In such an extreme environment, where summer temperatures can reach 50°C, this alone would create a sense of ease, but it is only the first in a series of subtle features and carefully considered themes that run through like a green wire at each level of the campus. .The redevelopment of a seven-storey office building overlooking the Arabian Gulf into a unified vertical campus for a Scottish university was achieved using biophilic principles. Here, human affinity with nature has informed the orientation of learning spaces; the choice of materials for walls, floors and furniture; airflow, and even overhead felt screens that absorb sound and provide privacy in open staff areas.
Biophilic design has been shown to improve well-being, and it’s not just about plants though, as at Heriot-Watt’s Dubai campus where interior green walls run through all levels, these can be an important part of the design. It’s also about textural elements, a rich variety of patterns, the choice of natural rather than synthetic materials, and the inclusion of “biomimicry”, which in this case includes rugs reminiscent of stone, moss and grass. The human brain has been programmed over millennia. to detect subtle differences in the natural environment, allowing us to feel the breeze on our skin and feel the change in light as the day progresses. Indoor environments, on the other hand, are more static and it is this disconnection with nature that biophilic design seeks to redress. BDP’s inspiration for the design of the Dubai campus was the designed landscape of Heriot-Watt’s Riccarton Estate. Its verdant park has an outstanding collection of trees and has provided a compelling context for the application of biophilic principles; referencing the Scottish standing stones and pavements of Edinburgh in the slate-lined walls and monolithic reception that welcome visitors to Dubai. The biophilic design has succeeded in giving the Dubai campus a sense of identity, orienting staff traveling between the Gulf and Edinburgh, and providing its students with a unique connection to the heritage of this ancient Scottish university. Its pattern is inspired by the Heriot-Watt coat of arms and filters the sun, reminiscent of the dappled light streaming through the canopy of Riccarton’s trees – while the choice of wood for the furniture provides another element of anchor in the borrowed landscape. An important aspect of biophilic design is its ability to unite indoor and outdoor environments, and BDP has located spaces for social learning where to provide views through palm trees towards the Gulf.
For visitors, staff and students, not all of these features will be immediately obvious, but they combine on a subliminal level to instill a sense of place. And the client, Heriot-Watt University, was open to philosophy. They understood that biophilic design would enrich the learning environment, infusing the Dubai campus with an identity that links it to its Edinburgh roots. In Dubai, this approach has provided a way to unite nature, culture and heritage in a contemporary setting, creating a sense of place and making students and staff feel comfortable in their environment.
Bruce Kennedy is Principal Architect at BDP Glasgow