The founder of FHSI Architects says an ongoing project in Mashhad, Iran is set to have a tremendous impact on the country’s hospitality sector
Located 850km north-east of Tehran is Iran’s second-largest city, Mashhad. Popularly known as the holiest city in the country, Mashhad is also the capital of Razavi Khorasan province and close to the borders of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, ensuring that it has huge cultural and commercial significance within the country.
While the country has always been a major trading centre, dating back to when it was a crucial stopping point on the Silk Road, what gives it its true importance is the shrine, considered the largest mosque in the world by dimension and the second largest in terms of capacity.
Every year, millions of people come to the city in pilgrimage, bringing the associated benefits in terms of business and revenue to the economy of Mashhad. It is estimated that 25 million visitors come to the city annually, which makes it ripe for significant tourism investment, especially now that restrictions around the country’s economic growth are loosening.
The shrine is not the only attraction in the city, with the pleasant climate, surrounding mountains and development of entertainment and retail options meaning visitors are arriving with more than just religious tourism in mind. Over the last few years, Mashhad has seen a surge in construction, with local investors building shopping malls, recreational centres and amusement parks to cater to all kinds of tourists and visitors.
Given the numbers in play, it’s hardly surprising that the hospitality industry is one of the prime movers in this construction boom. Although the city already boasts the most four- and five-star hotels in the country, it is estimated that capacity during peak season can only reach 75,000.
However, this is still a massive improvement, as just over three years ago, there were only 75 hotels in the city. Recognising this, last year the government of Iran implemented a 20-year vision plan – by 2025, it aims to increase revenue from the tourism industry to as much as $30 billion.
With Mashhad attracting the majority of religious tourists entering the country, it makes absolute sense for it to receive significant investment. Thus it’s no surprise to learn that there are currently some 200 hotels at various stages of construction in the city. These hotels are expected to help Mashhad meet the targets set by the 2025 Vision Plan, which expects to see the holy city annually host 40 million pilgrims and tourists, both from within the country and abroad.
Clearly, there’s a massive window of opportunity open for international investors, especially with the lifting of economic sanctions. One company to quickly seize its chance is Dubai-based CommoditEdge. Established in 2012, the company is part of a diversified group of companies owned by the Alizadeh Family, which is actively engaged in manufacturing, engineering and trading activities in Iran and international markets. CommoditEdge itself is involved in the sourcing and supply of raw materials to steel mills, while also assisting raw material producers and suppliers establish stable supply agreements.
With the lifting of sanctions, the company and its affiliates recognised the significant gap in the hospitality market and were keen to take the plunge and bring the first international five-star hotel in Iran to Mashhad. With the stakes so high, they needed to make sure they brought the right people on board to ensure the entire project is a success, from planning through to construction, completion and operation.
Enter FHSI Architects, an award-winning Australian architectural firm that has gained a reputation for being a firm that looks at its projects as part of a bigger picture. For this boutique firm, it’s not just about how the project looks or functions, but also about how it fits in with its surrounding environment.
“CommoditEdge provided us with a detailed brief for the site,” says Fariborz Hatam, founder of FHSI Architects and the man tasked with bringing the project to life. “They had conducted a comprehensive feasibility study for Mashhad to highlight the financial viability of the project. It’s going to have 5,000sqm of retail and a 235-key hotel space. It is also the first international five-star hotel in Iran as well. While there are other five-star hotels in the country, they aren’t internationally operated.”
“The city is the hometown to some of the most significant Iranian literary figures and artists, while also being a place where millions of pilgrims visit each year. The majority of people coming to this city are going for meditation, prayer and worship. Therefore, the space that you create has to be very calm and in a beautifully planned environment.”
Keeping in mind this cerebral reputation, Hatam says he was careful to ensure that the planning and design for the hotel complex involved what he calls a “more personalised design concept formulation”.
“What makes this design intelligent is its ability to react positively and spontaneously to forces of nature, to fluctuating climates, to human activity and expectations, and to cultural nuances. We believe in creating a healthier, more sustainable planet, so we took a holistic approach to the built environment by addressing behaviour, operations, design and sustainability for the long haul,” he elaborates.
Taking its cue from the shrine, bazaar and gardens that Mashhad is famous for, Hatem says the Mashhad Hotel will intertwine to create an image of “strong identity, transparency, dignity and connectivity”, which in turn will help build an urban quarter that will allow visitors and guests a place to live, work, meditate and enjoy life in the heart of the city.
“The scheme for the project consists of two separate massing forces, linked by public spaces and routes. The principal building is G+19 storeys, with retail placed in the basements, while the hotel is above ground,” he outlines. “The two symmetrical positive and negative cantilever forces create green spaces vertically up the tower, while also providing a comfortable environment for social interaction.”
