London’s billionaire basement mania: luxury living or living hell?

Why are London’s richest on a digging spree?

London’s filthy rich and unashamedly famous are desperate to go underground. No, not to hide from the mafia or, even worse, to take the Tube – they want to dig the ground beneath their feet to fulfill their “basic needs”.

No, not food, clothing, shelter dear reader. We’re talking about “billionaire needs” here.

From Lakshmi Mittal to Tamara Ecclestone, the deep-pocketed want to dig for everything, from a vintage car museum to a 50ft swimming pool and even a ballroom. The less demanding of the lot will content themselves with a beige cinema room.

Whatever the fetish, one thing is certain; the craze for billionaire basements keeps getting crazier.

Just last week we heard that Mercedes-Benz heir Gert Rudolf Flick’s won permission to dig a two-storey basement beneath his £30m South Kensington home.

Why? The Flicks don’t have enough room in their seven-bedroom home to fit their summer and winter clothes. That’s why they need two extra rooms in the basement. Other plans include a 55ft art gallery, 50ft swimming pool, plunge pool, massage room, beauty spa, gym and cinema. 

Lakshmi Mittal's Kensington Palace home

Lakshmi Mittal’s Kensington Palace Gardens home has a basement made of marble imported from the quarry used to make the Taj Mahal

From nightclubs to ballrooms, outrageous basement plans of London’s richest

So what are the most outrageous plans ever drawn up that have left London’s richest digging like dogs?

Branko Bursac, a contractor specialising in high-end property renovations in Central London has seen many rich and ridiculous Londoners coming up with bizarre plans.

Matthew Wright, TV presenter

“My neighbour’s basement construction destroyed my life. It went on for seven days a week, 52 weeks a year!”

- Matthew Wright, TV presenter and The Wright Stuff host

Most of them have been for the Arabs and Russians. No surprise there, they are the ones with bottomless bank accounts these days.

“Arabs can be the most difficult to design for,” he says.

“They often want the house separated into left and right, which is part of their tradition and is supposed to express the male and the female sides. In extreme cases, this can translate to having separate sauna, steam room and jacuzzi facilities in the basement so that the men can have their own and the women their own.

“The Russians on the other hand are much more into glitz. They tend to like things to be opulent, big and shiny. They love to have separate bars or even clubs installed in their basement and always want the state of the art sound system and the very best electronics installed.”

And it’s not just overseas buyers and luxury car honchos that are yearning for colossal basements, there are TV bosses, celebrity chefs and some of other London’s richest.

Basement plans for cable TV mogul David Graham

Canadian TV tycoon David Graham’s basement plan beneath Knightsbridge home

Take Canadian cable TV boss, David Graham’s plans. He wants to create a four-storey basement beneath his Knightsbridge home, which comes with a swimming pool, spa, ballroom and no fewer than 12 bedrooms.

Neighbours including novelist Edna O’Brien and the Duchess of St Albans, Gillian Beauclerk, have all kicked a fuss about the plans, but Graham insists the extension is vital for his “family’s needs”.

The luckier of the lot is Britain’s richest man Lakshmi Mittal whose Kensington Palace Gardens home has a basement made of marble imported from the quarry used to construct the Taj Mahal. It has Turkish baths, a ballroom, an oak-paneled picture gallery and a jewelled pool.

The other loaded Londoner who hasn’t been able to realise her basement dream is F1 billionaire Bernie Ecclestone’s daughter Petra Ecclestone. She wanted to demolish her £56m Chelsea mansion and rebuild it with a swimming pool, gym complex, a games room and underground parking. Neighbours pooh-poohed Petra’s plans as “botox” architecture and she was forced to drop the idea of a swanky basement.

One of the most outrageous billionaire basement plans of all time was proposed by Foxtons founder Jon Hunt. He wanted to dig 22 metres beneath his Kensington Palace Gardens home for a private Ferrari showroom, a tennis court, pool and a gym. While he put forward the over the top architectural plans in 2008, they are yet to see the light of day, thanks to fierce opposition by neighbours.

If you think, all well-heeled Londoners love putting bunkers beneath their homes, well, you’re wrong. Last month, Lord Justice Leveson, TV presenter Richard Madeley and former Lloyds chairman Sir Victor Blank launched a campaign to stop an underground swimming pool being built near their Hampstead homes.

Bernie Ecclestone with daughters

F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone’s daughter Petra Ecclestone (L) had to bin basement plans for Chelsea home

The ire of neighbours

By now you know that one thing that comes between gazillionaires and their basement desires is – the ire of neighbours.

“The first thing one needs to understand about getting a multi-storey basement is that it’s not an easy conversion,” says Lee Knighting, director, Knights Developments. “You need to dig very deep into the ground and get a conveyor belt to dig all the mud and concrete out. That’s probably what upsets most neighbours. A basement takes three to four months to complete on an average which neighbours don’t at all want to deal with.”

A Londoner who can’t stand the sight of these noisy conversions is TV presenter and The Wright Stuff host, Matthew Wright. There have been three basement conversions near his Camden property in the last eight years.

The result? Noise began at 7am for Wright and in most cases didn’t end before 9pm.

“I am not a nimby, and I did not object to my neighbour’s plans of building a basement. But it destroyed my life. Construction went on for seven days a week, 52 weeks a year!

