09 Apr 2018
Baakline/Deir Dourit, Lebanon
Sustainable Tourism

At Bkerzay, Lebanon’s largest eco-lodge, there is a story everywhere you look. There is the upcycled coffee table that, in another life, was used to transport baby elephants in India. There are the crochet-adorned curtains, a modern twist on the traditional Lebanese handicraft. Then there is the property itself — a testament to vernacular stone architecture, nature, and a business built around sustainability and the environment.

Nestled in an undisturbed mountain forest high above the Chouf Valley, Bkerzay is Ramzi Salman’s response to the negative changes he witnessed in Lebanon in the years following the civil war. “It was a reaction to all of the ugliness in Lebanon: the corruption, pollution, over-development, and unsustainable methods,” explains Kareem Salman of his father’s reason for creating Bkerzay.

“We saw the Lebanon of the pre-civil war, which was an unbelievable place,” Ramzi recalls. “They used to call it the Switzerland of the Middle East, and it was environmentally, socially, and architecturally beautiful. You can still see remains of that, but they’re scattered.” Bkerzay is about reviving this beauty.

From mountainside to mountain eco-lodge:

Before this land became Bkerzay, it was an inconspicuous patch of forest in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains, a 45-minute drive from Beirut. It was late 2008, and the Salmans wanted a mountain getaway to escape the noise and pollution of the capital.

A property with abundant olive, Aleppo pines, and fig trees seemed like the perfect remedy. Many villagers had left the region during the country’s civil war, but Ramzi was drawn to the place. “I was amazed by the beauty of the agricultural land, the proximity of a natural forest reserve called Herch Baakline, and the need to preserve and revitalize the area in order to anchor its people to it,” expands Ramzi.

Today, Bkerzay sits on 200,000 square meters of land, with 85% of it maintained as forested area. A master plan was established to downzone the buildable areas, meaning the nature will be preserved for all future generations.

Ramzi realized that to preserve the region, he also had to promote crafts and agricultural terroir products. In 2012, he met Ahmad Deif, a young Egyptian master potter. They offered him space at their mountain home, and soon a pottery workshop was born. Next came a beekeeper, and soap and oil were made from the olive harvest. Then a small cafe to offer snacks to visitors.

“The ideas were all good, but Bkerzay was still losing money,” says Kareem. “Because it’s such a gorgeous, untouched place, my father thought we could also develop a few guesthouses while still maintaining the authenticity of the place.”

That plan soon escalated. “Being an architect and a builder, my father kind of got carried away. He got really excited and decided to go for a 34-key hotel. It was a substantial jump from a concept to what it turned out to be,” Kareem says laughingly.

Studying in the U.S. while all this was underway, it was not until Kareem returned to Lebanon in July 2017, or at his sister’s wedding the following month, that he realized the magnitude of the project. The guesthouse opened a week after hosting the August 24 wedding, and Kareem realized the property needed a full-time manager.

Sustainable design inside and out:

With a new manager in Kareem, Bkerzay was open for business.

Visitors will be the first to realize each guesthouse possesses a unique layout. The infinity pool is an oddly-shaped basin that overlooks the valley. There is method to the madness, though. “Not a single tree was taken out to build the project,” Ramzi says. “On the contrary, the existing trees dictated the architecture and the layout of the entire project.”

Whereas the guesthouses are complex in their circumvention of nature, the building style is refreshingly simple. Ramzi drew inspiration from traditional Lebanese and vernacular Mediterranean architecture: stone walls and arches, and rooftops planted with flowers. “There is already a lot of natural beauty here, which is why Lebanese architecture is a bit understated,” Kareem says.

Bkerzay’s interiors are also a throwback to traditional Lebanese handicraft. That is where another family member comes in: Zeina Takieddine, an experienced interior designer, and Ramzi Salman’s sister. Zeina led the interior designs of Bkerzay alongside Lebanese interior designer, May Daouk. 

As a child, Takieddine remembers visiting their grandparents in Baakleen, a town in Lebanon’s Chouf District. Their grandmother was head of the local crochet workshop, and one of the first actions Takieddine took when working on Bkerzay’s interiors was to approach these female artisans.

“I wanted the old technique, but when you go to their workshop there are no new ideas. So we looked for little architectural details and we created something new,” Takieddine describes. “Each lady had their own little salt and pepper to add to the design.” The outcome of those designs are now displayed on Bkerzay’s curtains.

Being faithful to the concept of recycling most of the furniture is sustainably sourced from charming old brocante pieces to create a rustic, charming, and authentic feel.  “It’s like walking into your grandparents’ house, but with the comfort of 2018,” expands Kareem of the decor.

Bkerzay’s many sustainable measures:

Traditional in its design, Bkerzay is advanced when it comes to energy conservation and sustainability. Solar panels produce two-thirds of the eco-lodge’s electricity, and more are being added each season. Rooms contain no heavy energy appliances, and heating comes from dry wood that was cleared from the forest, mitigating the risk of summer fires.

Bkerzay is also zero-waste, thanks to Cedar Environmental, a Beirut-based NGO that collects, recycles, and upcycles waste of all kinds. In the future, greywater will be reused for irrigation

Although Bkerzay is a family business, it had extended team members who played a role in the achievement of Bkerzay’s sustainability ambitions: Maha Nasrallah, an award-winning architect in sustainability, and Lara Moutin, international consultant in sustainable development and supply chains. In her project management role, Moutin was responsible for designing and implementing the project processes and ensuring stakeholder engagement. Nasrallah and Ramzi combined their architectural expertise to ensure sustainable architectural features were well embedded in Bkerzay’s design. This team effort was integral to the success of the project.

Now, the Bkerzay team is putting the final touches on its application to receive a “very good” rating from BREEAM, the world’s foremost certification for sustainable design. They would be the first commercial business in Lebanon to receive the rating. For the application process, Moutin is working alongside Beirut-based sustainable construction consulting firm, EcoConsulting.

“As an ecotourism project, the BREEAM certification will be a third-party label that increases credibility. It is a recognized label that can help their marketing and visibility,” says Ghaith Moufarege, a senior sustainability engineer at EcoConsulting. Another perk of certification is the eligibility to access low interest (1%) loans to partially cover future construction costs.

“I think what they are doing regardless of the certification will be a model to follow in the future,” Moufarege adds of Bkerzay’s sustainability measures.

Lebanon’s largest eco-lodge:

Beyond environmental sustainability, there is the question of economic sustainability. Bkerzay is mindful of its role as a community provider and employs approximately 50 people in its restaurant, as well as in crafts, services, and agricultural roles. It also provides indirect work to a few hundred people working in the Chouf areas. “The idea is to continue giving people constant work 365 days a year,” Kareem adds.

Seven months into operations, Bkerzay has hosted more than 1,200 overnight guests. Now, the staff is gearing up for their first summer season, where one consultant predicted they would have up to 85% occupancy throughout the entire season.

“When Ramzi was first starting this, people in the village were saying ‘who is this crazy guy interested in this lost spot?’ Nine years later they discovered Bkerzay,” Takieddine says laughingly.

And that is Bkerzay’s switch: recalibrating the way people see and appreciate nature, and reconciling the Lebanese people with their country.  

 

Book your stay or learn more about Bkerzay on their website, Facebook page, or Instagram

Photos: Courtesy of Bkerzay.

 

Hilary is a journalist, photographer, and maker of things. She loves working with entrepreneurs to share their stories and has done so around the world.Hilary Duff
At this Lebanese ecolodge, sustainability is a family affair | The Switchers
Bkerzay Sustainable Tourism
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