Beijing's The Schoolhouse: Sustainable luxury in the Chinese countryside

Beijing's The Schoolhouse: Sustainable luxury in the Chinese countryside

The Schoolhouse’s collection of restaurants and residences offer respite just an hour’s drive from the insanity of Beijing

Dotted unobtrusively amid the farmers’ homes and workplaces, resting in the foothills below the expanse of the Mutianyu section of the Great Wall, The Schoolhouse’s collection of restaurants and residences are the result of one man and his team's realization there was a hunger for such a development model.

A model for sustainable development 

The SchoohouseThe Schoohouse.They are the vision of long-term resident Jim Spear, who along with his Chinese wife Liang Tang and their team of dedicated partners and professionals, has created a community hailed across China as a model for rural sustainable development. 

“We started off with one rental home and quickly realized that there was a real hunger on the part of our guests, at first mainly expats and companies, to connect with rural life without sacrificing comfort and connectivity,” says Spear, a Californian. 

Now there are 11 luxury getaways available to rent, three restaurants, a glass-blowing workshop, conferencing facilities and a 16-room retreat, all recreated from the footprints of the original buildings with locally sourced materials. 

Schoolhouse rock

The once rundown schoolhouse that gives the project its name is now a busy restaurant and canteen, the old village blacksmith has been transformed into a premium dining room, and an abandoned warehouse now stocks fine-glass creations from the workshop within, including hauntingly resonant singing bowls and wine glasses that make perfect gifts. 

“We preserve the original buildings, even though this approach is considerably more expensive, because simply tearing it down would destroy the story of this place and because it would take 30 to 50 years to get a net energy gain,” says Spear. 

All the renovations have been undertaken with local craftsmen, in an evolving partnership that Spears notes has seen the builders take away his ideas and make them their own. “It's really something to see beautiful things cropping up in our area that I didn't design and yet know I had a hand in inspiring.” 

Detailed planning at the Brickyard

The Brickyard LodgeThe Brickyard Lodge.The Brickyard Inn, which opened in March and offers lodging for 1,200 RMB per night, stands as testament to the meticulous thought involved in the planning of each project. “Every guest room has a custom mural composed of scrap refractory brick with stilts and glaze drippings -- the kiln furniture underneath the tiles that were fired here and thrown away when no longer usable,” Spear explains. 

The rooms themselves, which are made cozy and warm by the thermal-paned windows and passive solar-heating that are a hallmark of the site, are tiered to maximize the use of space and provide each with a view out to the Great Wall beyond. 

The standalone homes, which start at 1,800 RMB a night, have more individual features, like sunken fireplaces, zen gardens or Jacuzzi tub. All are carefully furnished with finds from local markets or pieces from private collections. 

Food from the garden to the kitchen

Schoohouse gardenSchoohouse garden.Crucial to the concept of sustainability that has guided Spear’s approach is the importance of growing and cooking with as much food as possible sourced from The Schoolhouse garden. 

Executive chef Randhir Singh faced a challenge when tasked with applying skills honed at Le Meridien, Dubai, to train his kitchen of a dozen local ladies in the arts of finer cooking.

He laughs as he recalls trying to teach them how to make a bouillon paste based on ingredients from five fish none of them had ever seen before. “It was a waste of time, there was nothing there for them to learn,” he smiles.

Yet step by step, Singh has built upon their knowledge to expand the creations they are capable of, resulting in a team that can turn out bacon smoked with pine needles gathered from nearby hills, garden-grown beetroot puree “that leaves an earthy taste” or bisque using steamed trout plucked from local ponds.

As any chef should be, Singh is enthusiastic when talking about his cooking, but he is at his most animated when picking apart the flavors gleaned from ingredients gathered from neighboring villages and his personal garden. “You can feel it, the change in taste in spinach, pumpkin or watercress is amazing –- it just leaps out and says ‘look, I am here!’”

When he can’t get his hands on something locally, the chef makes sure it’s homemade, like the ice cream he demonstrates making on The Schoolhouse’s Slow Food Saturdays, or the sausages, equipment for which he is currently buying in to make next year.

In keeping with the Schoolhouse’s community approach, Singh is rolling out the slow food concept to other restaurants in the area, and helped instigate a tour of 20 eateries, each of which offers its own specialty made solely from local ingredients.

He is aided in this outreach work by sustainability manager Wu Yun Ta Na, recently hired to help develop the garden and involve more local families in growing and supplying the kitchens.

She has spent the winter explaining the Schoolhouse’s work to local villagers, and asking them to set aside plots to grow enough vegetables each week to ensure the stoves are constantly supplied with fresh, locally tendered produce.

Building blocks

Schoolhouse staffSome of the Schoolhouse staff.The Schoolhouse community now directly employs 70 local staff and has been responsible for drawing some US$10 million in private investment to the area.

But Spear isn’t done yet. 

Casting his eye over plots in a new garden that will give rise to honeysuckle, lotus, wisteria and plums, he sketches his plan to build a wellness spa in preparation for a spring 2011 opening.

The sockets for the three-watt LEDs, which will create a sense of warmth at a fraction of the cost of regular lighting, are already in place, waiting to illuminate the VIP rooms, gym and infinity pool that are currently under construction. 

The spa is the next step in a development that began without any overarching philosophy, but has grown incrementally into an award-winning initiative that has attracted interest from the highest levels of government. 

As Spear muses standing on the yoga platform outside the spa, “In the typical way of the world, the money would have come in and the local people would have been displaced from their homes and livelihoods. We've taken a different approach.”

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