The design itself incorporates a number of environmentally friendly passive climate-control devices, which will minimise energy consumption for the building. This includes solar shading for the hotel rooms, and the vertical gardens, which act as ‘green lungs’ for the development.
“The hanging gardens provide a rich visual connection to the outside, while also acting as the ‘lung’ for the building’s occupants,” Hatam says. “The planting strategy aims to reduce pollution levels and create a positive, healthy urban microclimate.”
One of the biggest challenges associated with the design of the project is the plan for a 24-hour retail segment in the basement. This certainly makes sense, with the project located on one of the busiest arterial roads in the city.
However, it meant the FHSI design team was faced with finding a way to incorporate 5,000sqm of retail space operating around the clock, while also keeping in line with the core concept of the project – to provide a luxurious, calm and contemplative environment for hotel guests.
“We’ve done a few things, one of which is pull the building back by 10 metres from the rest of the street. It actually has a noise barrier to cross. We will also use a double glazing system which will block a lot of the sound that comes from the street below. Meanwhile, the shopping mall and retail section is positioned four basements below, so that won’t have any interference with what’s happening above the ground.
“As part of the next stage of design, we’ll be working with an acoustics consultant to provide appropriate solutions that address sound propagation, speech intelligibility and the enhancement of the Azan, so as to provide options that mitigate noise within the project. The consultant will also look at the environmental noise control to address the outdoor noise and vibration concerns.”
Keeping in mind the limited amount of space they had to build on, the team was able to successfully challenge the local rules and regulations on height restrictions. Following extensive discussions with all stakeholders involved, both client and authorities were convinced to increase the height limit within the allowed GFA. This meant the team was able to compensate for the lack of horizontal space by building upwards, taking advantage of the maximum height to optimise the views of the shrine.
With design work well underway and construction pencilled in to start in the coming months, the next challenge for the project team will be finding the right contractors, subcontractors and suppliers to work on this high-end project.
“There are currently international contractors on the ground [in Iran], building large-scale projects. We anticipate collaborating with them,” says Hatam. “Also, during the construction phase, a designated FHSI team will be on-site to ensure that quality and the level of detail required are fully achieved.”
Not only is the project likely to present an engineering challenge, but given its luxurious nature, having the best-quality materials installed is likely to be a major factor in its success. This is also something FHSI has given a lot of thought to, Hatam says.
“In any country that we work in, on any project that we’re involved in, we prefer to source as locally as possible, so as to reduce the carbon footprint. As Iran is a self-sufficient country, we anticipate sourcing up to 90% of our materials locally. This will not only be cost-effective, but also add value to the local Iranian suppliers market.”
Although there remains a tremendous amount of work to be done, Fariborz Hatam and his team remain justifiably proud of what they’ve achieved so far. Not only is this the first international hotel in Iran, but it is also set to be the type of project that will raise standards and push Iran’s construction industry into the international spotlight.
“This project will be considered a trendsetter in Iran, and we believe it will raise standards. That will be quite rewarding,” he says. “Overall, we’d like this project to bring people together and give them that sense of serenity and community. We want to enable them to achieve that spiritual calmness throughout their stay in the city.”
“Our aim is to produce a clever and intelligent building that people admire and inhabit. I want them to experience it and to be proud of the space they’re in, and feel the tranquillity of it all. I think getting that sense of calmness, and that memorable experience, is what’s most important to me.
“This development will consider the entire project’s lifecycle, rather than just short-term gains. We believe in designing projects that stand the test of time and mark their place for generations to come,” he concludes.
The Personal Touch
As a boutique Australian design practice committed to providing innovative and high-quality design solutions for architecture, interiors and master planning, FHSI Architects works both locally and internationally on a wide range of projects from studios in Dubai, Sydney and Perth.
Fariborz Hatam, the founder of the firm, explains that he and FHSI bring a multinational background to projects in terms of architectural practices and psychology. An important element that often goes missing in the GCC region, he says, is the human touch.
“You could be an amazing international firm sitting in Europe, America or Australia, but the minute you open a branch in the Middle East, that clarity gets lost. What we want to do is use our experience to create a practice that is custom designed. It’s a bit like getting a suit tailored, rather than buying one from a store.
“We started FHSI because giving that personal touch and attention to detail is what’s important to us.”
The firm is also careful to pick and choose its projects, with Hatam explaining that the way they work relies on getting comfortable with the client and ensuring that everyone involved in the project is on the same wavelength in terms of ideas and initiatives.
“They must believe in sustainability, good designs and buildings that are going to last for the next 50 years,” he says. “Then we take that to another level by actually designing things for them that will last for a long time and which they can be proud of.”
“It is important to us that the design process is not only collaborative but also holistic. We believe that we can harness the built environment as a vehicle to support and enhance people’s lives, and we strongly believe FHSI’s strength is in achieving a balance between a cost-effective development and a sustainable environmental performance, coupled with top architectural quality.”