Redeveloping John O’ Groats: Bringing the design to life

Posted by on Sep 30, 2023 in Architecture

Redeveloping John O’ Groats: Bringing the design to life

Following my previous article about the design process for the Inn at John O’ Groats, in this article I will look back on the construction process and what came after.

Of course, the Inn was only one element in the development.  Alongside it was the remodelling of the Last House, the Storehouse Café and the construction of 23 self catering residences on the land behind the Inn.  All of this added up to be a pretty major development for the area – one that was beyond the capacity of any local contractor to deliver alone so we initially went down the conventional “traditional procurement” route of putting the whole project out to competitive tender to several larger national contractors.

Unfortunately, when the tenders came back, they were well beyond the tight budget that was available at the time, so we had to rethink.  I can’t remember now who it was that suggested exploring the option of Construction Management as a possible option.

Construction Management is one of these things that you learn about in lectures and read up on to get through your Part 3 exams and never expect to think about again.  It is a procurement route that despite the advantages it offers is rarely used.

So what is it?  Under traditional procurement, there is a single contract with one “main contractor” who will deliver the whole project.  They will do some of this with their own in-house labour and subcontract other elements to specialists.

Under construction management, everything is broken up into packages which are let to different contractors.  So for example the roofer, the groundworks contractor and the plumber are all employed directly by the client under separate contracts and a construction manager is employed to manage all the packages and the site management.  This gives much greater flexibility but involves a lot more paperwork.  It also gives the possibility of saving money, but there are greater risks because the final cost is not known until the final package has been let.  This uncertainty is the main reason this route isn’t used more often.

There were two big benefits to us at John O’ Groats.  The first was that we no longer needed to find a contractor that had the capacity to deliver the whole project, instead we could use smaller contractors to carry out each package which allowed us to use a lot more local companies.  This was particularly appreciated by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, who were putting some money into the project, as it meant more of the money stayed in the local economy.

The other benefit was flexibility.  While this wasn’t a big driver at the beginning, as the project progressed, it allowed for some elements to progress on site while other elements were being redesigned.  Without it the project would either have stalled or such significant changes wouldn’t have been possible.

Despite being apparently remote, John O’ Groats is actually remarkably well supplied.  Thurso and Wick are relatively substantial towns and only half an hour away.  The timber frames were supplied by Norscot – a timber kit manufacturer based only 20 minutes from the site and several small local joinery contractors were used to erect them.  The kitchens came from Ashley Ann – a name familiar across Scotland, but with their head office and factory in Wick.

We employed an excellent on-site construction manager, Bruce Mackay, but we still had to be on site frequently to keep up with progress and answer queries.  Wick airport became a familiar haunt, as did the Seaview Hotel – just up the hill from the site.  There are many stories that could be told about nights there but the less said the better…

Rapidly the derelict building with an overgrown field behind was reduced to a shell and a quagmire of mud, but then slowly and surely, the new emerged.  First were the residences and following close behind the form of the Inn began to rise.  I remember clearly the first time I came over the brow of the hill to see the gabled forms that I had imagined on the horizon – someone had actually been mad enough to build my idea.  It was now part of the fabric of reality!

One of the risks I remember from professional practice lectures is the things falling through the gaps between packages if they are not carefully defined.  I remember this coming up when I sat down with the cladding contractor to discuss the details of the timber cladding before they started on site.  They were being employed under a labour-only contract with the cladding all being supplied direct by Russwood – just down the A9 in Newtonmore.  In our discussion the question came up, “who is supplying the nails?”.  A rather key element that we had completely forgotten about.  Fortunately, the local builders merchant was able to supply the many thousand nails we required.

Overall, the strategy was a great success.  Despite all the challenges, we were able to bring the project in on budget and we were able to spend a very high proportion of that budget within the local area.

Finally, in September 2013, we celebrated the grand opening by the Lady Lieutenant of Caithness, Margaret Dunnett.  It was a gloriously sunny day and against the backdrop of the new Inn there was performances by the local pipe band, highland dancers; helicopter and boat tours were laid on and in the evening historic imagery was projected on to the white walls of the old building.

We were delighted with the result, as was our client, but what we didn’t expect was the success it would have in the following awards season.  It scooped up awards at the Scottish Design Awards and at the RIAS Awards – including a special award for best use of timber.  It gained a special mention at the Andrew Doolan Award.  It also was shortlisted in the European Hotel Design Awards and the Colour in Architecture award.

Sadly, Andy Macmillan should have been one of the judging panel for the Andrew Doolan award but he died in Inverness the night before he was due to visit.

But of course, that is all very well, but did it succeed in revitalising the place that Lonely Planet described as “a seedy tourist trap”? I think the best evidence of this is not how well our development has thrived, but, how other development followed afterwards showing a new-found confidence in the place as a destination.  Several new restaurants and shops opened and most recently the 8 Doors Distillery has opened on a site that had been blighted by failed development for decades.  We can’t take all the credit for this, as other initiatives such as the launch of the North Coast 500 brand a year later will also have had a significant impact, but we like to think we helped.