Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates is one of the fastest growing cities in the world—and it’s where I made my second stop on my research tour of NICU design, as part of the Spencer de Mille Traveling Fellowship through the International Interior Design Association (IIDA) Northern Pacific Chapter Knowledge Advancement Fund.

Business developer Mohamed Ali Al Shorafa Al Hammadi, CEO of United Eastern Medical Services (UEMS), envisioned an emirate where healthcare developed at an equal pace to its fast-growing economy.

After traveling the world researching medical facilities, he decided Abu Dhabi needed better women’s and children’s care. Out of this vision came Danat al Emarat Hospital, a new 150-bed facility that will open in summer 2015 and will be managed by Singaporean healthcare provider Parkway Health.

My goal in visiting the facility was to gain knowledge about NICU design on an international scale and I’m happy to say I acquired this and so much more during my visit to Abu Dhabi. Everyone I met was welcoming. Hospitality was central in every interview, as was a cup of perfectly steeped tea.

Ayman Mahmoud, the project resident engineer from ECG, an engineering consultant on the project, gave me a tour of the hospital. Amr Mikawi, executive director of UEMS, took time to explain the ins and outs of the project’s construction. And Mostafa Elgammal, the senior architect-of-record on site, walked me through the design specifics.

One way that the facility stands out is that it houses all of the services a woman or child would need—from birthing capabilities and three NICU levels to pediatric services.

This reflects the trend we’re seeing with healthcare design as a whole as facilities become more like small communities with holistic care and strong physician-to-physician and physician-to-patient relationships across various disciplines. UEMS, the foundation heading the project, has been working with clinics in Abu Dhabi to set up a referral system for the hospital.

U.S.-based firm HKS collaborated with UEMS to deliver a comprehensive design. Rick Franz, associate principal and senior vice president at HKS, served as the planning director and project manager and says that the project was an opportunity to respond to cultural settings and produce opportunities in design that can’t be accomplished in the U.S.

For example, one of the most striking differences is the incorporation of a “royal suite” on the top floor of the hospital, dedicated entirely to those who wish to pay more for larger rooms and more luxurious services.This space is used as a birthing center but can also house mothers and babies with complications. These patient suites include a patient room, full bathroom, family suite and bathroom, and a nanny room and toilet. The design was driven by the wealth of the local community along with the need to cater to many nationalities.

On the NICU floor, the Level 1 NICU has private patient rooms, while the Level 2 and Level 3 NICUs are curtained areas with two isolettes per space. There’s room for the mother to be with her baby and the nurse’s stations are located less than 20 feet away.

What I love about the planning is that mothers and babies can be together in one room or just across the building on the same floor, allowing mothers to rest if needed, and that all treatments are available in the same building. The NICU is fully integrated into the rest of the hospital, which is designed in such a way that each floor is intuitive to navigate and one side is easy to access from the other side without walking down long, confusing corridors.

Majd Abu Zant, COO of UEMS, offered insight into just how important this NICU is to Abu Dhabi. The only other NICU in the emirate operates at 100 percent capacity and has to turn patients away. Therefore, many women are forced to travel outside of Abu Dhabi to find care for their babies. Danat al Emarat will be the first in a string of initiatives to reinvent NICUs in the UAE.

My visit to Abu Dhabi and Danat al Emarat showed how NICU design is moving toward full functional integration into hospitals. It also illustrates a higher level of consideration for unique cultural needs, rather than attempting a universal model for healthcare.

On the next leg of my journey, I will travel to Stockholm to experience first-hand the Karolinska Institutet and its increasingly popular NICU studies. For more photos and updates on my travels and the development of my research, visit http://iida-northernpacific.org/knowledge-fund/.

Gloria Cornell is an interior designer at B+H Architects (Seattle).