Ben Wood Studio Shanghai
A two-and-a-half-hour car ride outside Shanghai’s urban sprawl, the environmental degradation that has come with China’s dramatic economic boom yields to a vision of the country as it once was. It is here, in a town surrounded by mountains and miles of untouched, lush bamboo forests, that the developer Grant Horsfield imagined a retreat from China’s endless factories and colossal cities.
The Naked Stables Private Reserve would be more than a luxury resort. “It was about bringing nature into the space, which is quite rare today in China,” says Delphine Yip-Horsfield, Grant Horsfield’s wife, a partner at Ben Wood Studio Shanghai, and the lead architect on the project. Spread out over 60 acres, the 121-room retreat opened last October and is seeking to become the first LEED Platinum–certified resort of its size in Asia.
The Horsfields, who come from different backgrounds—she hails from Hong Kong; he is from South Africa—agreed on the importance of an aesthetic that would encourage and facilitate a bond with the outdoors.
Forty round Earth Huts appear to grow from the soil, and are constructed of a special material called “stabilized insulated rammed earth”: a mix of local soils, strengthened with rebar and cement, that surrounds a core of insulation. “When I first saw this wall, I was wowed because it looks so natural,” Yip-Horsfield says. At 18 inches thick, the walls provide impressive insulation, helping the resort achieve LEED certification. “Every single Earth Hut is different, because they were done one by one,” she says. “It looks like art.”
In contrast, 30 Tree-Top Villas float above ground, nestled in the canopy. They are perched on a slope, standing on stilts made of structural insulated panels (SIPs). Yip-Horsfield discovered the technology in her readings about sustainable design. Made of insulation sandwiched between oriented strand board, the SIPs were prefabricated off-site, and designed for quick on-site construction: the panels interlock neatly to form a sealed box. The assembly simplified construction logistics, adding to the project’s sustainability.
The interiors, designed by AIM Architecture, have an Afro-Asian theme, blending bleached, textured wood, baskets, natural plasters, cowhide rugs, and earthy colors that suggest an African safari lodge. The Asian feel comes through in the project’s minimalism, and in locally sourced components like bamboo and stone. Yip-Horsfield decided to use traditional mud walls in the stables, activities center, and multipurpose hall; all were constructed by local craftsmen, most of whom were between 50 and 70 years old. According to the architect, younger men no longer learn the trade, another consequence of China’s industrial transformation.
“We wanted to experiment, so we used the rammed earth and SIPs, but at the same time, we loved local construction, and wanted to incorporate those building technologies, because many of those crafts are disappearing in China,” Yip-Horsfield says. “We wanted to showcase them, and tell people that they should not be forgotten.”