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May 30, 2014 6:14 pm

Designers get creative to meet planning rules on basement builds

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Ingenious methods to bring natural light into subterranean spaces include well-located mirrors and glass-bottomed ponds

It has become almost commonplace in parts of London to see canopies stretching out over the pavement signalling that the residents are digging down under their houses in a bid to increase the living area. It is an expensive and disruptive way to add space and value to a property but it is a trend that shows no sign of dying out.

From golf courses and squash courts, swimming pools, cinema rooms and even car museums, homeowners are finding ever more inventive ways to use the space under their houses, often spending millions of pounds in the process. As a result, architects and designers are having to be more creative to satisfy the increasingly stringent requirements of council planning departments.

Digging out the basement is also a phenomenon that is especially prevalent in Britain. Alexander Kraft, chair of Sotheby’s International Realty in France, says it is hardly ever seen in other European countries. “In England, and countries such as Germany and Austria, cellars of the 18th and 19th century were often designed with human use in mind, as work space or living quarters for servants. But in most other countries, such as France, Italy and Spain, cellars were dark holes without windows or outside access, and were designed just for storage of household goods, coal or wood.

“This means conversion is much easier in England from a practical point of view,” says Kraft.

A number of London councils are in the process of trying to restrict the size of basement makeovers. Some want to prevent anyone digging deeper than one storey and under more than 50 per cent of the garden.

“They are also very strict about visual impairment or having elements that are alien to the natural landscapes,” says Nick de Lotbiniere, the head of central London planning at Savills. “They don’t want to see a garden full of glass panels that are roof lights for the basement below. We once built garden benches with glass seats and fixed them in place. It’s amazing how much light you can bring in that way,” he says. “Another trick is to create a glass-bottomed pond in the garden.”

One of the key elements in basement design is the lighting. “You need to know at the outset where the cables will go and where the lights will be recessed into the walls,” says Jo Mann, of Light House Designs. “You cannot afford to leave it until the last minute.

“A roof light is great in the day when the natural light is flooding in, but at night it can look like a big black hole. We might use LED tape up the vertical sides to create some light, although you have to be careful of the reflection on the glass,” she adds.

Mann says every scheme should have three layers: high, created by downlighters in the ceiling; intermediate, which is the most decorative and comes from lights in shelves or table lights; and low level, created on the floor or from recessed wall lights.

“The high level must be dimmable. LED lights are getting better all the time. They are between 2,000 and 5,000 kelvin and you want around 2,700, which is a warm white light.”

There are other tricks too; we often put a large antique mirror in front of the light well – it has to be antique otherwise it looks like a gym – and then put plants in front of it

- Emma Pocock

Emma Pocock, of London-based interior design company Turner Pocock, installed a large glass circle into the floor of a kitchen built over one basement conversion, and included disco lights so that the ceiling of the cellar would flash different colours. “There are other tricks too; we often put a large antique mirror in front of the light well – it has to be antique otherwise it looks like a gym – and then put plants in front of it,” she says.

Designer Ben Rousseau created one basement space in west London dubbed “the Bat Cave”, which included a cinema, bar area, garaging for an Aston Martin DB4, as well as a pool and sauna. “[The client] had a bespoke pool table under the roof light and we added mirrors around the sides on the ceiling, which was fun but also practical,” says Rousseau.

Many basements are featureless concrete boxes, with none of the alcoves and odd shapes often found above ground, so designers have to find other ways to add interest. “You need to think about shapes and textures. Painting an exposed brick wall in white will create interesting shadows in the room,” says Rousseau. “You can also use textures such as suede panels and velvet walls which will all bring an extra dimension to the space.”

Both Rousseau and Pocock counsel against using too many pale colours and suggest embracing the dark.

“We like to use lots of natural tones such as greys and plums,” says Pocock. She uses paints from the Paper and Paint Library such as squid ink, teal and nebulous, as well as textured wallpaper. “It does depend on what the space is going to be used for, but those jewel-like and dark colours do work really well,” she says.

Edward Kay, a bond trader and property developer, is selling his house in Notting Hill, north London, for £6.25m through agents Domus Nova. A former shop that was almost derelict, he rebuilt the property and included a basement that extends under the front garden.

There is also a balcony on the first storey which has a glass floor that also brings light down. The basement is so light that it never feels like it’s underground

- Edward Kay

“We brought in four separate points of natural light by glazing over the tiny back yard and incorporating it into the house, moving the stairs to the back and keeping them open tread, leaving a 3ft gap between the back of the kitchen sink and the window on the floor above so light floods down and putting a large section of glass floor in the kitchen as well.

“There is also a balcony on the first storey which has a glass floor that also brings light down. The basement, which we use as a dining room and entertaining area is so light that it never feels like it’s underground.”

Kay was inspired by the clean lines of yachts when it came to the interior design and, in addition to the natural light, he included shiny lacquered joinery and a high-gloss polished floor to help bounce the light around the space. He added suede walls for texture and interest.

These days most basement conversions are used as media rooms, but Tom Tangney, a partner at Knight Frank’s Kensington and Chelsea branch, has seen numerous underground wine cellars and swimming pools, as well as a squash court. “Home cinemas are popular but the real showstoppers are virtual reality golf and Formula One racing simulators,” he says.

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How to design a basement space

Blaze Stojanovski, the director of Blaze and Co, is a property developer who adds a basement to almost every property he takes on. He offers the following tips:

● You must consider the house as a whole when adding a basement. Houses should be split 50 per cent for entertaining and 50 per cent for living (ie: bedrooms/bathrooms). Adding a basement may necessitate tweaking or rearranging to retain those proportions.

● Lighting is crucial. Bring in as much as you can through light wells and roof lights. Artificial light is important too.

● Make the ceilings as high as you can and no lower than 2.4 metres. When you stand in a basement it should never feel like a basement.

● Good ventilation is key. Opening doors and windows will ensure that the air is never stale. Consider an air pump if necessary.

● Use reflective surfaces: gloss and lacquer (never carpet) to bounce around all the light you have managed to bring in.

● Consider insulation. If it is the party room or media room then it will be a noisy space so take that into account when designing it.

● Install a WC. I am constantly amazed by how many people don’t do that. You shouldn’t have to go up a flight of stairs to find one.

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