Philanthropist and founder of White Rabbit Gallery Judith Neilson has donated $10 million to the University of New South Wales’ (UNSW) Faculty of Built Environment, making it the largest investment in an academic chair of its kind in Australia.

The endowment will be used for research leadership in the design of affordable and sustainable dwellings for displaced and disadvantaged people, including the tens of millions affected by natural disasters, geo-political conflicts, and economic and environmental factors.

Neilson, whose White Rabbit Gallery houses one of the world’s most significant collections of Chinese contemporary art, said her decision to make the investment was motivated by one of the “most pressing issues of our time”.

“Architecture is often the domain of the very privileged, but it’s much more than that. We’re talking about socially transformative design and bringing about policy change,” she says.

“We have massive populations who move to temporary housing that they end up living in for years and that in no way meets their needs. Giving people whose lives have been shattered the opportunity to live in affordable dwellings that have been thoughtfully and sustainably designed with enduring materials can help improve their quality of life.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there are now more than 51 million displaced people worldwide, with the number predicted to continue rising.

“Through architecture and design we can, in some way, help restore the safety, dignity and hope of some of the world’s most vulnerable people,” Neilson adds.

Dean of UNSW Built Environment, Professor Alec Tzannes AM, describes the donation as an “extraordinary act of philanthropy”.

“I acknowledge Judith Nielson for her long-term vision and commitment to support the betterment of society through architect,” says Professor Tzannes.

“Her generous gift to UNSW represents a groundbreaking commitment of global significance for the research, teaching and public debate of architecture with the specific social purpose of improving the lives of displaced and disadvantaged people.”

An international search will begin soon for a leading researcher to take up the inaugural appointment. The funding will also be used for an annual public lecture.