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Victoria University student Simon Harrison won the New Zealand Institute of Architects Graphisoft Student Design Award 2009, which includes $5000 and a trip to Sydney.
The 33-year-old said his design was about providing community spaces for high density apartment buildings.
A child growing up in his hometown of Dunedin may move from playing in their house to playing in their backyard, street or suburb, but the options for children growing up in apartment blocks were limited, he said.
Mr Harrison said his work, Urban Neighbours, was influenced by a recent internship in Switzerland where he worked on high density housing, where "public private" spaces were designed to create genuine neighbourhoods.
Competition judges said his work was "a compelling investigation of physical, social and commercial aspects of architecture".
His journey to become the country's top architecture student began with playing with Lego blocks at his family home, and an interest with many of Dunedin's historic buildings.
"Dunedin has some of the best old architecture in the country and even when I was at Otago Boys there was a great mix of old and new buildings."
After graduating in draughting from Otago Polytechnic and several years of travelling, he decided to become an architect, completing his degree last month.
Mr Harrison said he was keen to remain in New Zealand and was likely to work in Auckland before an eventual return to Dunedin.
Another former Dunedin man and fellow Victoria University student, Daniel Davis (22) was also a finalist in the annual competition, which invites four finalists from each on the country's three schools of architecture.