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Hidden in Marrakech’s Old Medina, Historic Riads Await Restoration

While it might be challenging to locate the ideal home in the capital of Morocco, intrepid international buyers can take advantage of ancient and modern riads.

The idea of building a house with a secret garden in its center has been around for thousands of years, but nowhere was the design perfected as in North Africa and Al-Andalus in the 12th century.

The Almoravids, a Moroccan-based Islamic dynasty that ruled over present-day Spain and Portugal in the 11th century, hired Muslim, Christian, and Jewish designers to build monuments all over their vast empire, including opulent palaces with private courtyard gardens hidden from prying eyes. The riads of present-day Marrakech still have the Moorish architectural imprint of these elaborate royal mansions. In the Old Medina of the city, hidden courtyards adorned with vibrant citrus trees and fragrant jasmine lie behind towering walls. The name “riad” is derived from the Arabic word for “garden.”

Marrakech Riad - Hidden in Marrakech’s Old Medina, Historic Riads Await Restoration

From an architectural standpoint, roads are really intriguing, according to Grant Rawlings, general director of Chic Marrakech. Since he has been renovating and developing riads for 15 years, Mr. Rawlings helps English-speaking customers locate preserved homes in the Old Medina. They’re created to make a family’s quality of life more contemplative, tranquil, and reflective of the divine… According to him, every element of traditional riad design is infused with decades’ worth of meaning. “A riad looks to create a little private paradise on earth,” he stated. “Everything in a riad has a magical significance of some kind. Everything, even doorknockers, plaster sculptures, and hand-painted doors, has a deeper meaning.

Traditional building materials for riads included wood from the Atlas Mountains and mud brick, both of which need ongoing upkeep. Most have undergone several reconstructions throughout the years. Thousands of privately owned riads of diverse shapes, sizes, and eras, including a handful from the 17th century, may be found in Marrakech today. Due to demand from international purchasers searching for second homes or buildings to convert into boutique hotels, they have seen a revival during the past ten years. According to Mr. Rawlings, “tourists have come in and revitalized something that was essentially dying out.”

Riads Vary in Size and Budget

Marrekech Riad - Riads Vary in Size and Budget

These medieval courtyard residences are incredibly different, ranging from 120 square meter hideaways to 20 bedroom castles. Prices can go as high as $5 million USD. While some purchasers choose freshly constructed riad-style homes that employ contemporary techniques and materials, allowing for more rooms and needing less care, others prefer ancient residences. “Almost every customer and every project is different… There is no restriction, according to Mr. Rawlings. “Anyone may come here, on whatever budget, and fulfill their dreams. The fact that it’s so inclusive, in my opinion, adds to its appeal.

Finding the ideal property is the biggest problem. The ideal situation, according to him, is when you enter a riad and fall in love with it, deciding to restore all of its exquisite ancient characteristics and gorgeous historical ceilings. Even on a wider scale, there are actually very few homes like that anymore, so I believe that most of the time you’re looking at homes with great potential and incorporating the original features.

A particularly beautiful makeover demonstrates how a traditional riad may be given a modern touch while maintaining its original architectural integrity.

An Artisan for Every Detail

Marrekech Riad - An Artisan for Every Detail

The owner of Sardar Design Studios in New York, architect and designer Ahmad Sardar-Afkhami, spent a year restoring an 18th-century riad in Marrakech so that visitors might escape the hustle and bustle of the city. Claudio Bravo, a Chilean painter, had bequeathed the property to a friend of theirs. The refurbishment, which Mr. Sardar-Afkhami described as a real labor of love, was something he leaped at the chance to do.

He collaborated with local artisans and craftspeople to complete the renovations, which included tearing down and replacing old mud-brick walls, replacing the intricately carved wooden ceilings above with new roofing, and redoing traditional decorative elements like tadelakt, a local lime plaster that can be polished to a high shine, and zellij tiling, a type of intricate mosaic work.

The fact that there are still expert builders in Morocco made it both difficult and a great learning experience, he added. “You still have skilled tile installers, skilled plasterers, and skilled woodworkers. There are still persons who can make mud bricks. Working with them was an absolute honor.

