The Al Faya Lodge in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is a new addition to the Sharjah Collection – a group of distinctive boutique hotels and eco-retreats purposefully located in key locations throughout the Sharjah Emirate.

The architecture and design of the Al Faya Lodge, by architect Jonathan Ashmore and his Dubai and London-based practice ANARCHITECT are paramount to the experience it provides. Two single-storey, stone-built buildings from the 1960s, previously occupied as a clinic and grocery store, have been re-imagined into a contemporary boutique lodge and restaurant.

Jonathan Ashmore, practice principal, says “Desert conditions present extreme heat in summer with intense and prolonged sun exposure, so it is important to consider these factors when first designing the form and mass of the building and secondly the selection of suitable and robust materials which go hand in hand. Desert sites are exposed to all the elements and not just sunlight. The elements also include driving rain, sandstorms and low-temperatures at night.

Locally sourced stone or concrete construction provide heavy thermal mass to deal with these extremes with regards to temperature fluctuations. Surface materials like Corten steel and secondary structure materials like robust hardwoods and aluminium were also explored to add refinement and precision to the design, particularly for over-sailing roofs, shading elements and also terrace decks raised above the level of the sands.”

On the subject of materials, Ashmore comments, “More often than not, the intense desert climate proves to be a difficult condition to enable the use of traditional timber in exterior applications. Durable hardwoods from South-East Asia and South America often fail after short periods of time, or they begin to weather fast and require regular and intense maintenance. We were looking for suitable natural wood, dark in tone, with a smooth finish and consistent grain to contrast the dense, sober brutalism of the cast in situ fair-faced concrete that made up the main structure of the new build spa building.”

Thermally-modified timber (TMT) was a natural and suitable choice for us to explore, for the outdoor conditions. TM American ash offered Class 1 category for durability with minimum life expectancy of 25 years with high water resistance without additional protection and suitable for contact with the ground.

Ashmore adds that the thermally-modified American ash façade has close proximity to the saltwater swimming pool. We required a TM hardwood species that also had good structural properties to allow us to design a bespoke and interlocked self-supporting wall system that could incorporate a series of doors and bi-fold openings that would provide access to changing rooms and the pool pantry areas from the exterior areas.”

Thermal-modification takes a non-durable hardwood and makes it suitable for exterior use and adds dimensional stability through a relatively simple, chemical-free and low environmental impact process of heating the timber to a very high temperature in a vacuum kiln. In American hardwoods, the process works best in ash, red oak, soft maple and tulipwood, making them ideal for decking and cladding applications, as well as for outdoor furniture and shade structures.

Roderick Wiles, American Hardwood Export Council regional director says, “It is great to see this relatively new material being specified and used in the Middle East and, as far as we know, this is one of only two or three projects in the Gulf that uses TM American hardwoods. I have no doubt that we will be seeing more of it in the near future, as for American hardwoods, which already come with guarantees of legality and sustainability, this process opens up a whole new market opportunity and one that has immense potential in the harsh climate of the region.”