The War over Billionaire Basements

The battle of the basements, which has been swirling, street by street, mews by mews, across some of London’s smartest neighbourhoods, has flared up in a new hotspot. Incoming fire has been reported at a handsome double-fronted house in Holland Park where major renovations are underway to provide a couple and their four children with a magnificent family home.

The work includes a major basement development featuring those standards of the modern mansion, a gym and a wine cellar. However, there is local opposition to the application to install an air-conditioning system. That the owners go by the name of Beckham has made headlines.

The underground resistance, in this case, comes from a neighbour who told planners that the air-conditioning units needed to cool the Beckhams while they worked out and to control the environment of their wine would “affect the historic character” of the Victorian

Meanwhile, over in Mayfair, John Caudwell, the billionaire founder of Phones4u, has submitted plans to turn a 1960s car park into a “super-prime” development to rival One Hyde Park, the billionaire dormitory that is Britain’s most expensive address. His story of apartments and townhouses would excavate even deeper than the existing three basement parking areas to offer owners swimming pools, saunas, steam rooms and a wine cellar. A neighbour told a local newspaper:

“It’s going to be horrendous. We refer to [Mayfair] as the Somme because of so many basements builds with the noise of digging and mess.”

For the developer seeking to maximise profit on London real estate or the family hoping to maximise their urban space (with an eye also on increasing the value of their home), there is nothing to beat digging a very large hole in the ground and then pouring money into it.

It is no wonder that iceberg homes, where the subterranean square footage is as big as or exceeds that of the original, above-the-surface home, have become so popular. However, the noise and nuisance caused by the excavations have divided some communities into diggers and non-diggers.

You can easily spot the diggers. They are the ones with conveyor belts whirring all day emptying tons of soil into skips that are then removed by huge trucks that jam the narrow streets. You can spot the non-diggers too. They are the ones, generally plummy and older, marching up and down their roads filming the construction work on their phones and remonstrating with site managers.

Kirsty Bertarelli, the singer and former Miss UK who is Britain’s richest woman, and her husband, the Swiss billionaire Ernesto Bertarelli, received approval for a two-storey underground extension in a mews house in Belgravia last month. The plans said that the expansion was needed to accommodate their growing family. The couple also has homes in Geneva and Gstaad.

Tamara Ecclestone dug for her dogs and created a basement spa for her pooches. Frank Lampard and his fiancée Christine Bleakley annoyed neighbours with lengthy renovations of their southwest London home, which included a basement pool. The Tetra Pak heir Hans Rausing, Roman Abramovich and Lakshmi Mittal are other well-known super-basement enthusiasts.

The Queen guitarist Brian May said that Kensington had once been a quiet place to live but was “becoming a hell hole” as selfish neighbours “declared war” on others with their building work.

“It’s really sad,” Joan Collins told a residents’ magazine. “I find it shocking that people are digging down to put in swimming pools and bowling alleys when they live here for two or three months of the year.”

Julian Lloyd Webber wrote of the “plague” of basement developments. The sight of carpenters arriving at a neighbour’s house to erect plywood hoardings enclosing the front of the building “strikes fear into the hearts of residents”, he said. He was particularly annoyed that his neighbour, Gert-Rudolf Flick, the Daimler-Benz heir, was permitted to create a two-storey subterranean area to include separate rooms for winter and summer clothes, a luggage store, a 50ft swimming pool, a gym, a cinema and a beauty room.

The basement industry has produced its own luminaries. One of the best-known is Alan Waxman, director of the developer Landmass, whose enthusiasm for digging deep has earned him the nickname “the mole”.

“People say my properties are a bit like the Tardis in Doctor Who,” says Waxman. “It looks very conservative or conventional from the outside, but when you walk indoors it is like going into a different world.”

Waxman is not being accused of being a nuisance and insists that well-run renovations can minimise disruption. He scours London’s plushest areas on his scooter looking for plots ripe for transformation and once bought one after chatting up the woman who owned it in Annabel’s, the Mayfair nightclub.

A few years ago, Nicole Kidman was planning to buy a Belgravia mews house that Waxman renovated as a London bolt-hole before pregnancy made her change her mind. He constructed a dramatic well to light the basement and filled it with a 30ft waterfall down a wall of bronze into a pond.

The trick with basements, he says, is to give them ceilings at least 10ft high so they don’t feel dingy. So it should feel as good as any other room in the house?

