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Digging for riches

Just how do you Google-proof your house? How do you stop spotty nerds in Nebraska, not to mention burglars and kidnappers, from homing in on your property and nosing around your living room? Or for that matter, how do you stop your local council, as several have done, hiring a helicopter and spying from the air to find some pretext for raising council tax?

4 November 2009

12:00 AM

4 November 2009

12:00 AM

You can live behind net curtains, plead with Google to replace your house with a large grey blob or plant a vast spreading willow tree so that you live undetected beneath its canopy. Or you can take the hobbit option and live underground. Dig yourself a two-storey basement and there is no way, other than by a visit from 007, that the outside world is going to get a chance to spy on your life.

There are other reasons, perhaps, why owners of some of the most expensive London houses are increasingly looking to extend downwards, and why the recession has failed to stop the frantic burrowing. With tight plots and conservation law, digging out a basement is the only way a wealthy Belgravia resident can increase his living area without moving to Hampstead or Surrey. Expensive and dodgy though it might be, it is still marginally easier sinking your swimming pool and four-car garage into a basement than squeezing them into a converted loft.

When the fashion for hollowing out the basements of London houses began a decade or so ago, it was mostly a case of lowering the floor of an existing cellar. But over the years the practice has become ever more ambitious. One outwardly modest mews house in Grosvenor Square has a 30-foot-high waterfall tumbling into its basement. Jon Hunt, who sold his Foxtons chain of estate agencies just before the credit crunch, has built himself an underground car museum. Ricky Gervais has a golf simulator beneath his Hampstead house, much to the annoyance of the neighbours, who complained bitterly about the noise and smoke during construction. Several properties now have two-storey basements sunk into 30-foot holes beneath their houses, and it is becoming common for basements to extend beneath the entire garden.

And we now have clusters of underground extensions. In Wandsworth, TV property show star Phil Spencer is one of three homeowners in a row who have clubbed together to build themselves underground extensions, thereby making the burrowing more cost-efficient. Estate agents excitedly say that property values will increase thanks to cellar conversion in the street now being an established principle — you can flog your house on the pretext that the next buyer could, if he liked, burrow himself an entertainment room.

Cheap Eastern European labour has had something to do with the fad for basement extensions. When you are working in the back garden of a terraced house in Knightsbridge, hiring a JCB for a day is not an option. Most of the digging has to be done by hard graft and can take weeks. But it is not a job to be left entirely to the first Pole you pick up via an advert in the local café, or even to a seemingly respectable construction company you find in the Yellow Pages. A Kentish contractor was recently fined £18,000 for failing to stop work on a basement in Belgravia when the ground was found to be in a dangerous condition. The thought of a £20 million Belgravia house falling into a nine-foot-deep ravine doesn’t bear thinking about.

There are the flooding hazards, too, to consider. Residents in Old Church Street, Chelsea, recently complained to the borough council that their traditional, unlined cellars had flooded — something they attributed to the construction of several concrete-lined basements in the neighbourhood, one of them beneath a house owned by the sculptor Anish Kapoor. The borough council ordered a study by the consulting engineers Ove Arup as to whether the construction of cellars can block underground water flows and so contribute to flooding. The report suggested this was unlikely.

Who needs daylight when they want to sit down and watch the telly or exercise on a treadmill? Darkness and dinginess can always be dealt with, in any case, via fibre optic cables used to channel daylight down a couple of storeys. Just don’t make the mistake that one London homeowner did and get so carried away with bringing daylight into his underground extension that he incorporated a shower room with a clear glass roof. But for the bird turds which frequently land overhead while he is taking a shower, he and his wife have opened great possibilities for voyeurs using Google Earth to skim around London for interesting sights. I’ve been deliberating whether or not to give you the co-ordinates — but I thought it would be more fun if you went and had a search yourself.

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