It was while hiking in the serene bamboo forests of Moganshan, a one-time popular summer retreat some two and a half hours by train from Shanghai, when South African-born Grant Horsfield first realised he had found the perfect setting for the luxury wellness eco-resort that he and his Harvard-trained architect wife, Delphine Yip, had always wanted to create. Last October, naked Stables made its debut with thirty spectacular tree top villas perched high in the forest canopy, and forty secluded rustic earth huts set within an exclusive nature reserve featuring wild deer and an organic white tea plantation. A steady stream of discerning eco-conscious guests ever since has happily proved the design duo’s firm belief that luxury and environmentally responsibility are not mutually exclusive.
What makes this project so unique in a world where the term ‘eco-friendly’ is often misused, is the uncompromising focus on authentic sustainability throughout the resort’s lifecycle from construction through to operation – so much so it is aiming for China’s first Platinum LEED (Leadership in Environmental Energy Design) award for this type and size of resort. The naked Retreats brand first earned its eco design credentials in 2007 with a unique conservation project of refurbished traditional Chinese farmhouses in the same location but this newest offering allowed Yip to introduce a range of environmental innovations like high strength stabilised insulated rammed earth (SIRE) wall technology for the huts and clubhouse. The result is a winning blend of aesthetics and sustainability with significant levels of energy efficiency. The prefabricated lightweight wooden treetop villas are built of structural insulated panels that dramatically reduced waste and construction impact in the sensitive forested environment while creating a highly insulated building envelope for lower energy consumption.
Meanwhile, the strong commitment to sustainability extended to the local community where local villagers were employed during construction, reviving fast disappearing traditional skills. The reserve’s local eco-education programmes also play an important role in helping to raise environmental awareness.
The project’s modern Afro-Asian design aesthetic is equally novel in China, drawing on both co-owners nationalities and creating what Yip (who also acted as the project architect and master planner), describes as “a fusion of African hospitality; colours; textures and a unique intimacy with nature, and local natural materials to create a strong Asian sense of place.” The unusual aesthetic also works particularly well with the nature reserve concept and a pool bar, outdoor infinity pools and hiking trails offer active outdoor pursuits.
“Our main purpose was a return to nature so maintaining the natural environment around the resort was our first priority. The buildings are specially designed to minimise environmental impact and fit in with natural surrounds,” explains Yip, who brought in a team of international designers and engineers who understood her commitment to setting a new standard of comprehensive and integrated sustainable design at all levels of the project from master planning, water and energy efficiency to material selection, and indoor environmental quality.
Importantly, for the users – visitors from all over the world – naked Stables demonstrates that ‘eco-friendly’ doesn’t mean compromising on pampering or style, indeed what it has done is to set this resort apart from other luxury retreats. While quietly ticking all the environmental boxes, the 121-room retreat delivers uncompromising luxury (think secluded rural-chic). The same level of attention has been paid to the facilities: Kikaboni (meaning ‘organic’ in Swahili), the resort’s main restaurant, serves Afro-Asian styled seasonal cuisine with items listed by ingredient rather than course and a beautifully designed contemporary spa wellness center; conference facilities; yoga and meditation pavilions; teahouse, fully-equipped equestrian center; and private butlers means getting back to eco-basics has never been easier – or so much fun.