Factories are among the hardest workspaces to adapt to the age of COVID-19. With high occupancy and large indoor spaces serviced by ventilation systems, it seems near-impossible to eliminate the spread of viruses inside them. The fact of the matter is that most of these buildings simply aren’t designed to be opened to the fresh air.

How lucky is it, then, that Design Unit Architects Sbn Bhd of Malaysia were already working on a spectacularly permeable factory design before the pandemic hit? “Factory in the Forest” is the result of an architectural competition for an electronics manufacturing plant conceived as a forest “that penetrates, surrounds, and steps over the building creating maximum contact with nature — green, breeze, scent, sound, touch.”

That sounds like a dream for any workplace, let alone an industrial facility typically associated with hard, cold materials, and heavy machinery. The whole facility is covered with a canopy supported by a “forest” of columns, protecting it from the rain while incorporating lots of greenery-filled outdoor spaces and walls that open right up to the factory’s vegetated surroundings.

In fact, there’s access to gardens at almost every level of the facility, including multiple floors of offices with their own rooftop gardens, as well as a green courtyard separating them from the manufacturing plant. A bridge hovers over this courtyard, linking the two areas and offering a space for meetings, breaks, and lectures. Employees are encouraged to take moments out of their work day to relax among the trees here.

The structure itself features covered outdoor walkways, circular atria, black steel support beams, and lots of textural concrete. The design emphasizes diffused natural light across the factory floor, reducing the need for artificial lighting, and air conditioning is augmented by chilled water floor slab cooling so the plant only consumes about half the energy of a typical, similarly-sized facility.

With this small palette of materials, the building explains to us what it is, what it is made of, and how it is put together,” say the architects. “The approach was to create a stimulating and meaningful working environment for all employees — [and for] the forest to be the face of the building and company. Forests, critical for both macro and micro-climates, are also vital for our psychological well-being.”

From the project’s onset, the client wanted an energy-efficient and climatically responsive building. The cardinal sustainable design principles were energy efficiency, water efficiency, daylighting, and biophilia — the fundamental human need for connection to nature. The building is designed to shield against the hot and glaring tropical sun while allowing diffused natural daylight to filter into the building. The office and courtyard are shaded by a louver canopy designed to provide effective solar protection during the hottest part of the day.”

In places with temperate climates, like Malaysia, sustainable architecture that embraces the natural surroundings could become a lot more popular in the years to come. “Factory in the Forest” proves that no matter how industrial a building might be, there’s always room for design that prioritizes our access to fresh air, plants, and sunlight, which can only be a good thing for employees’ mental and physical health.