The Brickyard Retreat is made up of a boutique hotel and 9 managed homes located 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.
In 2006 Jim and Liang discovered a roof tile manufacturing factory dating back to the 1960s in the village of Beigou. At the time still operational, this factory with its black smoke belching from the chimneys and grounds littered with rubble and broken tiles, was to be the starting point of the couple’s boutique hotel. In 2008 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, these buildings, along with the surrounding farmers’ homes, 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 at the factory, Jim discovered that most of the existing buildings were structurally unsound. Several, it turned out, were supporting heavy timber-framed roofs laden with glazed tile, which was 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.
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.
Jim and Liang are no strangers to building restoration concepts, as is evident from their sensitive treatment of both the tile factory and the 9 farmers’ dwellings transformed into homes to become part of the Brickyard Retreat. All the homes feature existing structures and many display original timber rafters or beams, sometimes supported by new steel columns and ties for extra stability. Other elements such as a brick wall, blackened hearth or kang (a raised brick platform heated from below and used as an all-purpose area by all the family for entertaining, eating and sleeping) would deliberately be left in situ, dictating the direction of the new design and serving as a reminder of the structure’s humble origins. Jim also maintained several of the original exterior facades by adding a second wall on the inside to act as the load baring element, leaving the delicate old walls unburdened and untouched. As with the factory buildings, Jim adopted the same practice of material reuse and repurposing with these homes whenever possible.
In addition Jim and Liang made a point of always hiring locally as a way of giving something back to the community. This is especially important in small villages like Beigou where every year more young people seek work in larger cities, leaving an aging, non-earning population behind. When wandering around the Brickyard I noticed that almost all of the employees are women, including many of the managers. Having a job with a stable income makes a huge difference in an area where the alternative is to either sell trinkets to tourists or work as a seasonal laborer harvesting fruit and nuts.
The Brickyard Retreat is not a restoration project in the strictest sense of the word. However Jim and Liang’s dedication to social responsibility, as well as their sensitive approach to maintaining the architectural vernacular of the area, does make the Brickyard Retreat a great model for sustainable eco-tourism with restoration characteristics. Redeploying these simple, functional spaces using local building methods and existing materials pays respect to both the structures and their surrounding environment. The friendly local staff and home-cooked meals add to the intimate customer experience expected of a boutique hotel, but which can also be found when staying at a local nong jia yuan (???) or farmer’s courtyard (a form of retreat which has become increasingly popular for those wishing to escape the city for a weekend and “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 acts of building preservation and restoration themselves. When done properly a project like the Brickyard can demonstrate to the local community the viability and commercial benefits of maintaining and restoring their old buildings, making them natural allies in the eco-tourism industry.
For more information about the Brickyard Retreat and to book a room or villa, follow this link.
The Brickyard Retreat at Mutianyu
Description: Originally a tile manufacturing and glazing factory from the 1960s, Jim Spear repurposed these existing structures as the basis of the Brickyard Retreat. Included within this eco-toursim hotel are 9 private homes, all of which retain original architectural features from their former lives as farmers' homes.
Location: Bohai Township, near the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall
Type of Architecture: 1960's factory and farmers' homes
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Shambhala at the Great Wall (formerly Red Capital Ranch)
Description: The first eco-tourism hotel in Beijing, this recreated hunting estate features original, reclaimed Manchurian architecture as well as Manchurian and Tibetan decor. Located in a private valley the estate has part of the Great Wall running through it, creating a one-of-a-kind experience for visitors.
Location: Yanxi Township, Huairou District, Beijing
Type of Architecture: Manchurian hunting lodge with Tibetan influences
Read more about Shambhala at the Great Wall (formerly Red Capital Ranch)
Red Capital Club and Residence
Description: Restored Beijing courtyards (Siheyuan) featuring typical layouts and original fixtures and decorations. Overhanging walkways surround small open-air stone courtyards with interiors decorated in a Chinese 1920s - 50s style.
Location: Dong Si area in Dong Cheng, Beijing
Type of Architecture: Traditional Beijing courtyards
Read more about Red Capital Club and Residence
Shambhala Serai Himalayan Heritage Hotels
Description: The first geo-tourism hotels in China, these Heritage Hotels feature restored Tibetan architecture with a sincere ethos on sustainable tourism and supporting ethnic minorities and their skills.
Location: Lhasa, Terdrom and Gyantse, Tibet Autonomous Region
Type of Architecture: Traditional Tibetan architecture
Read more about Shambhala Serai Himalayan Heritage Hotels
Description: The Naked Reserves creates eco-tourism holiday retreats through the restoration of existing local buildings on site and sustainable new-builds. The two projects - 'naked Home Village' and 'naked Stables Private Reserve' - are some of the leading examples in sustainable tourism in China.
Location: Moganshan 395 Village and Paitou Town, both in Deqing County, Zhejiang Province
Type of Architecture: Zhejiang village houses and new-build
Read more about Naked Retreats
The Linden Centre
Description: Sensitively restored home of a former Bai merchant. Traditional architecture features adorn the property, including sky wells, decorative carved eaves and original wood-carved screens. The Linden Centre is known to be a leading example of architectural restoration and cultural conservation.
Location: Xizhou Town, Dali, Yunnan Province
Type of Architecture: Traditional Bai architecture
Read more about The Linden Centre