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This is why we need biophilic design now more than ever in the Middle East

Experts say there is a need to raise awareness and effectively implement biophilic design principles in the region.

This is why we need biophilic design now more than ever in the Middle East
[Source photo: Anvita Gupta/Fast Company Middle East]

In our increasingly urbanized world, amid the luxuries of skyscrapers and city lights, we crave the serenity of forests and the great outdoors?

Have you ever wondered why we humans have an innate affinity for the natural world? Statistics have been published that quantify the increased level of health improvement as a result of connection with the outdoors.

Biophilic design takes this idea one step further.

In recent years, sustainable and people-centric designs have arisen, which has helped spur biophilic design. 

The MENA region has hosted many huge international events such as Expo 2020, Fifa World Cup, COP27, and COP28, among many others, and with that came opportunities for sustainable and green architecture to develop at a large scale, making space for biophilic design to flourish at different rates across the region. 

At the same time, rapid urbanization in the MENA region has encroached upon fragile ecosystems. Biophilic design incorporates natural elements, such as green walls, natural lighting, natural views, and natural materials such as wood and stone; biomimicry in design and materials; natural materials, textures, and patterns; water features and sounds; or vegetation integration. 

IMPROVES WELL-BEING

“This approach views the built environment as a multi-sensory and systemic aspect of human health and well-being,” says Christine Espinosa-Erlanda, Associate Director at Godwin Austen Johnson. 

Charu Kokate, Senior Partner at Safdie Architects, responsible for the biophilic design of Changi Airport in Singapore, says that implementing a huge forest in the center of the airport became a game changer as it embraced the idea that nature can be brought within buildings. 

“Access to nature, access to natural light is free. In this part of the world, there’s so much abundant natural light; using it with seasonal gardens is crucial. Some could be outdoors, some could be indoors, integrating them very well helps refresh your mind,” adds Kokate.

Biophilic design is more than just adding plants to indoor spaces. It’s an ethos that poses interior design not merely as a functional discipline but as a way to improve people’s well-being.

“It’s an acknowledgment that we humans are, at our core, creatures of the natural environment and that living in a concrete jungle means this connection to nature is more vital than ever because, as humans, we have an innate need to be in touch with nature,” says Espinosa-Erlanda. 

This underscores the importance of biophilic design, signifying that it goes beyond the looks of a space—it also enhances the well-being and productivity of individuals who inhabit places designed with biophilia in mind.

“One of the basic principles behind biophilic design is based on scientific research: our bodies, minds, and physiological systems developed in a habitat that includes the natural world. Due to this, our physiological development has become attuned to the non-man-made environment,” adds Espinosa-Erlanda.

Biophilic design in office spaces is also becoming important as people sit and work, spending eight to ten hours in a building. While there’s a trend of placing plants in an office to filter air, it only serves half a purpose.  You would need to put a thousand houseplants in a 10-foot-by-10-foot office to effectively clean the air.

“The plant only cleans the air in its location, not around it. But that doesn’t mean that having one plant in a room doesn’t change your psychology because of the biophilic relationship to the plant,” says Camilo Cerro, an Associate Professor at American University in Sharjah and Principal at Dharmatecture.

Biophilic design will be essential in the next 10 to 15 years, especially in countries like the UAE, which is predicted to lose three kilometers of coastline in the next 70 years.

“Everything needs to be moved in, and the governments know this. They’ve started moving infrastructure in,” Cerro adds.

OPPORTUNITIES AND CHALLENGES

While the concept is still emerging in the MENA region, biophilic design accommodates the region’s hot and dry climate, as well as promotes well-being, reduced energy usage, increased property values and alignment with sustainability goals, as well as improves air quality and overall health. 

There are challenges to putting this area of design into practice, including water shortages and extreme weather conditions. The region faces significant water scarcity that threatens maintaining natural ecosystems and creating human spaces that connect harmoniously with nature. 

To tackle these issues effectively, Espinosa-Erlanda says implementing water-saving technologies such as greywater irrigation systems and exploring climate control methods such as passive cooling can be key.

Furthermore, incorporating controlled cost elements, such as natural light sources and nature-inspired art can enrich architectural environments in a sustainable manner.

“Biophilic design and architecture are instrumental in preserving the environmental balance by seamlessly integrating natural elements within built environments. It should never disrupt the ecological balance,” says Espinosa-Erlanda. 

Kokate echoes the sentiment, stating that buildings, not gardens, disrupt nature. “It all depends on how you replace the greenery. Some people use green walls, and some people put them on rooftops. When we talk about biophilic design, it has always been landscape and nature and not just a furniture setup.”

The challenge then becomes how one can design something that feels natural and how it can be more than just a decoration. “We’re not trying to decorate. We are trying to create spaces that feel like you’re sitting outdoors. When creating an indoor garden, the challenge is human and plant comfort,” says Kokate,

She adds that using local plants that survive within a certain medium is key, such as the push to plant mangroves across the UAE.

Giving an example of malls in the UAE where many plants are placed, manifesting biophilic design, Cerro says, “They might be implementing it, but they’re using plants that are not local, so it’s creating havoc in the ecosystems. But at the same time, there’s a movement here, and it’s sponsored to a large degree by the government to understand the region’s flora and fauna and to start designing with that in mind.”

RAISING AWARENESS

In the region, where major cities are rapidly expanding and undergoing development, urban centers are currently facing the challenge of accommodating a large portion of the population. This has resulted in increased urbanization, increasing residents’ health issues.

Experts say there is a need to raise awareness of sustainable design and effectively implement biophilic design principles to address the challenges of the natural environments.

“In the cities, it’s becoming so hot and humid, and the climate impacts our buildings. What should have been the balance between nature and man-made is lost,” says Kokate.

The design field is largely impacted by a range of research and experimentation aimed at understanding how to apply these principles, drawing inspiration from global activities where environmental conditions are generally milder than those in the MENA region. In this sense, keeping in mind locality is vital, and educating people on it is just as important.

Architecture has always been about adaptation, particularly in the region. “In a region where there is water scarcity, where we’ve forgotten how to live with the desert, biophilic design will be important, but it’s a functional role, not an aesthetic one. We need to look at when sustainability becomes survivability,” says Cerro.

“In the future, the intense sun in the MENA region will not be seen as a foe but an avenue for innovation. Structures emerge from the terrain that don’t just provide shelter from the heat but also harmonize and evolve alongside it,” says Espinosa-Erlanda. 

“While the increase of climate change looms large, biophilic design will be a shield,” she adds.

Delve deeper into the design-thinking process and global design trends, encompassing urban planning, biophilic design, immersive technologies, and more at the Innovation By Design Summit in Doha on April 24. Attendance at the Innovation by Design Summit is by invitation only. Delegates can register here to receive their exclusive invite.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Suha Hasan is a correspondent at Fast Company Middle East. More

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