Today's des res is below stairs

Basements are back, reports Catherine Pepinster
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The basement, once home to the kitchenmaid, the coal sack and the mangle, is back. For the first time in 100 years, builders across the country are giving new houses an extra storey by digging deep and providing basements.

These basements, however, are more akin to the American "den", a sprawling room where the family relaxes. Some 200 housing developments, from one or two houses to small estates, have been built with basements in the past couple of years. They help builders to produce bigger, more profitable homes without having to buy extra land or to placate planners who dislike taller houses because they overshadow other homes. But just what the basements are used for provides an insight into the way in which lifestyles have changed. "Families today don't just want a living-room where they watch TV," said Paul Healey of Laing Homes, which is building five-bedroom houses with basements in Cuffley, Herts. "They have all sorts of interests and ways of relaxing. They want space for a snooker table, or their exercise bike, or a bar."

Mr Healey was well aware of how popular basements are with householders who buy older, Victorian homes. The below-stairs space, as much a part of the Victorian house as sash windows and ceiling roses, was an empire ruled by the cook and butler where the functions of a house could be hidden away behind a green baize door. Today's buyer uses the cellar in his 19th-century home for all manner of things, from storing wine to providing a room for the au pair or an office for working at home.

However, it was Mr Healey's experience of building homes in the United States that convinced him that the basement was a winner. There, basements are informal places, typified by Bob Dylan's The Basement Tapes, a set of sessions recorded on a home tape recorder in the basement of a house he had rented.

"The people most involved in making decisions about a house are women, but I believe the basement will appeal to many men," said Mr Healey. "It's somewhere they can take themselves off to for a quiet drink and a game of billiards." In Dunstable, Beds, Mike Henden, an electronic equipment company director, has moved into a new house with his wife and 12-week-old son. He says of the basement: "It was the main selling point for me. It has given us a huge amount of extra space, and it's ideal for installing a video with a large screen, and all my music and gym equipment."

He paid pounds 25,000 extra for it; similar houses without one were being sold for pounds 175,000 but he believes his extra 25ft by 15ft room is excellent value for money. So too do the builders selling the houses, who estimate they can make 100 per cent profits out of a basement. And as land prices rise, they expect to turn more and more to them. What still deters some developers, however, is the lack of knowledge and experience of building underground. The Basement Development Group - a team of engineers, scientists, surveyors and representatives of building quangos, all keen to promote life underground - has had hundreds of inquiries in the past couple of years from developers unsure of the techniques. "Basements are ideal solutions to so many things," says its secretary, Alan Tovey. "Being underground gives the house extra insulation; you get extra space at relatively little extra cost; and they're the perfect answer to the demands for space our lifestyle today brings."