Nearly a year was needed for the renovation. He said that although the local artisans are extremely accomplished, they needed continual inspection to ensure the work stayed faithful to his vision. “There were times where there were 30 or 40 people, all doing their thing, and they all work very harmoniously with each other,” he said. “These craftsmen occasionally wander off into their creative realms… They don’t even glance at your paintings.

Mr. Sardar-Afkhami decided not to repaint the worn-out wooden ceilings, instead choosing to polish them with wax rather than using the bright colors that would have been popular in the 18th century. He restored a swimming pool to the main courtyard while repairing the damaged zellij tiling and maintaining the historic aesthetic of the area by including a clever lotus-shaped fountain that gives the water the appearance of floating and deceptively small depths.

He painted the inside’s walls and window frames in restful green and white hues that link the riad’s interior to the verdant garden at its center.

The single-story, three-bedroom riad, which maximizes light in the interior spaces and the central courtyard, was just advertised for €3.4 million (US$3.85 million). Moroccan labor prices are low, while the cost of conventional materials is high. Buyers of historic houses in need of repair, according to Mr. Sardar-Afkhami, should anticipate spending as much on renovations as they do on the original property. “Mud brick requires annual upkeep. Although everything appears to be quite sturdy, water seeps in and plaster falls apart. It’s quite delicate,” he remarked.

A similar-aged, 500 square meter riad with a central fountain, traditional rose garden, mud-brick walls, and original tiling is now listed on Mr. Rawlings’ books for 4.5 million Moroccan dirhams (US$490,000). A delicate restoration, according to his estimation, would need 12 to 15 months and cost about 3 million dirhams. While buyers wanting a turnkey home frequently prefer fully restored or contemporary riads, which have the same distinctive architectural design but are less expensive to maintain, he added, purchasers shopping for these sorts of properties love supervising the restoration as a passion project.

Marrakech Riad - Modern Riad

A Modernized Riad in Need of Authenticity

A Modernized Riad in Need of Authenticity

Following a trip from their native Denmark to Marrakech, Dominique and Gitte Capel fell in love with the city and decided to buy Riad Jaseema as a second home in 2017.

They were able to locate a comfortable, modern, three-story riad with a sizable roof terrace thanks to Mr. Rawlings. “We were thrilled to purchase a property where we knew the walls, plumbing, and electricity were all quite recent. Ours is now 15 years old because there, when it becomes old, you just pull it down and build a new one, according to chef Mr. Capel.

The three-bedroom house didn’t require any big renovations, but they chose to rebuild the kitchen and patio and repaint the furnishings to give their home a more traditional and genuine Moroccan flavor. We didn’t really find anything to enjoy, he said. “We could see the potential, but the first floor and terrace floor in particular required attention… Since I’m a cook, I wanted a lovely Moroccan kitchen.

When they are in Denmark, the pair uses Airbnb to generate income from the house. To renovate the courtyard pool and the terrace, they recruited local contractors. They added a bar and tasteful Moroccan accents while focusing on cool cream and warm sandy tones.

Marrakech Riad - historic and contemporary riads present opportunities for intrepid foreign buyers

“The main idea was to keep it as simple as possible.” “There’s a lot of inspiration, a lot of colors in Marrakech, so when you enter this home, it’s peaceful, simple, and you can really relax there,” said Ms. Capel, who co-owns a Danish décor and lifestyle firm. She was able to obtain antique doors from the market and engage local artisans to handcraft all of the carved wooden furnishings. “You can’t go down to the market and buy the same pieces because the pieces are actually made for the riad, so it’s one-of-a-kind,” she explained.

They discovered that purchasing and remodeling the house was surprisingly straightforward. “You are capable of accomplishing anything.” All of your suggestions are feasible. “All you have to do is explain them,” Mr. Capel added.

Despite the effort required to properly repair an ancient riad, Mr. Sardar-Afkhami said he’d do it again “in a heartbeat.” Before committing to purchasing a riad, he urged purchasers to spend some time in Marrakech researching traditional techniques and speaking with others who had done restoration work.

He claims that finding knowledgeable local craftspeople to work on the project is not difficult. “The difficult part is finding a riad that truly makes your heart race.”

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