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Preserving the Past | Groves Raines Architects

24 September 2020

Groves-Raines Architects Ltd. is an Edinburgh-based practice dedicated to the conservation and sustainable reuse of historic buildings.

For almost 50 years, the practice has been at the forefront of conservation in Scotland and Ireland and has a broad portfolio of award-winning projects. Groves-Raines are a valued client of Bruce Stevenson and Private Client Director, Mark Richards recently spoke to Founder, Nicholas Groves-Raines and his son and fellow Director, Gunnar.

architects, heritage, renovation


Your practice has been trading successfully since 1972. Can you describe its ethos?

We are committed to the faithful conservation and reuse of our Listed and traditional buildings. We celebrate craftsmanship, skill and materials and the intrinsic quality imbued in things through the hands of their makers. We must allow our heritage a future, to be part of an ongoing process, not finished statements.

We appreciate the wrinkles and traces of our lives on our environment, the charm of the imperfect. We must go beyond the constant quest for the new, cherish and recycle the old and used, see the beauty of things with our own eyes, even if at odds with accepted values. We must be open to change and blend the new technologies with the best of the past into the fabric of our future.


There are relatively few architect practices working in your sector, what USP do you have that results in your success?

We practice what we preach, having restored six major Listed properties and a number of traditional vernacular buildings for ourselves. Each project is unique and we treat each building with respect and aim to find appropriate solutions. We adopt a hands-on and pragmatic approach, at times actively participating in projects on site. We are very familiar with the constraints and compromises but are also open to opportunities for the promotion of innovative interventions, where necessary.


As a country, do you think we are protecting our historic buildings as well as we could be?

We are certainly not doing enough. In my view, we are in danger of going back to the situation we had in the 1960s when so much of our built heritage was swept away by the ravages of development and the disdain of architects and planners. The imposition of VAT on repairs to existing buildings is a real disincentive when considering any works to an existing structure and there are no repair grants to speak of for private owners. The planning system cannot be relied upon to provide the necessary enforcement action and there appears to be little understanding of the environmental benefits of reusing and rejuvenating our existing buildings.

What are the biggest difficulties involved in restoring a property and how does your approach differ when working on heritage properties rather than new builds? Understanding the opportunities and constraints, the addition of VAT at 20% is a serious problem when restoration is commonly more costly than new build in the first place, resulting in some clients seeking to demolish and start from scratch to avoid VAT. We find that, despite the potential constraints, working with existing buildings, the nature of the building itself often guides and assists the process.

We relish the prospect of unlocking the opportunities and enhancing the potential in the reuse of existing buildings. We approach all projects with a fresh eye and motivation for a new challenge, but on a personal level, I find working with existing buildings more rewarding and less challenging than designing from scratch.


What has been the most enjoyable project you’ve worked on and why?

Belmont House, the most northerly and remote classical house in Britain, was built in 1775 by Thomas Mouat, a Shetland businessman and landowner. Designed in the neo-Palladian style of the time, the house is set in a designed landscape that has survived largely intact to the present day.


belmont house, shetland, classical house


It has been described as the most ambitious and least altered composition of landscape, house, garden and farmyard in the Northern Isles. Unlike others embarking on similar projects, Thomas Mouat’s Grand Tour took him to Edinburgh and London rather than Venice and Rome. His project was informed by the contemporary designs he encountered, and the house embodies his obvious love of order while acknowledging the remote and severely exposed setting

Building materials were procured in Leith and shipped to Unst. Mouat commissioned chairs from the Chippendale workshops in London, also six dozen mahogany balusters for the delightfully curved staircase as well as several other pieces of furniture for the house. The Georgian cornicing had to be carved in timber for the lack of skilled plasterers in Shetland.

I became aware of Belmont House and its unique attributes when it was bought by friends in the 1970s. Many years later, when approached by the Belmont Trust, I was determined to win the commission and so embarked on one of the most fulfilling projects of my career, working closely with a team of local craftsmen and utilising techniques and materials compatible with the original building. In 2007 the project won the Georgian Group Award for the best restoration of a country house in Britain.

I love Belmont for its proportion and detail, but above all for its disciplined symmetrical composition. It encapsulates the best aspects of the great Scottish country mansions of the 18th Century.


shetland beach near belmont house


What has been the most challenging project you’ve worked on and why?

We have worked on many challenging projects over the years, however, one, in particular, stands out, St Andrew’s in the Square in Glasgow. Described as one of the best Georgian churches in Britain, St Andrew’s became surplus to the Congregation’s requirements during the 1980s.

The Glasgow Building Preservation Trust acquired it from them for the princely sum of £1 and engaged our firm as architects. Modelled on Gibb’s St Martin-in-the-Fields, the building, constructed in the early 18th Century, combines the austerity and discipline of a classical design with the exuberance of the Baroque and Rococo movements popular in Europe at the time.


glasgow, st. andrews square, city centre


The Glasgow Buildings Preservation Trust were keen to retain the church’s architectural integrity whilst ensuring it was able to be converted to a modern community venue. After much heart-searching and jumping through hoops, it became clear that “out of the box” thinking was required to unlock the potential of the building without compromising either its contribution to the urban setting or the outstanding quality of the interior space.

Having considered and discussed all options to add facilities either inside or outside the building we proposed the rather radical solution of excavating below the building to create a new “undercroft” to contain modern facilities without compromising the simplicity of the external structure or the internal space. The project was supported by one of the very first Heritage Lottery grants and has proved to be a major catalyst in the wider regeneration of Glasgow’s East End.


When working on a restoration project, are the technical challenges more difficult than meeting all stakeholders’ expectations?

Addressing the technical challenges is usually the fun part, meeting stakeholders’ expectations is often difficult, bringing the two together is the best part.


What neglected Scottish building would you love to get your hands on?

St Peter’s Seminary in Cardross. It is an abandoned iconic modernist building, designed by Gillespie, Kidd & Coia, which is sadly now in ruins.


st peter's seminary, cardross, ruins


It has been described by the international architecture conservation organisation DOCOMOMO as a modern building of world significance. It is not a commission I hold out much hope for however, since money is an obstacle in the real world and the cost would be prohibitive.


As well as insuring Groves-Raines Architects Studios Ltd. as a practice, Bruce Stevenson also acts for a number of your clients – In your opinion what should property owners be most mindful of regarding insurance?

Property owners should adopt a strict adherence to a regular maintenance regime for their buildings. They must make sure that the property is insured for its full replacement value, including site clearance, professional fees, VAT, etc. This is particularly important in the case of protected historic structures. The owners should endeavour to have a close relationship with their insurance broker and ensure that the broker has a clear understanding of the special nature of cover required for heritage buildings and the likely pitfalls.


Mark Richards, Private Client Director at Bruce Stevenson Insurance Brokers

Mark Richards

Private Clients Director

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