Deep and meaningful

Developers should be delving into basements, writes Penny Jackson
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The Independent Online
Even those people with a damp, dark cellar will have good words to say for their extra space. Ask someone who has a warm, functional basement how important it is, and you will be told that nothing else makes as big a difference to the house. Yet a new home with a basement is a rare creature indeed.

Walk into a modest new house in Germany or America, say, and the space below ground level will be used to enormous effect. Playrooms, laundry rooms, wine cellars, larders, studies - the list is endless, but the significant point is that buyers expect basements to be provided. By contrast, developers in the UK seem not to have given much thought as to why they don't build them, even though it is clear that buyers increasingly look for the space.

Reasons given for not building them range from extra cost (genuine) to there being no demand (doubtful), to the need to dig deeper in cold countries anyway (imaginative, but untrue). Anyone who has looked at a beautifully finished but tightly packed show house and envisaged themselves fitting into it, will not be surprised to learn that on average new homes in the UK have less useful floor space than in any country in the EU.

So, given the cost of clean land - old industrial sites may not be safe for basements - where better to go than downwards? Building extra floors upwards hits against all sorts of planning restrictions, whereas basements do not. In order to encourage developers, for the first time approved guidance to house builders on basement construction has just been published, under the auspices of the Department of the Environment.

One company that started building houses with basements six years ago is Honeygrove, based in West Kent. On a sloping site - ideal for basements - they put in a garage, billiard room, wine cellar and utility room, which proved popular enough to repeat. They are close to completing a mansion near Tonbridge with nine apartments, three of which have basements.

One of the first buyers has turned his into a library. "The biggest problem with a basement is one of public perception," says Jeremy Streeten, chairman of Honeygrove.

"Most people have no idea how warm and light it can be, unless they come from abroad. They imagine the dark, dingy rooms found in old houses. We have dug down quite deeply so as to give decent headroom. The great thing is that if you can put things such as washing machines and airing cupboards into the basement, it improves upstairs immeasurably."

Clearly, this is a view shared by Laing Homes, one of the UK's largest developers, which is building its first family house with a basement, at Cuffley in Hertfordshire. Paul Healey, the regional managing director, returned from a visit to Virginia in the US convinced that there is an untapped British market. "Every home we built there, regardless of size, had a basement. Yet here, where land prices are so high, we don't use our space to its full potential. A 2,000-sq-ft house can be turned into a something closer to 3,500 sq ft."

Two of the four houses they are building appear identical from the outside, but one of them will have below ground the equivalent space to that of a three-bedroom detached home. Laing's drawings show a vast room filled with a snooker table and sofas. The buyers who get in fast enough can make their own choice, though it is doubtful they would include the suit of armour that rather curiously appears in the artist's impression.

There will be a premium to pay. Laing will be looking for offers in the region of pounds 595,000, as opposed to just over pounds 500,000 for its non-identical twin. Paul Healey reckons it will cost an extra pounds 30,000 to pounds 40,000 to build the basement. Using the loft space, which the company is doing increasingly in the London area, is a good deal cheaper.

He explained that building regulations make it more costly because, unlike the situation in America and Germany, where basements are built allowing for water to pass through the walls, in the UK they have to be watertight. One of the enthusiasts behind the new basement guidelines is Stephen Elliott of the Basement Development Group, who worked closely with the National House-Building Council. He believes that the big developers could learn from the self-build sector, which favours basements, not least on energy- saving grounds. He also finds it telling that owners of period homes are increasingly turning to specialist builders to convert cellars into living space, although this can be mucky, and can cost anything between pounds 10,000 and pounds 20,000.

In the end it will all come down to cost, but arguably there are areas where developers could make savings. Surely not all buyers want extravagant bathrooms, expensive kitchens and a variety of mock period bits and bobs? After all, what better period feature to reinvent than the basement?

Honeygrove sales office, call 01732 369 935. Prices start at pounds 375,000.