“Large chunks of my downstairs living room ceiling fell off due to the neighbour’s building work. The surveyor said it’s the worst damage he’s ever seen. I’m still waiting for compensation. I can get over that damage, but what I can’t get over is the psychological impact of having no rest for years.

“The councils need to start thinking about residents. It’s not just about the size of windows, what wood material you need etc. It’s about - do we really need building works six days a week, does it have to start at 7am officially?” he says.

Nightclub in London basement

West Kensington couple spent more than £1m to create a nightclub in basement for their teens

Wright is not alone in his frustration. In a survey of some 1,250 Kensington and Chelsea residents, living close to a basement extension, about a quarter said that the basement had had a negative impact on their property.

Between 50-60% felt that the impacts of noise, traffic, dust and vibration had not been kept within reasonable limits. Also, around 10-15% experienced more problems with drainage, flooding, damp or vermin, either during or after construction.

And that’s what happened with Goldman Sachs boss Christoph Stanger’s neighbours.

Back in June, Stanger was left red-faced after basement excavations at his Kensington home caused cracks to appear in neighbours’ homes.

A woman was reportedly rescued from her flat because the work next door jammed her doors.

While we might jeer at the basement plans of the deep-pocketed, putting glamorous cinema rooms and opulent swimming pools, might just get homeowners a good deal when they plan to re-sell a property.

Do luxury basements make trophy homes or good investments?

So how much value do cavernous basements add to the property?

“It’s wrong to think that adding a basement is some vanity project,” says Alex Howard Baker, director, Savills’ Putney branch.

“Take Putney for example, it’s a very basement-friendly area where people would rather expand than moving elsewhere. As families become bigger, adding play rooms, gyms or leisure facilities, like a cinema room, makes sense. And when it comes to putting these properties on the market, they tend to make a good profit because these homes make perfect sense for families.”

“Everyone loves a toy, but I see no point in creating a trophy home” - Roarie Scarisbrick, a partner at Property vision

But Roarie Scarisbrick, a partner at Property vision that cuts deals for wealthy buyers does not agree.

“Everyone loves a toy, but I see no point in creating a trophy home which comes with its own Pilates room, golf simulators and swimming pools,” he says.

“The deeper you dig, the more you lose out on ventilation and natural lighting. Going to a sub-basement level is when you enter strange territory. It’s fine as long as the house makes sense, but if it’s a gimmick to show off the money you have then it gets ridiculous.”

Whether it is a trophy home or a much-needed extension, one thing’s for sure – the basement building craze is taking over London. And while luxury living of the billionaires is driving some Londoners crazy with jealousy, others’ lives have become a living hell.

Readers' comments (4)

  • Shraddha Kaul

    Filthy rich londoners digging like dogs to create trophy homes.... I think it is ridiculous. Calm down man. and let others live in peace. Great great read!

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  • I think building basement is a great idea to maximise your space.Especially when we are talking about areas like Knightsbridge or Kensington I believe that basements are better looking (and very often the only possible) option to extend your property. I run build and design company and I understand that any constructional works can be a bit of an issue for neighbours but it is possible to finish the project without causing major disturbances and damages to neighbourhood. Please contact me if need any more info or planning to do basement: www.debonairdesign.co.uk

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  • As an award winning architect who works on residential projects in London ( we have just finished a project in Notting Hill where we took down a large house and rebuilt it with more rational floor plans, and in the process created a rather bright (!) sub-basement ) I would like to offer two comments on the above article. First of all, while I respect Property Vision, if creating an average sub-basement space costs about £4k/m2 and the same metre would sell for £10K, or more, there is pure economic logic in going down, not only to cater for a need but also as an investment. Then we have the issue of neighbourly nuisance. All building work causes nuisance but then all local authorities have working hours limits and other controls available to the residents. In my experience it is a matter of neighbourly relationship. Flow of information and openness score better than sneakiness and aggression. Still, it does look like some people are moving from ‘not in my back garden’ to ‘not under your garden’ position. As long as we cannot go up in London, and we probably never will, we will be going down. Some councils, including my own RBKC, are cooking policies that are aimed at restricting such work. I have my doubts whether these would stand the test of planning appeals, which are based on objectivity and not local sentiments and politics.
    Cezary M Bednarski MSc DipArch RIBA FRSA SARP / Studio Bednarski Ltd

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  • As a party wall surveyor I would concur with Cezary, until tighter legislation and regulation controls such development, it will continue.

    Local councils are addressing this issue; however, for the time being it is likely to continue. With the subterranean development bill effectively dismissed, the law unto building down will remain open to interpretation without further regulatory control.

    Careful use of the party wall act and laws of nuisance should mitigate disruption. There is no reason why compensation shouldn't be released immediately in the form of security for expenses. It is imperative that correct use of the party wall act is sought in such circumstances, I simply cannot fathom why such drastic development ends in delay to compensation.

    One could say that nuisance caused by such development is part of the parcel of living in London. However, I would also say that walking past some of these developments is not at all dissimilar to actually operating a jackhammer. Regardless the party wall act provides means to address this.

    George Fryd BSc (Hons) Building Surveying

    www.renaissance-surveying.com
    www.partywallsurveyor-london.co.uk

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