“We’re probably walking above someone’s swimming pool now.”
Roger Burrows has become used to walking on “icebergs” on dry land.
In many areas of “super-prime” London, where the city’s super-rich have their homes, planning restrictions and conservation guidelines mean you can’t extend your property laterally or add floors on top.
The solution? Dig down.
Burrows is a professor with the School of Architecture, Planning and Landscape at Newcastle University, UK, and first realised what was happening during a research trip to Regency Drive in South Kensington, London.
Researchers classify basements by their size: standard, large and mega. Some of the largest builds reach 18 metres deep and are larger than the home above ground – hence the nickname icebergs.
You’ll find basements like this across a swathe of London, from Kensington and Chelsea through Westminster, coming up into places like Highgate and Hampstead.
Burrows and his co-authors collected data on London basement construction projects from 2008 to 2019 and mapped it, publishing the results in Bunkering down? The geography of elite residential basement development in London.
They found an astonishing 7,328 basement additions had been built in just over 11 years.
Inside the iceberg
With rich owners shrouding their basement builds in secrecy, studying council plans is what allowed Burrows to curate a long list of things you can find in these luxurious basements.
There are swimming pools, gyms, cinemas, car museums, Turkish baths, saunas and spas, staff accommodation, panic rooms, golf simulators and wine cellars. They even found one with an artificial beach.
To call these projects basements might be considered misleading – real estate agents prefer the term “lower ground”.
A basement implies a dank, dark space, and these luxury levels are anything but, boasting high ceilings, skylights, luxury finishes, expensive fittings and artwork with eye-watering price tags.
Alan Waxman of design studio Landmass London and self-anointed “basement king” reportedly designed one home with Nicole Kidman in mind, which featured a 34-foot waterfall. (She didn’t end up moving in.)
“People say my properties are a bit like the Tardis in Doctor Who,” Waxman told a BBC documentary crew.
A plague of basements
Burrows traces the basement “epidemic” back to 2006–2007 and estimates that a huge volume of soil and clay, something like the volume of 12 times the interior of St Paul’s Cathedral, has been extracted from these parts of London in the last decade alone.
Shifting that amount of earth hasn’t been without its logistical challenges: construction crews have stumbled across underground rivers, chalk mines and even unexploded World War II bombs.
Still, enough people have persisted that hundreds of diggers – compact machinery used to excavate soil – are now entombed below these basements. At £5,000 or £6,000 a pop, they’re said to be cheaper to bury than to extract once you’re done digging.
But as the earth has been hollowed out beneath these homes, neighbours say the incessant noise pollution, repeated flooding and structural damage to their homes has made life very difficult.
It’s no wonder such homes can now cost in the range of £20m – or that the neighbours hate them passionately, alleging construction is “absolute hell”.
“The owners won’t mind because they, of course, won’t be there,” wrote Julian Lloyd Webber, British solo cellist and broadcaster. “Move into a building site with all that noise and dirt? Don’t be ridiculous!”
Elsewhere, botched basement extensions have led to scenes like “something out of a disaster movie” as family homes have cracked in half, and basement excavations have led to 5-metre holes opening up on the road in front of some neighbours’ homes.
In July 2021, after a nice day at the Royal Holloway College, Queen’s guitarist Brian May came home to “horror in our house”.
In a video posted to Instagram he gave his followers a tour of the bottom floor of his house, covered in “black sewage and sludge”.
The room had held a lifetime of memorabilia and now most of it was sodden and ruined. May lost treasured childhood photo albums and scrapbooks – and blamed the basement building that has been plaguing this area for the past 10 years.
Singer Robbie Williams was among the latest to make the news when his rockstar neighbour, Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page, took him to court over a proposed super basement build.
In 2016, Williams claimed Page had been going to extraordinary lengths to prove that the workmen were making too much noise: “The builders came in and he was asleep in his garden waiting. It’s like a mental illness.” Williams later apologised.
After a bitter five-year battle, Williams was given permission to go ahead — but only if his construction crews used hand tools to limit the noise and disturbance.
The have-nots and the ‘have yachts’
It’s clear the tide has turned, and in recent years, more stringent restrictions have been introduced by local councils, effectively curtailing the boom in mega basements. However, the basements that remain present their own challenges — for one, since their owners are busy globetrotting, they tend to only be occupied for two or three weeks in a year.
This makes them not homes but “value containers”, disconnected from the neighbourhood life around them, argues Burrows.
For Rowland Atkinson, the author of Alpha City: How London Was Captured by the Super-Rich, this has interesting implications.
“There’s an architecture that goes alongside wealth inequality,” says Atkinson.
There’s a corresponding rise in security infrastructure meant to keep people out — think armed guards, boom gates and surveillance.
“So, you get this defensive, spiky feel to the aesthetics of the places where the rich live,” says Atkinson, “and that, again, changes the experience of the city more generally … from being an open, democratic space, into one where people feel that they can’t get access”.
Burrows points out that since they no longer function as lived-in homes, these residences impact the entire neighbourhood, from the kinds of shops around to the utility of public spaces.
“What was once a vibrant, affluent, bustling part of London is deadened,” he says.
In the shadow of Grenfell
In June 2017, the Grenfell Tower went up in flames. It is shocking to consider that the Tower and the lux basements effectively belong to the same borough — Kensington and Chelsea.
“Within plain sight of the shell of Grenfell Tower, where so many people lost their lives because of underinvestment by public housing organisations and local authorities, we have 146 of these [basement] developments,” Burrows points out.
In the wake of the global financial crisis, Atkinson began studying how global wealth was pouring into specific neighbourhoods in London, tracking how the rich secreted and multiplied their funds.
“The offshore story is just massive … there’s an estimated 21 trillion offshore; it’s untaxed, we don’t know who owns it. The reason we don’t see action is that the people in charge currently are connected to that offshore world and the people who operate it, and indeed, in many cases, they themselves are part of it.
“One of the things that we found out, since Ukraine, is how deep the connections are between wealthy elites, and politics,” he adds.
Atkinson sees this as a curse on “unequal” cities like London, Sydney and Melbourne, where he says “a really huge dark mass of wealth” influences the kind of political systems that govern us, the cities we inhabit, how we work, travel and feed our families.
“Wealth concerns us all, not just because of some kind of question of disparity but because there is a relationship between those people at the top and the bottom and that relationship is quite often expressed in very regressive ways,” says Atkinson.
He cites the housing market where rising prices make home ownership increasingly impossible even on a decent wage, and “a kind of politics of disregard” where state institutions are rendered ineffectual, unable to protect the interests of ordinary citizens.
Burrows knows that the super rich will continue to shape London, but with these basements it’s just not as visible as it used to be.
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