Redeveloping John O’ Groats: Designing an iconic destination

Posted by on Sep 13, 2023 in Architecture

Redeveloping John O’ Groats: Designing an iconic destination

Bright colours shining, wonderful and new…

As we celebrate 10 years since the opening of the redevelopment at John O’ Groats, I will be looking back in a series of blog posts reminiscing about how we got there.  In this first post I will be looking at the design process for the Inn – the award winning centrepiece of the project.

It is easy to forget now how bleak the site looked before we started, but Urban Realm magazine had recently labelled it as ‘the most dismal place in Scotland’.  The old hotel had been closed for 15 years and clearly unmaintained for a lot longer than that.  Water was pouring through and it seemed as if the squelching carpet was the only thing holding the rotten floors together.  At the core was what had once been a fine landmark building but it had been swamped under multiple layers of dull extensions.

Our introduction to the client was through the modular vernacular Scottish holiday cottage we had been developing, and therefore the initial assumption was that our development would be white harled, slate roofed, crowstepped vernacular.  But I hit a problem.  However I tried to work the massing to give the required accommodation, it was always ending up looking like the worst form of Travelodge.  I needed to try something different.

As I wrestled with this, the idea emerged of breaking it up into a street of separate gabled forms.  As this idea developed the blocks became staggered and angled and clad in different colours and materials.  Associations formed with beach huts and Scandinavian fishing villages.

I realise I am talking about all of this passively as something that happened outwith my control – and in some ways that is the way I experienced it.  To quote Cobb in Inception, “You consciously create each aspect, but sometimes it feels like it’s almost creating itself.”  But there was still a lot of blood, sweat and tears to bring this idea into reality.

Our vision excited the client and they were brave enough to proceed with an idea that was likely to be controversial with the planners.  It was the first major planning application that the local authority had dealt with since the new Planning Act and so the procedure was as new to them as it was to us.  We ran consultations with the local community. The main thing we came away with was that they had been let down so many times, with one grand scheme after another being promised, that they didn’t believe anything would actually happen.  After that Planning went through amazingly smoothly.

And then we hit the first of many redesigns.  The client decided  that every living space must have a sea view.  While this made commercial sense, it was obviously impossible.  Some wings to the rear were never going to be able to see the sea so they were cut off but a bit of clever realignment allowed others to get angled views.  Conference facilities on the ground floor of the old building, a key part of the original brief, were abandoned to squeeze in replacement accommodation.

The building warrant was another hurdle.  As a recently qualified architect who had almost exclusively worked on private residential projects, I had naively assumed that an aparthotel could be treated like a block of flats and that the domestic regs would apply within each apartment.  This was not the case and the warrant report came back requiring that all circulation within the apartments was 1200 wide.  I had to find space to increase the width of every block when the plans already filled the site right to the boundary.  I can’t remember now what I shaved off, but space was found somehow.

After that the fun could properly begin as we began to work up all the details.  I think I used pretty much every cladding profile that Russwood offered to create a range of different textures for each block – horizontal, vertical, board-on-board, shiplap, open jointed, smooth planed and rough sawn.  It was great to be able to get advice from their helpful staff who literally wrote the book on timber cladding.  It was at this point that the iconic colours were selected.  The basic colours and order had been there since the beginning in a more muted form, but now I had the confidence to go all out.


Then followed the dark side of design development – cost saving, euphemistically called “value engineering”.  The world was still in the aftermath of the global financial crash and budgets were tight.  Curved stairs became faceted.  The remaining areas of stone and zinc cladding were swapped out for more timber.  Glazing areas were reduced – I think I managed to shave about 15% off the glazing – and in particular geometry was tweaked to eliminate almost all the costly fire rated glass.  With the costs finally down to where they needed to be, construction could commence.

And then, while the building was under construction, the client went on holiday and visited an aparthotel with a system of locking doors allowing it to be used in multiple configurations, including separating off individual hotel rooms.  He decided that we must do this at John O’ Groats and so began another round of redesign as the internal layouts were completely rethought while construction continued on the shell!  Of course, the idiosyncratic fenestration made this quite challenging, but I managed to move only one window.

Late change is never good and is always going to cause problems and cost, but it was only really because of the procurement route used (see the next article) that we were able to accommodate such changes without just bringing the whole thing to a grinding halt.

There are far more stories that I could tell: such as about creating a public lounge in a fire sterile corridor, a ceiling by an 80 year old sailmaker, converting a door to a window and back again…

The route to the finished design was rather tortuous but the essence of that initial concept managed to survive through it all.

Next time I will look at the construction process and what happened next.


Neil McAllister – Project Architect