Well, I suppose it’s a good think that Mitt Romney, filthy rich Boy Scout and overlord of 4,500-square foot basements, isn’t planning on remodeling a home in London any time soon. Westminster Council, the council that governs some of the British capitol’s most priciest residential addresses in some of its most posh neighborhoods, is putting the kibosh on the rampant practice of well-heeled homeowners dodging zoning rules that prohibit aboveground expansion by carving out ginormous, multilevel subterranean living spaces under their homes.

West London’s scourge of tricked-out — common features including bowling alleys, swimming pools, gyms, art galleries, wine cellars, private cinemas, garages, and, umm, dog spas and beauty salons  — luxury bunkers, or “iceberg houses” as they’re commonly referred to by the British media, have become all the rage amongst the city’s millionaire financiers, professional footballers, and Russian oligarchs who, when looking to expand their historic manses and up their value without altering their appearances or running afoul of strict preservation laws, have nowhere else to go but down.

The resulting homes boast basements that are the same size or even bigger than the living space above (hence the “iceberg” label). It should also be pointed out that in addition to being subject to strict preservation rules that would make any sort of expansion project near impossible to permit, many of these high-priced, Victorian-era London properties aren't exactly gigantic to begin with (at least by palatial Beverly Hills standards). This is why homeowners who are accustomed to amenities like swimming pools and wine cellars are burrowing beneath their homes and building huge underground lairs.

As reported by The Guardian, the city of Westminster received a staggering 200 applications for basement expansions in 2011 and 2012. And it’s Westminster that’s attempting to limit these expansions which have increasingly become associated with surface flooding, sink holes, construction noise, structural damage to neighboring buildings, and small armies of irked neighbors feed up with the non-stop excavation.

One such irked neighbor is musician Julian Lloyd-Webber (brother of Andrew) who rallied against a basement expansion in his South Kensington neighborhood. “"As an environmentalist, I really quite like the idea of going down and not up, and building some monstrosity," he explained to the Wall Street Journal. "But the problem is that it means massive disruption for residents, often for years. It is chaos with roads being closed, noise, rubble collecting…I don't think it is right that one or two big-money projects should be allowed to cause so much disruption to so many people."

Celebrity chef Nigella Lawson and her ex-husband, reclusive art collector and advertising mogul Charles Saatchi, are also vocal opponents of the basement expansion craze although they too have partaken in it. According to the Telegraph, the couple reportedly sold their £30 million apartment in Belgravia due in part to the construction chaos resulting from a neighbor's basement expansion only to add an underground swimming pool and gym to their new £12  million digs in Chelsea.

Robert Davis, Conservative deputy leader of the Westminster Council, explains the motivation behind the policies: “It is about restricting developments akin to the decks of a nuclear submarine that are too large and cause real disruption for our residents. Currently the national planning guidance allows developers and homeowners to down periscope and build whatever size they like. Our residents have asked us to tackle this issue; this is what we are doing.”

While basement extensions aren’t exactly being banned outright, new restrictions proposed by the Westminster Council would more or less contain them; underground home additions would be prohibited from being more than 50 percent the size of the total footprint of a property’s garden which in many cases isn't much. Instead of two, three, or even four levels, they’d also be required to be single-story affairs. There will also be a required minimum depth — about 4 feet — between the roof of a basement expansion and a garden. A lack of minimum depth has resulted in drainage issues and “increasingly barren backyards” according to The Guardian.

Westminster’s restrictions, which are very similar to currently-under-governmental review policies from the luxury basement-heavy boroughs of Chelsea and Kensington, could kick in as early as 2015. In the meantime, the council is anticipating a deluge of luxury basement-seeking homeowners to submit permits before the new restrictions are approved and take effect. 

Via [The Guardian], [The Atlantic Cities]

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

Councils move to contain London's luxury basement craze
In London, the time-honored tradition of vexing the neighbors by excavating to make way for a massive, multi-story basement may be a thing of the past.