Get to Know: Michael O'Brien

2 minutes



Michael O'Brien



August 31, 2023

Michael O'Brien is a design leader and Ignite's recently-appointed Wellington Studio Lead. We catch up with Michael on emerging opportunities in healthcare design, the links between architecture and well-being, and who inspires his craft.

Get to Know: Michael O'Brien

You are relatively new to Ignite! What inspired you to join with our Wellington studio?

After operating as Principal and Partner for 7 years with SD+A, the opportunity to coalesce with Ignite came up. After seeing Ignite evolve over the years, both in terms of business growth and honing their craft, it seemed like an obvious decision. There was an immediate synergy between our firms.

For my team joining from SD+A, it presented an opportunity for us to scale up, and work on larger projects with the backing of an Australasian practice.

You recently helped to deliver Te Wao Nui - Wellington Children’s Hospital. What were the key aspects of prioritising clinical integrity, whilst crafting child-centred design?

We have taken every opportunity to incorporate ‘nodes of joy’ throughout the hospital. We wanted to create specific moments for the children, to spark joy and delight in an otherwise daunting and uncertain time. These ‘moments’ are largely led by the Te Wao Nui theme - The Great Forest of Tane, which reflects the life-giving properties of nature.

Of course, the Tree of Life sculptural staircase is another notable and popular design feature. We used this as both a fun element in the design as well as an Architectural feature. It works as a circulation node between the ward, the link bridge, the cafe, and public areas.

Tiny details such as the animated glass frit on the windows provides an opportunity for the children to engage with the design and provide moments of distraction

Outside, the 300sqm playscape has had a huge impact on both children and adults alike and continues the overall theme with an abundance of plants, winding pathways, colours, and textures.

From a functional perspective we really tried to step into the shoes of the patients and families. This is best realised in the case of the single/twin bedroom configuration– each with a pull-out bed for a trusted family member or caregiver, which again relieves anxiety in an uncertain time. All rooms were designed in 3D and a mock-up room was created to give staff an opportunity to critique the patient rooms.

Collaboration is something I am seeing a lot more of in healthcare projects. Large firms that may have previously been competitors are teaming up to strategize and deliver the best possible outcomes for kiwi healthcare.

What opportunities are you seeing in healthcare design in NZ?

The integration of Te Aranga Design Principles and tikanga Māori across healthcare projects is certainly becoming more prevalent – enabling us to foster better cohesion between spaces and our communities.

It offers us the opportunity to partner with cultural advisors and local iwi, which in turn enhances our holistic understanding for creating a sense of identity and place.

Have you seen key links with design directly influencing patient’s health?

Previously, Wellington Children’s Hospital had 4-5 beds per ward. Now there's a single bed format, with some twin rooms, all with views to the outdoors and natural light.

With this more functional design, staff spend less time re-allocating patients to different wards according to factors such as their condition or age group and can focus more on caregiving. The introduction of facilities such as kitchens and laundries allow families to cook their own meals and more closely mimic a home environment. It’s been established that staff have recovered 30% more time to focus on patient’s immediate health needs.

A study is underway at the hospital to help quantify exactly how the new facility is influencing wellbeing and recovery.

Since completion, Te Wao Nui has won a number of awards – including the Property Council NZ’s Supreme Excellence Award. What does this mean to you?

The PCNZ, NZIA and Master Builders awards are each a validation of the heart and soul that went into the design and delivery of Te Wao Nui. We all realised early on that this would be a special project in terms of the outcomes for children’s health in the region -  every design move considered this. The Supreme Award was the icing on the cake - celebrating the many people involved in the hospital’s success.

You’ve worked on projects across the world and travelled extensively. What culture has influenced your design craft the most?

I would say the design culture in Brazil, which has made significant contributions to modern architecture through renowned architects like Oscar Niemeyer, João Filgueiras Lima, and Lina Bo Bardi. Their designs often feature curvilinear forms, amazing use of concrete, and the integration of buildings with the surrounding landscape. Lina Bo Bardi’s Museum of Art in São Paulo is a phenomenal piece of public architecture that provides community space, public space, and is a leading art museum.

Learn more about Michael and his design ethos here.

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