Jordanian Architect Turns a Home Challenge Into a Trend

[18-10-2013 02:04 PM]

Ammon News - Ammar Khammash built a home on a cliff with a wide view of Amman; neighbors followed

By Brooke Anderson / The Wall Street Journal

The understated earth-tone house of Jordanian architect and painter Ammar Khammash has its back to the wealthy hills of west Amman and faces the poor quarters of the east—favoring sweeping cliff-side views over a luxury-neighborhood lookout.

"For me, the location is most important," says Mr. Khammash, who designed his dream home on a cliff overlooking the capital city of Amman. "I wanted a place where there was no other construction, where I could have a view. That's why I wanted a cliff—even though it was difficult."

The 53-year-old Amman native says he bought the property in 2000 for $145,000—half the price of the land across the street because of the cliff. But for Mr. Khammash the setting provided a challenge that would be rewarded with a breathtaking vista.

Using concrete reinforcements and retaining walls, he and a partner built a seven-story apartment building into the jagged hill at a cost of $1.2 million. Mr. Khammash took the top two floors to a 3,874-square-foot, one-bedroom, three-bathroom home with a terrace. His partner took the next floor; the remaining five units (the ground floor has two apartments) were sold between them.

Since then, developers have taken notice of the location, and Mr. Khammash now has neighbors on either side and more coming in the neighborhood—a bittersweet result of his project. Several residents in the area are diplomats from foreign embassies.

Mr. Khammash is known in Jordan for his cultural and environmental preservation work, in which he uses local and natural materials. One recent project, the Feynan Ecolodge hotel in Jordan's Dana Biosphere Reserve, has won four international awards for sustainable development since it opened in 2005. The hotel uses solar power, and passive cooling and heating, and is off the electricity grid. Stone shelves offer protection from and absorb heat, as does the layered dome ceiling. The candles used at night are made by the local Bedouin community to jobs.

In the 1990s, Mr. Khammash worked in the Jordanian town of Madaba on the restoration of churches and designed a shelter for Byzantine mosaics. The decade before, he built two tourist retreats by the ruins of the Roman city of Pella in northwest Jordan, using indigenous stones and old craftsman techniques.

Mr. Khammash says his design and building sense was influenced in part by his father, a structural engineer whose work exposed him at an early age to different types of stones and landscapes.

Mr. Khammash has a second home in Pella, a retreat he designed in a traditional Ottoman style to complement the surrounding landscape and old structures.

"No site is empty," he says. "The wind and the sun and the flora and the fauna belong there, and we have to take the permission of the elements to change the site. Otherwise we're forcing the site to be what we want it to be. A good building befriends the site."

Mr. Khammash is also an artist, and his watercolor paintings have been shown in Europe, the U.S. and Asia. These days, his paintings take up more of his time than his architecture.

The view of the beige and gray, stone and concrete landscape from his 1,290-square-foot terrace off his first floor is reminiscent of his watercolors. A collection of trees and flowering plants gives shade to the table and chairs he has outdoors.

The interior design of the home features subtle attention to details. The fireplace is a simple black block in the home's central pillar. The kitchen, with a window looking over the city, has one long counter with a small table for four at the end, where Mr. Khammash takes his coffee.

The living room is the most colorful part of the home. There, Mr. Khammash's paintings decorate the walls, his keyboard is ready for those evenings when he gives concerts for dinner guests and his many design books line the shelves.

On the second floor, the master bedroom is bright and spacious, with a sliding door opening onto a small balcony. The veil of a white mosquito net allows him to sleep through the night with fresh air. His shower offers a full view of the hills, with no concern for privacy, as the nearest neighbor in that direction is a speck in the distance. Next door, his studio is filled with his canvases, as well as a couch for the occasional guest.

Overall, he minimizes his energy use with insulated double walls oriented against the wind, under-floor heating and insulation, and hybrid double-glass windows. He says he aims for his work to be a statement of sustainability and frugality.

"I'm becoming disappointed with celebrity architecture," he says. "I don't think architecture should be about having a lot of money to build a monument. They should think about energy and the environment. They should retain a level of innocence and modesty."

For him, the best projects are often those with a limited budget and a challenging landscape, particularly in a country like Jordan, where water and energy sources are limited. "I'm interested in very complex urban sites, the challenge of how it impacts society and the environment," he says.

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