Motivated by the simplicity and direct phenomenological applicability of field-theoretic orbifold constructions in the context of grand unification, we set out to survey the immensely rich group-theoretical possibilities open to this type of model building. In particular, we show how every maximal-rank, regular subgroup of a simple Lie group can be obtained by orbifolding and determine under which conditions rank reduction is possible. We investigate how standard model matter can arise from the higher-dimensional SUSY gauge multiplet. New model building options arise if, giving up the global orbifold construction, generic conical singularities and generic gauge twists associated with these singularities are considered. Viewed from the purely field-theoretic perspective, such models, which one might call conifold GUTs, require only a very mild relaxation of the constraints of orbifold model building. Our most interesting concrete examples include the breaking of E7 to SU(5) and of E8 to SU(4)×SU(2)×SU(2) (with extra factor groups), where three generations of standard model matter come from the gauge sector and the families are interrelated either by SU(3) R-symmetry or by an SU(3) flavour subgroup of the original gauge group. © 2003 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.