Greenery growing in a building's facade

Why should nature be integrated into the built environment?

In modern society, most people spend around 90% of their time indoors. This means the total time we spend outdoors is a fairly insignificant part of our day. Living in a cramped highrise apartment with few plants is a reality for a lot of people and is one of the reasons why people feel disconnected from the environment. Being in connection to nature is recognized, through various studies, for its countless benefits on cognition, mood, surgery recovery and physical health among several others. Modern construction bears in mind this balance and therefore makes attempts to bring the outdoors inside with the help of biophilic design, by making it part of our everyday life and solving the negative outcomes of limited greenery and urbanization.

What is Biophilia and why is it important to us?

According to a theory of the biologist E. O. Wilson, “Biophilia is an innate and genetically determined affinity of human beings with the natural world.”

The Biophilia Theory explains the pleasant feeling we get when we interact with elements of nature; it is used in several disciplines most notably the field of architecture. A study of Biophilic Architecture revealed that contemporary cities tend to have high stress levels, mental health issues, crimes, and illnesses, as well as issues related to water and air pollution. On the other hand, ‘Biophilic Cities’ that provide close and daily contact with nature, smooth out many of the problems created by contemporary cities. Biophilia is also important in building social capital, since forests, parks and green spaces are significant places for socializing.

Many people are led to believe that working indoors makes us immune to air pollutants but that is far from true. The lack of fresh air and ventilation has a significant impact on our cognitive capacity. The cognitive benefits of interacting with nature can be exemplified in the improvement of our directed attention abilities. Several studies and experiments have shown that walking in nature or viewing pictures of nature can improve people’s attention abilities, thus proving nature’s attention restoration abilities. When we integrate nature in our buildings, the strong and routine interactions with these elements can provide us opportunities for this mental restoration. As a result, our ability to perform focused greatly increases.

In ‘14 Patterns of Biophilic Design’, the authors Browning, Ryan and Clancy illustrate the physiological impact of natural elements to include muscle relaxation, lower blood pressure and stress hormone levels. They also state that there is a direct positive impact on healing and surgery recovery when nature is integrated in healthcare facilities. The fluorescent lights, beeping equipment, stark walls, and nauseating smells are what most people associate with hospitals and it is enough to make anyone feel on edge. Research shows that when patient rooms have views of nature, patients’ postoperative stays are generally shorter, and the need for pain medication is greatly reduced. A 1984 study by Katcher found that patients waiting for their dental appointments exhibit lower anxiety levels when a fish aquarium was present in the waiting area as opposed to when the aquarium was absent.

While taking a walk in the park or spending a day at the beach definitely connects you to nature, the psychological benefits of being exposed to nature does not necessarily involve real nature. The biophilic design uses direct as well as indirect nature, to achieve the intended space and place conditions. Architects and project teams are increasingly integrating or mimicking forms and patterns that elicit the positive reactions associated with natural elements and the built environment.

In 2019, the MENA Green Building Awards named Tilal Al Ghaf Sales and Experience Center the Zero Energy Building of the Year. The building was designed to include photovoltaic panels that made it Net-Zero.  It was also recognized for the use of natural colors, earthy tones throughout as well as materials like limestone, marble and wood. The outside facade provided ample sunlight and a great view of the external features; the lake and the landscape. All of these elements combined has made the structure feel seamlessly blended from the indoors to the outdoors.


(Image courtesy: Kettle Co)

Perhaps the most innovative and sustainable pavilion at EXPO 2020 in Dubai is Terra – The Sustainability Pavilion. Designed by UK-based Grimshaw Architects, it is completely self-sufficient. That means it generates its own power, recycles the water that it consumes and was built with sustainable materials. The impressive features include 1,055 photovoltaic panels arranged on a 130-meter-wide roof canopy and a mini forest of ‘Energy Trees’.

The immersive experience takes the visitor on a journey to the beauty of nature and how fragile our planet is.The stunning and engaging visuals closely resemble natural materials, textures and colors found in nature, and the massive dome facade allows a massive amount of natural light to enter the building. Each feature in its construction shows how every small action has a footprint in the environment while also conveying a message of hope: that it is still possible to alter the current destructive trends.

The building is LEED Platinum-certified while hosting many features of the WELL certification as well.


(Image courtesy: Expo 2020 Dubai)

WELL at Work


(Image courtesy: Alexandre Oliveira- Jafo Fotograpia)

There is a growing importance in constructing our indoors to allow for maximum efficiency and as such in 2013, the International WELL Building Institute (IWBI) launched a movement to specifically address issues such as health and well-being within the built environment.

While WELL v1 prioritizes health and safety in the workplace, The Mind Concept in WELL v2 focuses on positively influencing mental health and well-being. The internationally recognized WELL Building Standards provide architects and designers with guidelines on how to make a real and measurable difference on how we function within our urban spaces. It is specifically built to improve the health and wellness of people in buildings by assessing on-site performance verification, which includes tests of air quality, water quality, lighting, acoustics and visual inspections of other features. WELL standards include guidelines for incorporating designs that balance circadian rhythms. The consequences of bad acoustics mean more distracting noise, which can contribute up to a 66% decline in performance.

Many WELL certified projects have had a comprehensive evaluation to study the impact of the standard on the physical environment and the experiences of the people inside. In London, the Cundall Office found that WELL helped a 27% drop in staff turnover compared to the year before saving the company £122,000. There was also a 50% reduction in absenteeism allowing for an annual savings of £90,000. All of this was achieved by improving the visitor experience by opening up the floor plan of the office and adding tempered light and calming sounds, such as birdsong, in the reception area. Including a simple plant, wall was attributed to lowering the need for ventilation by 11% and including reflective coatings brought 30% more daylight into the office than a regular floor plan.

Alpin Consultants are trained professionals that specialize in both WELL versions and uphold the WELL Building Standards across the region, creating spaces that focus on improving human health and wellness by integrating elements of nature. A simple outdoor-indoor connection can reduce the instances of stress and tension, anxiety and anger, fatigue, and confusion we may be exposed to. In addition to greatly improving our mood, to verify this, try noticing how the sound of crackling fires or the smell of rain makes you feel.

Bottom line

The promotion of health and wellbeing has recently become a key consideration when creating environments for the growing global population. It is unquestionable that a continuous network of natural Biophilic elements in the indoor, as well as the outdoor environments, can result in significant benefits for the health and wellbeing of building occupants. It could also help us reduce the environmental footprint of built assets.

How can we achieve all this? Well, putting this into action would require bridging the gap between scientific research and built environment developers, owners, and operators. Raising the industry’s awareness when it comes to the scientifically proven benefits of Biophilic Design features and the existence of the WELL standards is key to ensure that nature becomes an integral part of all our current and future spaces.

Written by Tasneem Bakri & Faiza Ali


To learn more about how Alpin can help you incorporate biophilic design in your next project, reach out to us at [email protected]