The trend for basement rooms

Traditionally, the British have been a fiercely proud home-owning nation and since the Queen came to her throne in 1953, the proportion of owner occupiers in England has steadily increased from 32% up to a peak of about 75% in 1981 (70% today).Homeowners have always found ways of showing their property off whether it be thousands of gaudy Christmas lights, an overabundance of colourful hanging baskets in Spring or simply by building a very large property. Some even think that stone cladding one side of a semi detached house is classy. Showing off by building tall buildings has been in vogue for centuries – in the picture postcard village of San Gimignano in Italy, the local wealthy merchants built taller and taller towers to signify their wealth and importance, and that was back in the 11th to 13th Century. Even today, designers and architects cannot help themselves but build higher and higher skyscrapers all over the world to impress.However, I wonder if we are becoming a nation of moles.

The latest craze in many of the golden commuter belt areas to the west of London is to build enormous basements. This is usually due to the swingeing Greenbelt policies which allow an owner of a modest sized house on a good sized garden plot to add to or rebuild his house with just 30% extra floor space. The obvious way to obtain more habitable space is to simply burrow downwards.The problem with dungeons, sorry basements, is that it is usually quite difficult to design good natural light to these subterranean rooms, and whilst it might seem attractive to extend your house by 5,000 square feet or even a lot more, what on earth do you do with all that space?The answer is that you become creative in the type of rooms you install. Let me give you a brief insight as to what I have seen in recent years. There are a few fairly obvious rooms which are suitable for basements, the first of which is the plant room, and by plant, I mean the machinery which provides hot water and heating and air conditioning to the house. More recently very elaborate lighting systems have become more standard – ones that you can set to different moods for different times of the day, and which come on and off by timers or by remote control from anywhere in the world. This electronic wizardry takes up quite a bit of space although a very large walk in cupboard will probably suffice. Then there is the communication cupboard containing racks and racks of audio-visual machinery and patch panels with wiring that makes spaghetti junction look a bit of an amateur affair. In a large house this might contain numerous satellite boxes, a number of huge hard drives for your new music and video collection and so the list goes on. The next obvious room to bury is the laundry room. Full of washing machines, tumble dryers, maybe fridges and freezers with plenty of space for the staff to do the folding and ironing or to simply catch the dirty washing as it falls from one of the above laundry chutes! Cinemas come high on people’s lists for very clear reasons and with improvements in technology; these have become incredibly grand affairs. I recently visited a house gaudily designed, decorated and furnished throughout by Gianni Versace, which had a full-on professional cinema.

As you entered, there was the ticket booth; next to it was the popcorn machine and drinks dispenser, over the door was the illuminated exit sign. The 12 foot screen itself was hidden behind curtains which parted moments before the film started. All this whilst watching from individual (and enormous) reclining leather seats. This doesn’t come cheap – a cinema set up like this with top video and sound equipment might cost you £250,000.Wine cellars – every multi millionaire fancies a wine cellar if only to show off his excellent taste in wine (usually instilled on him by his vintner), but more recently we have seen a plethora of enormous temperature-controlled rooms with enough space for a wine tasting table too. Swimming pools – well this is the big space user (or space waster, depending on how you look on it). A reasonable size indoor pool with seating areas, changing rooms, jacuzzi, sauna, steam room can easily take up 2,500 square feet and plenty more depending on your taste/vulgarity.Everyone with large houses has to have a full professional gym these days and whilst it might never be used, it gives the impression of supreme fitness and a ‘go ahead’ attitude. Garaging – well that speaks for itself. But some of the more unusual rooms I have seen recently defy belief – how’s about a hair dressing salon – and this is no ordinary hair dressing salon, quite apart from all the usual chairs, tables and mirrors, there were not one but three of those basins that you lean back into for your hair wash! Massage room – becoming increasingly popular, with mood lighting, piped music and a professional massage table with a hole to put your face through.Perhaps the funniest one I have heard of recently is a room containing a fake tan spraying booth. No doubt for those needing the ‘David Dickinson orange’ look on a regular basis.But lastly one that really defies belief – gift wrapping rooms are surprisingly relatively common (as are flower arranging rooms), but I learnt of one house in California that has not one but three gift wrapping rooms! When I described this to a colleague of mine he reminded me that in some parts of the world, not only are gift wrapping rooms common amongst the wealthy but they also have gift rooms containing hundreds of items for the owners to choose from before they are wrapped and presented to the recipient. It seems to me that for the very wealthy, underground space can provide a wonderful array of rooms but one wonders that having decided to burrow down one level on a frequent basis during the last 10 years of construction of new homes, will we start to dig further and have two, three or more stories underground in the future?

James Wyatt
James Wyatt is not a mole, but a Partner of Barton Wyatt in Virginia Water, Surrey