Occupying listed buildings can be awkward and costly, but do the frequently impressive results justify the expense? John Ryan reports

The English Heritage system for “listing” buildings of special historical or architectural interest means certain areas within our cities and towns continue to look pretty much the same, irrespective of the tenants that occupy them. For retailers, moving into a listed building is likely to involve a series of restrictions that might involve additional money, time and exhaustive amounts of to-ing and fro-ing as planners and relevant bodies are mollified. 

The degree of protection varies across the three tiers as defined by English Heritage. Broadly, whether a structure has a Grade I listing (the highest), a Grade II* classification or is a humble Grade II, it will require more than the usual degree of attention afforded to a new store, but will almost certainly be more distinctive than a normal high street outlet. Interestingly, more than 90 per cent of listed buildings fall into the lowest category and apparently only two UK shops enjoy a Grade I listing: the Next branch in Kingston upon Thames and Lakeland’s Ipswich store.

For retailers, a listing is likely to mean that entire interiors, windows, doors and even exposed brickwork, may be subject to close scrutiny. All of which can represent obstacles for store design teams that would prefer to work, for the most part, from a rectangular floor plan. And yet, retailers continue to take the plunge and trade from premises that need more than customary degrees of care and maintenance. The obvious question is why and what are some of the more interesting examples of historical premises that are used as shops?

Geraint Thomas, senior project manager at fashion retailer White Stuff, which has made a habit of moving into listed buildings, says that a listing can have consequences on decisions that are made when planning a new store. “The way in which we act depends on when we’re going to get the store and its condition before we move in. In Chester, for instance, we went in on a new lease and you can time the date at which you start paying rent from the point at which you start work [rather than when you take possession].” He says that the time taken to get a store of this kind ready for trading will be entirely dependent on how long it would take to define the space that is required to trade in and the reception that this receives from the planners.

Thomas also notes that in so many instances the decisions made by planners will vary from individual to individual and from authority to authority. And he points to a further complication – the difference between buildings that are part of a conservation area and those that are listed. Generally, the majority of buildings found within an area that has the label “conservation” applied to it have exteriors that are close to being sacrosanct. This is different from listed structures, where, as Thomas remarks: “Whole buildings are listed, within and without and, increasingly, planners are trying to keep the shapes of the rooms,” – rather than letting retailers alter them to suit their needs.

From a practical perspective this means that for a retailer like White Stuff, which tends to have a requirement for trading areas of between 2,000 and 2,500 sq ft in secondary locations, finding a single-floor unit in a listed building that fits this bill is not easy. This has meant that the majority of this retailer’s stores are spread over two floors, which in turn carries with it the problem of providing disabled access, lifts and suchlike, where planners are likely to look askance at radical alterations.

In Chester, White Stuff moved into a Tudor building that already had a “contemporary” staircase, improving matters in terms of justifying the alterations that needed to be done. And some four years later, the retailer is considering refitting the store and, presumably, entering into discussions with the planners once more.

And even within buildings carrying the highest listing, there is still room for negotiation. In the Scottish village of Aberfeldy, bookshop owner Kevin Ramage persuaded the local planners that the Grade A listing (the highest rating in Scotland) of the Watermill could still be accommodated within his desire to turn a semi-derelict building into a shop. The conversion took six months and there is perhaps the sense that Ramage was able to achieve all of this because the planners took the view that it was preferable for the Watermill to have a new life as a retailer and a tourist destination than to watch it slowly crumble away in a relatively remote part of the central Highlands.

Rather more sensitive perhaps in terms of location is the work under way on one corner of the Piazza in Covent Garden where the hoardings are up and builders are on site transforming what was formerly the eatery The Rock Garden. At some point next year, this will be another location for Apple.

At the London office of American design and architecture practice Gensler, which is working on the project, Jon Tollit, principal, comments: “Dealing with a listed building is certainly more of an architectural process. If you’re doing a lot of structural work and trying to alter a building, then it becomes more of a negotiation process.” The Apple store-to-be is a new build behind a Grade II retained facade and it has been a two-year long project because planning approval for the works has inevitably been complex.

As such, this is a rather more exacting piece of work than Apple’s European flagship on Regent Street, which opened with a completely gutted and refitted interior and an exterior that blended the modern with the listed facade.

All of this applies to buildings where either a change of use or indeed a major remodelling of a space is required. But what happens to retailers – usually department stores – that occupy buildings that have large listed areas in which changes are required on a sporadic, but recurring, basis? Harrods is Grade II* listed and it is its food halls that are among the most heavily protected spaces within the building.

A quick glimpse at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s planning portal reveals the name Harrods appearing with some regularity. In essence, whenever Harrods head of architecture Martin Illingworth and his team want to make in-store changes, the listed nature of the building means that an application has to be submitted and work with the borough and English Heritage begins. While this is obviously trying for any retailer, for a retailer such as Harrods, whose Edwardian store has been listed since 1969, it is probably just part and parcel of change.

A spokesman says when a new seafood bar was installed in one of the food halls last year, the detailing and materials agreed by RBKC and English Heritage were “equal, if not superior, to the original”. He adds that owing to the long-standing nature of the relationship between Harrods and the bodies involved with listing, there is now a high degree of trust.

However, the question remains, is all the effort worth it, particularly for those retailers that choose to move into listed premises rather than remodelling the interiors of already-owned stores that happened to have some measure of protection? The answer is a qualified yes. The expense will certainly be higher than a comparably sized building that is rented as an empty unit from a high street or mall landlord. That said, the chances are equally high that the outcome will be a store that may be part of a chain, but that still manages to look different from its neighbours and that may attract shoppers as much for the building as for the offer it houses.

Whether this is an advantage or not is a moot point but retailers still seem prepared to grapple with English Heritage to create stores within the confines of its strictures, adding colour to what can seem like the drab hue of UK retail.

Listed buildings: the basics

Listing bodies English Heritage (England and Wales); Historic Scotland (Scotland); Northern Ireland Environment Agency

Local boroughs’categories Grade I, Grade II*, Grade II (England and Wales); Grade A, Grade B, Grade C (Scotland)

Grade I listed stores in England Lakeland, Ipswich; Next, Kingston upon Thames

Top of the list

Next, Kingston upon Thames

The two-floor Next store that overlooks Kingston upon Thames’ marketplace is by any standards an impressive building. The store itself retains the retailer’s old logo as effecting change to a Grade I listed structure is a difficult process. But the real highlight of the 17th century building is behind the scenes.

A door leading from the groundfloor showroom takes the lucky visitor to a staircase with a large and highly elaborate stained glass window (pictured right). There is no exact date for this, but it is a feature of visits by local school history classes to downtown Kingston.