How the rich dig deep to expand city homes

Rising numbers of wealthy homeowners are extending below ground... and shaking the very foundations of good neighbourliness
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The Independent Online

"The rich," wrote F Scott Fitzgerald, "are different from you and me." So when they want more living space but they don't want to move from their fashionable address they dig in... literally. Unfortunately, the digging is undermining neighbourly relations.

Increasing numbers of people in affluent areas of London, such as Kensington and Chelsea, are excavating under their houses. Wealthy homeowners are building underground rooms housing everything from swimming pools and gyms to home cinemas.

Amid concern about a rapid increase in the number of people extending below ground, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea commissioned a report into the issue. The west London borough received 148 applications last year; more than double that from the previous year and nearly five-times the level in 2003.

Roughly half of the residents who responded were against any more basement developments unless tighter controls on the disruption from digging is put in place. The authority is now consulting residents and professionals, with the report due next month.

There is a similar trend in the borough of Camden, in north London where the local authority received 146 applications for basement excavations in 2007, compared with 24 in 2001.

Sir Ronnie Cohen, financier and Labour donor is one of the latest high-profile figures to invest in an underground swimming pool. Digging for his house redevelopment caused so much disruption that he has paid for some of his neighbours to move away while work takes place at his house in Notting Hill, west London.

A two-year project launched by the comedian Ricky Gervais to build a gym and swimming pool at his north London home caused such a disturbance neighbours demonstrated outside his house.

Chelsea football club owner Roman Abramovich has two houses in west London connected below ground with extra rooms and a huge swimming pool.

Maggie Smith of The London Basement Company, said: "The jobs keep getting bigger. Now people dig beneath their garden as well as the house – which is often difficult." The company has seen a 40 per cent increase in business over the past five years.

But not everyone is enthusiastic about this trend. "It's a living hell for our residents," said Gordon Maclean, of the Heath and Hampstead Society, who has been campaigning for stricter controls on basement extensions. "The scale of some of the projects is just huge – we've had some cases where there have been as many as four basements underneath each other in one project. Also, the streets are not built for the lorry-loads of spoil that has to be transported around."

Ruth Tamir, a Camden resident whose neighbours have just begun a six-month basement excavation, is already feeling the strain: "Our house shakes because of the conveyer belt that takes all the earth out... then there's the constant drilling. Our neighbours didn't even tell us they were doing theirs – we just received a formal letter. You don't know what's going to happen in the future with things like subsidence."

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