The Luxury Basement: The New Rage Among Luxury Homeowners

The times of ostentation may well be past as living areas shift to the luxury basement. Even Formula 1 heiress Tamara Ecclestone, who is known for her lavish ways, will soon be retreating underground. Ecclestone is adding 5,000 square feet spread over two stories to her 17,000-square-foot home in Kensington, London. Only, the two stories are being built below the street level. The underground area will house a pool bar, a billiard room, a bowling alley, a nightclub, a gym, a game room and a 3D movie theater with custom-made seats. Ecclestone is not spilling the beans on the cost of this project, but let it suffice that it will be prohibitively expensive. Why is she building downward though? Apart from the novelty factor, it appears that aboveground expansion is not permitted because this is a historic property.

Then again, there are those who prefer not to flaunt their wealth excessively. Builder Mauricio Oberfeld is among those sorts. He wanted to home low-key from the street. Onlookers would not suspect that his home has a 3,000-square-foot luxury basement. Oberfeld said in an interview, “I don’t like to be ostentatious and showing the world.” Even Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has jumped on to this bandwagon. It appears that he has filed an application to transform his 3,000-square-foot California beach house in La Jolla into a 7,400-square-foot property, with a 3,600-square-foot underground area. Again, Romney is probably looking to be discreet about his wealth.

Trophy basements are all the rage in affluent circles. Hamptons builder Joe Farrell built a 10,000-square-foot luxury basement that comes with a skateboard half pipe, a spa, a squash court and a disco. Meanwhile, architect Mohamed Hamid has developed a 14,000-square-foot underground area beneath a 30,000-square-foot home. This underground area is designed as the home’s entertainment space and features a 250-seater ballroom, a decadent Turkish-style bath and a 50-seat movie theater. Golf enthusiasts will love the 5,000-square-foot basement developed by builder Matt Dugally in Orange County. The basement features a golf simulation center, plus a driving range and a bar.

Luxurious basements are not an invention of the present though. Built in the late 19th century, the Vanderbilt family’s Biltmore House in North Carolina featured a subterranean kitchen, swimming pool, gym, bowling alley and staff quarters. The question is, why is underground expansion becoming so popular these days?

In London, for instance, posh neighborhoods have to deal with the problem of high density, strict building codes and rising real estate prices. There is also the growing unwillingness to flaunt one’s wealth. Subterranean living spaces counteract these problems. However, digging underground is fraught with difficulty and high expense. According to Manhattan-based structural engineer Rodney Gibble, building underground in New York would cost 50-100 percent more than the $800-$1,000 rates attached to high-end above ground construction costs. However, luxury homeowners are more than willing to bear the extra cost. After all, they end up with larger living spaces and a higher level of privacy. It appears that the luxury basement is here to stay.

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