The Brickyard Retreat at Mutianyu

The Brickyard Retreat is a boutique hotel located in the village of Beigou near the Mutianyu sections of the Great Wall, around an 80 minute drive from Beijing’s city center. It was created by Jim Spear, a designer with a long-standing relationship with the township of Bohai, having settled in Mutianyu village with his wife and business partner Liang Tang over 10 years ago.

The Lodge
The Lodge at the Brickyard

Jim and Liang discovered the Brickyard, a roof tile manufacturing factory from the 1960s, in 2007. The following year they had the last firing for a batch of glazed tiles before starting renovations. Although none of the buildings were more than a few decades old, they represented the type of humble architectural style largely unchanged in form and layout since the 1500s when workers were moved to the area to rebuild the nearby section of the Great Wall. It was therefore important to Jim to maintain the spirit of this vernacular building style as much as possible, while striking a balance with the commercial needs of a small hotel.

Upon starting renovations, the couple discovered most of the existing buildings were structurally unsound. Several, it turned out, were supporting heavy timber-framed roofs laden with glazed tiles as a way to demonstrate the factory’s products to prospective clients. The Lodge for example (formally the factory offices), had no foundations to speak of, making the walls and timber frame unstable for public use. Rather than rebuild from scratch Jim decided to add in foundations as well as steel brackets to reinforce the walls and take the weight off the timbers. Even though this method of “repurposing” the building is more time-consuming and costly, it’s just one of the many ways in which the Brickyard Retreat visibly pays tribute to it’s former life and building style.

Inside one of the kilns
Inside one of the kilns

The 9 firing kilns were similarly retained and converted into interesting public spaces, including public toilets and a video game room. Leaving the interior walls untouched, Jim added a steel and glass canopy within each kiln to allow guests to view the exposed walls (while also protecting them from the occasional flurry of dust that would fall from the vaulted ceilings). Unsold inventory of the beautifully glazed yellow, blue and green tiles were also repurposed on the roof of the Lodge and piles of broken bricks and tiles that littered the site were dug up, cleaned and re-used for outdoor paving and in wall decorations. All of the red brick used on site was reclaimed, as were the grey roof tiles. The stone used in construction was locally sourced from a nearby quarry.

Untouched exterior
Untouched exterior at one of the homes

The Brickyard Retreat is not a restoration project in the strictest sense of the meaning. However Jim and Liang’s dedication to environmental and social sustainability, as well as their sensitive approach to maintaining the architectural vernacular of the area, does make the Brickyard a great model for sustainable ecotourism… with restoration characteristics. From an architectural point of view the simple, functional, structures (the majority following the original factory footprint), and the integration of existing materials and traditional building methods, all contribute towards a level of authenticity expected of a restoration project. The friendly local staff and home-cooked meals add to the intimate user experience customary of a boutique hotel, but which can also be found when staying at a local nong jia yuan (农家院), farmers courtyard, a form of retreat which has become increasingly popular for those wishing to escape the city for a weekend and to “get back to nature”.

In this writer’s opinion, to create a sustainable eco-tourism model is equal to, if not more important than, the act of  building preservation itself. When done properly this can demonstrate to the local community the viability and commercial benefits of building preservation and restoration, making them natural allies in the ecotourism industry.

For more information about the Brickyard Retreat and to book a room or villa, follow this link.