“No,” says Waxman firmly. “You want to make it feel like the best room in the house. So when people hit the basement floor they say: ‘Wow!’ ”

Owners of super-basements don’t seem to like the word “basement” at all. In a new BBC documentary, Millionaire Basement Wars, a mother of four children who owns an eight-bedroom house in Hampstead shows off a basement (sorry, it just slipped out) conversion that she calls “the entertainment floor”. It includes a gym, a swimming pool (with waterfall) a cinema, a wine cellar and a humidor.

“This is where we entertain people. And if you want to make an impression you want to make sure that when they use the cloakroom they go into a nice room there as well.”

She says they had to include these features because the next person to buy the house would expect them. “I’ve been told that it’s better than the Four Seasons,” she says. The renovations doubled the size of what was already a 5,000 sq ft home, took two years, cost £1 million and are estimated to have increased the value of the house from £7 million to £13 million.

It has also emerged that nearly half the basement sites visited unannounced by the Health and Safety Executive in three London boroughs failed safety checks. There have been high-profile stories of damage to neighbouring homes, such as the incident in Belgravia where the road collapsed and a skip sank into a storage room.

Among the more vocal non-diggers is Kensington resident Jeremy Garston, who says that building work in his street has caused damage to his home’s frontage and created cracks in the garden walls. “An absolute nightmare. Horrendous. Life-changing.” Renovations on a house next to him, including a double-storey basement, have been going on since the summer of 2013.

“There was a refurbishment that took ten months on my other side and next to that four flats that are still being refurbished.”

A former City worker who now trades from home, he says that the stress of the noise and nuisance has caused him medical problems. A doctor wrote him a letter, which he submitted to the council, recommending that he be re-housed. He hasn’t been.

He has amassed thousands of photographs and videos of what he believes are transgressions by building contractors and has been advising residents on other streets on how to make complaints about the disturbance they experience.

“There are people, the Beckhams are a good example, who want to upgrade a family home and improve their living quarters for their four children. I get that,” he says. “The house next door to me is a tool for developers and is going to be sold to someone from overseas who is going to be here three weeks a year. It’s a trophy home.”

Kensington and Chelsea council has ruled that it will no longer approve basements of more than one storey and that they should not encroach beneath more than 50 per cent of a garden. They had previously been allowed to stretch beneath 85 per cent of a garden. Westminster is also planning to stop multistorey basements.

Jeremy Garston, whose allies have formed the Residents for Basement Justice Campaign, believes that the sheer number of single-storey basements being approved means that the nuisance will continue. He wants to see stronger noise and environmental regulations protecting residents and compensation from developers.

The documentary shows the hard-headed individuals with whom residents must deal, including the driver of a “grab” truck that collects soil. He is shown blocking a street and being berated by locals.

“If you’ve got any conscience you won’t make a grab driver,” he says cheerfully. “You’ve got to be as ignorant as pig shit.” Of mega basements, he says: “Progress, it’s called. Pays my bills.”

Rosie Caley, of the Oxford and London Building Company, which has built several multilevel basements, says her company’s work is mostly single-storey and that the Kensington ruling is unlikely to affect demand. However, other developers are understood to be considering challenging the ruling.

Caley says that her company is sympathetic to the need to avoid long-term disruption and seeks to work with locals to minimise nuisance. Digging is here to stay because basements make sense.

“These were built as family houses 100-200 years ago before the modern family bathroom was introduced and walk-in showers and kitchens that the family live in. It is unrealistic to think that if families want to live in London they have to live a 19th-century existence.”

Without basements, Caley fears that families would move out of these Georgian and Victorian properties to larger properties out of the centre of London, and they would once again be broken up into flats as happened after the war.

The basement boom is spreading out to Acton in the west and to Hackney in the east. This year there was uproar in Suffolk at the first application for an iceberg extension extending under the garden of a cottage in Southwold, the seaside town known as Islington-on-Sea.

After loft extensions, side returns and basements are there anywhere left to go? Waxman says he has been researching ways to maximise space at the Monaco Yacht Show.

“I looked at the super-yachts and how they use space. As property values carry on increasing the value of the space becomes much higher; you want to use it much better. We use every square centimetre in London. They use every square millimetre on these super-yachts.”

Houses designed like super-yachts? Somehow you just know it’s going to happen.

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