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By Kate Springer | May 20th, 2016

Just over 30 years ago, Jim Spear and his wife Tang Liang moved to China. The couple fell in love with the Great Wall, bought a village house in Mutianyu and later renovated the property with Spear’s artistic eye. This led to a much bigger project: Brickyard Retreat and The Schoolhouse. An architectural designer, sustainable tourism investor and resort planner, Spear tells The Loop about working in Mutianyu, China’s growing economy, and what it really means to be “sustainable.”

So when did you move to China?

The first time we came here was in March 1986, and we loved the area because of the Great Wall, because of the forest, the people. The area was so charming so we kept coming here. About 21 years ago, I brought a friend out here and I took him to the Great Wall, because that’s what you do here when overseas family and friends visit.

It was a hot summer day. We walked from the top of the mountain down, and by the time we got to the bottom, we were tired, so we sat on a rock by the path and a villager had a stand selling souvenirs.

Most of the souvenirs were T-shirts, and I bought a house instead of a T-shirt.

Wait, what? You bought a house?

He wanted me to buy a T-shirt. Instead of buying anything I said, ‘I don’t want to buy a T-shirt today but I am really enjoying talking with you, and I envy you living in such a beautiful place. I’ve always wanted to live here, but I don’t think it will ever happen.’

This guy, who I had never met before, said ‘I’ll help you get a house.’

So I gave him my home phone number, and we went on our way. A few days later, my wife asked me what I’d been up to. She said, ‘This guy called me up and I couldn’t understand what he was saying, so I hung up. But he called me a second time, and I asked him not to call anymore. But he called a third time and I finally managed to understand he was saying that he found you a house.’

First it was serendipitous to run into this guy, and second it was truly fortunate that my wife actually talked to him on the third try. He was such a persistent guy.

So what was the house like?

He found us a house. We leased it 20 years ago, and it was our weekend retreat. Eleven years ago I was turning 50 and I was having a midlife crisis. I told my wife one night that I was going to quit my job [at Chindex, a NASDAQ company].

When we came to live out here, the first order of business was to make our basic village house into something we could live in full-time. And the upshot of redoing the house was that friends liked it, and friends of friends, then total strangers — they saw the results and then I started getting calls and now have clients from all around the world.

So how did you come to start Brickyard?

The mayor of the village called me own to the office, over the PA system: “Jim Spear, Jim Spear: Report to the village hall.” When you get called in like that, there’s an agenda.

They wanted to develop more tourism in the area, because the young people didn’t want to run stalls anymore, and the older people in the village weren’t doing too well. Many of them had no incomes or children to look after them.

The mayor thought I should give something back. He kicked me in the rear end and really got me and my wife thinking about this.

What happened next?

Without a business plan, we took a lease on the abandoned village schoolhouse. The mayor had to actively persuade the members of the village council to lease out communal land to this weird foreigner. We started a restaurant, a craft shop, and a gallery – The Schoolhouse.

The same year, we opened another restaurant and our first vacation lodgings [Grandma’s Place] in 2006. The core of what we do is self-help, using capital to build up a local tourism industry, so there’s new life in these village communities.

How do you engage the community with Brickyard?

We have local procurement programs – spa pajamas, uniforms, everything is made by local providers. And we track that. Part of managing something is measuring it. So we report on it annually to show that we are trying to be sustainable. We are very far from perfect, but if you know where you’re at, you can set a direction for where to go in the future.

About 80 percent of our employees are local, and that’s a pretty high level. And about 80 percent of our employees are female. Now 60 percent of our managers are female. The majority were farmhouse wives and never had a job outside of the home.

That’s kind of revolutionary in the dynamic of a patriarchal peasant family when the wife has a bigger and steadier income than the husband. It basically changes the power relationship within the family, and I think that’s a good thing.

What do you mean when you say Brickyard is sustainable?

Ten years ago that was a relatively new concept but now it’s a buzzword. Practically speaking, what does it mean? There are a lot of indices and programs and ways that you can get certified to say that you are sustainable.

The real people just do local, local, local. We cook with what we can to grow ourselves or source locally, and all done according to organic principles. So from the beginning, we wanted to do small-scale, a whole series of them, that would over time be able to complement the community and not disrupt it.

How are you architectural projects sustainable?

In my design work for our businesses, I use existing buildings. I would rarely tear down a building that could be salvaged. The reason for that is not simply to respect what was here — if you tear it down and rebuild it, no matter how efficient you are it takes 30-50 years to get a net energy gain.

In our little corner of the world, we are doing the best we can in our way. We re-use building materials, designed for sustainability too. We monitor energy usages. We are early adopters of LED technology. Payback times are short.

How is life at the Great Wall changing for villagers?

People in China have so much more disposable income than they did in the past, and their life chances and lifestyles change immensely. When we first started out, it was maybe RMB20,000 to lease the house for 30 or 40 years. As is – no electricity, no sewer. There are land-use laws, which prohibit the peasants from alienating their dwellings. They can lease it, but they can’t sell it.

Now one of these huts, with nothing, costs RMB50,000 a year. That’s because there’s huge demand for second homes in the country side, and it’s next to one of the world’s most amazing landmarks.

When I first came to China at the beginning of the 1980s, who would have thought this? The development, the change in people’s life chances has been extraordinary. If you look at 5,000 years of most of its history, China was the richest, most enlightened, most technologically advanced country of the planet. And China is back!

Are the hiccups and social problems serious? Yes, but I’m not parochial enough to say that serious issues don’t exist in other places as well.

What do you say to those who don’t like traveling in China, due to the crowds?

I would recommend going to the second-tier site. It’s likely just as beautiful, if not more beautiful. It’s probably a much better experience because it’s not inundated.

I mean the real story in China is the domestic tourism. Go to the sites that aren’t inundated, get off the beaten track, get out of the big cities. There’s so much here that hasn’t been destroyed yet. It’s worth seeing.