provision. This project also contributes to understanding the NIMBY (Not In My Backyard) movement in Australia. Levels of opposition to affordable housing tend to be greater in relatively wealthy areas, especially where there is no precedent for multi-unit development or affordable housing. In particular, opposition to affordable housing is highly localised, with most submissions made against affordable housing proposals coming from people living close to the site. Planning assessment processes can generate or exacerbate community opposition to affordable housing, especially where community involvement is limited.  

Sustainable built environment 

Project aim: In recent years, the planning, design and installation of “green infrastructure” at the local and city level has been identified as a best practice and nature-based solution to achieving greater urban sustainability and resilience. This project aims to develop an indicator-based model using a mixed-method approach as a means to evaluate the performance of urban green infrastructure. This model is composed of a set of sixteen key indicators within four subcategories: ecological; health and well-being; sociocultural; and economic. Each represents key interactions between human health, ecosystem services and ecosystem health. This model is tested, validated and verified through a case study in Sydney, Australia. 

Project findings: The significance of the research is that the derived indicator-based model provides an opportunity to understand the complex relationships of the multidimensional structure of urban green spaces. It provides a useful insight for urban designers and decision-makers in monitoring various aspects of the urban ecosystem, and it also allows for early warnings regarding any undesirable changes in sustainability levels.

Entry Requirements
  • Appropriate undergraduate degree with first or upper second class honours or a completed Masters by Research degree, or academic qualification(s) considered equivalent.
  • Candidates may be admitted to the PhD program after one year's full tim enrolment in a Masters by Research program with the approval of the School Higher Degree Research Committee.
  • In exceptional cases an applicant who submits evidence of such other academic and professional qualifications, as may be approved by the School Higher Degree Committee, may be permitted to enrol for the degree. English language requirements apply. Please refer to UNSW’s English Requirements Policy
How to apply

Before formally applying for enrolment in a Practice-based PhD through UNSW Apply Online, UNSW School of Built Environment requires that you complete the following 4-Step process:

Step 1: Meet Entry Requirements
Make sure that you meet the entry requirements for the degree for which you are applying, including any English requirements.


Step 2: Find a Supervisor
You need to contact prospective supervisors to determine in advance if they are in a position to supervise your research topic. Seek out an appropriate supervisor for your chosen research topic from the UNSW School of Built Environment website (Find a Supervisor) or UNSW Find a Researcher. Once you have identified an appropriate academic staff member, send him/her, via email, the following:

If the prospective supervisor you have contacted expresses initial interest in supervising your research proposal, then you can progress to Step 3.


Step 3: Meet with Supervisor
Arrange a face-to-face interview to discuss your research proposal in detail and determine who your joint or secondary supervisor/s might be. If you are a local student, you should arrange a meeting. If you are an international student, arrange a discussion via Skype.

  • Please note that this is a crucial step in the process. It is a requirement for university admission and counts towards your ranking for a scholarship.
  • Remember too that an interview provides an opportunity to ensure that you and your supervisor are the right “fit” for each other. After all, the relationship you establish with your supervisor will be critical to the progress of your research project.
  • It is an extra requirement, for those applying for enrolment in a Practice-based PhD, to clearly establish what extra resources, if any, will be required to undertake the research project. For example, the project might require access to a particular facility in the workshop. If this is the case, the applicant, in consultation with the nominated supervisor, must compose a detailed list of the additional resources required. This list must be countersigned by the supervisor before it is submitted with the Expression of Interest form (See Step 4).


Step 4: Application Assessed at Higher Degree Committee (HDC)
Send the following documents to the UNSW School of Built Environment HDR Team at

  • Completed BE HDR Expression of Interest Form
  • Research proposal
  • Academic transcripts
  • CV
  • Proof of meeting English requirements
  • Details for two academic referees
  • Email from the prospective supervisors stating that they agree to supervise you upon successful admission into the degree

Your application will be considered by the School's HDC. The Committee meets on the 2nd Wednesday of every month - with the exception of January when no meeting is held.

If the HDC supports your application, you will be advised to formally apply for enrolment through UNSW Apply Online.


Contact the School of Built Environment HDR Team if you have any queries related to the School application process:

Contact the Graduate Research School if you have any queries related to UNSW Apply Online or visit their website
For domestic students:
For international students: 


Please take into account the 4-Step process described above when planning your application. The deadline for EOI submission is 5pm on the Thursday before the HDC meeting to be considered at that month’s meeting.

You need to allow enough time for this process to be completed BEFORE undertaking your formal application for enrolment through UNSW Apply Online. Your formal application will not be processed by the Graduate Research School without providing a successful expression of interest outcome from the School.

If you intend to apply for a scholarship, there are set deadlines. See deadlines for UNSW Apply Online applications and scholarships here.

Please note that the university closes down over Christmas/New Year and many academic and administrative staff take their recreation leave during the month of January.

Contact the School of Built Environment HDR Team if you have any queries:



Postgraduate Research Scholarships (RTP, UPA, TFS): allow at least eight weeks from the time of submitting your application to the School HDC to the closing date for the university’s scholarship rounds. For more information please see the Graduate Research School website. See deadlines for UNSW Apply Online applications and scholarships here.

See the BE website for information regarding School scholarships.

Why UNSW School of Built Environment
  • Centre of Research recognised by industry and wider community
  • Academic support by highly qualified and experienced academics
  • Supervision by some of the top researchers in their fields
  • Regular knowledge-sharing workshops and seminars
  • Quality research facilities
  • Dedicated research space for every full-time candidate
  • Financial support (additional to any scholarship)