Let’s first talk about what the word basement means in the UK; where basement is known as a subway space that is used for floors of, for example, department stores; on the other hand the word is also used only with houses when the space below the first floor is habitable, with windows and usually its own access. The word basement applies to the entire subway level or to any large subway room. A sub-basement is a basement below.
Basements in the UK
A British basement, also known as a daylight basement, is contained in a house where at least part of the floor goes above the ground to provide reasonably sized windows. Generally, the ceiling of the floor should be sufficiently above the floor to provide nearly full-size windows. Some daylight basements are located on slopes so that a portion of the floor is at ground level. A walk-out basement almost always results from this.
Most daylight basements are the natural result of raised bungalows and walk-out basements. However, there are cases where the ground slopes sufficiently from one side to the other to allow 3/4 to full-size windows, and the actual floor remains below ground level.
In the UK, perhaps all new houses built since the 1960s will have no basement or cellar due to the additional increase in subsoil excavation for construction and the requirement for much deeper foundations and waterproof tanks.
Luxurious basement apartments
Nowdays there is a situation in which the “basements” have more volume than the exterior of the building itself. This is due to the fact that in London the laws do not allow to increase in superior height in certain zones, but they do allow to excavate, so that there are basements of 30 meters deep in which it is possible to find cinemas, gymnasiums, garages for car collections, gardens, indoor swimming pools, etc.
London has been experiencing a peculiar phenomenon for the past decade: the rich have started building downwards. Between 2008 and 2017, the city received almost 6,000 applications for private basement excavation, of which it approved 4,650. Although the peak occurred in 2014 and 2015, licenses last three years and there are still many works in the streets. The ‘basements’ (their name in English) or ‘iceberg houses’ (as they are called by media and architects) are extensions of between 3 and 15 meters below ground to house, depending on the case, gyms, movie theaters, hairdressers, wine cellars or spas. One owner even requested permission to build an artificial subway beach.
The construction sites – recognizable by the shacks attached to the houses and the hustle and bustle of trucks – are concentrated in the wealthiest neighborhoods: in Westminster (647), Chelsea (1,022) and Hammersmith and Fulham (1,147).
Why do millionaires take to living underground? Mainly because of the constraint to build upwards and the desire to increase the value of their home. “When you have a property in Chelsea or other areas, you can’t build more than what’s there,” Some put rooms in the garden or extend a balcony. But they’re often hobbled by local restrictions, so they take them out wherever they can. And they dig.”
“Many houses already had basements,” adds Roger Burrows, a professor at Newcastle University. “But the technology for digging has improved. And now there are more people with £3 million to invest. The growth is from 2008 onwards, when the money comes into central London. People have always made them tiny, but big basements are new.”
The conflict is served
However, it is not all plain sailing and in fact the situation causes problems; on the one hand there are the residents of central London who, for the most part, want to reduce construction and mass excavation by supporting councils to have a more restrictive policy; and, on the other hand, there are the investors, construction agencies and estate agents, who want to continue excavating and increase property values.
It will be interesting to see what the future holds for this “new urban element”.