Londoners with limited space are digging deep
Over the past decade, many of London’s most famed and wealthy residents have been expanding their homes’ square footage by adding enormous basements below their gardens. The controversial trend came about when wealthy Brits wanted more space, but were bound by plot constraints and property laws that prevented them from expanding up or outward. The result: so-called “iceberg” mansions all over London, where what you see from the street is only a sliver of the home’s actual space. These basements can go many floors deep and often house the homeowners’ wildest dreams, from pools to ballrooms to 15 additional bedrooms.
Blockbuster British Basements
In the cramped and centuries-old streets of London, hundreds of mega-basements have been dug for the UK’s most rich and famous residents, including Prime Minister David Cameron, Foxtons founder Jon Hunt, and Indian steel tycoon Lakshmi N Mittal. The basements belonging to these ultra-high-net-worth individuals are home to ballrooms, lap pools, vintage car garages with lifts and turntables, gun rooms, wine cellars, saunas, industrial-sized kitchens, movie theaters, dozens of spare bedrooms and bathrooms, and—in the case of British recording artist Damien Hirst—an art gallery.
Hirst recently won a planning battle to add an enormous 150-foot-long backyard basement to his £39.5 million, 19-bedroom home in Westminster. The property, bought by Hirst in 2014, is considered unique for its half-acre yard and large garden, although his renovation proposal was contested based on the number of trees that would have to be cut down to carry out the plans. Despite protests, Hirst and his legal team prevailed in November 2015. Beyond simply adding more square footage to his home, the enormous bunker is destined to hold Hirst’s storied multi-million-dollar art collection, which includes works by masters like Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol. The subterranean art gallery renovation boasts double-height ceilings and an elevator that can lift art weighing up to ten tons.
Buried in Controversy
Although politicians, actors, and athletes seem thrilled to have the mega-basements of their dreams, the blowback has been widespread and multi-faceted. Neighbors resent finding themselves living beside noisy construction sites, and often fear what the fast-and-deep digging might do to their own homes. And their fears are not unfounded: Goldman Sachs’ Christoph Stanger undertook a basement renovation that caused his neighbors’ homes to slide toward the excavation site, causing their door frames to shift and trapping them in their own homes. Billionaires’ basements have proven dangerous for construction crews, too, as the UK’s Health and Safety Executive has reported 17 deaths and 27 injuries in the last decade. In a rush to respond to the wave of problematic and over-the-top mega-basrments, London boroughs are now tightening their regulations on subterranean renovation. In Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea, for example, homeowners can now dig basements no more than one story deep and these additions cannot take up more than 50% of their garden.
Your Client’s Mega-Basement
There are several important design elements to bear in mind for the luxury homeowner who is considering a major basement renovation or addition.
- Open floor plans help to prevent the space from feeling too dark and cramped.
- Natural light is vital for a luxury basement, so designers should opt for light wells rather than light switches. See-through glass stairs also provide an opportunity for light to filter down from above.
- Light colors will help the space feel airy. Think white or beige walls, light-wood flooring, and neutral fabrics.
- Egress to green space. Consider installing a door with a stairway up into the backyard garden, or even digging a lowered private garden at the basement level.
- Great space for kids, storage, and quiet entertaining. When considering what to do with a big basement renovation, think first of playrooms, cinemas, laundry rooms, wine cellars, and gyms. Let more social spaces remain upstairs in the light of day.
- Think twice about pools. While storage space, gyms, and playrooms often add resale value, this is not always true with pools.
- Permits and insurance. Be aware of the laws and regulations that govern basement renovations and additions in your area, as well as the insurance options for during and after construction.