Double down on a basement
Don’t move, improve: dig deeper into your land (not your pockets) to maximise your living space more affordably, says Emily Brooks
Basements offer big challenges to an interior designer: long, low spaces that are short on natural light are tricky to make welcoming. From making the most of available daylight to tricking the eye into making a room seem taller, wider or brighter than it really is, designers’ tactics are often applicable to any homeowner with a difficult space they want to make feel more homely.
“The days of the five-storey basement are gone,” says James Munro, the architectural director at Granit. “There are too many concerns by planners about what it does to the water table and the long-term effect on neighbouring buildings.”
This means a return to more sensible uses of such spaces: bye-bye bowling alleys, hair salons and panic rooms, hello kitchen-diners and playrooms.
It generally costs around £300 per sq ft to excavate a basement space. Homeowners in pricier areas are sometimes willing to pay twice that for a top-spec design to improve their current house rather than moving – and because they know they’ll eventually recoup their costs. “Stamp duty is a massive factor,” Munro says. “It’s crippling on a £2million house, so people think, ‘why not invest it in my own property?’”
The emphasis now is on quality of space, not quantity, and the creation of rooms that are just as open and attractive as the upstairs. This is achieved by excavating slightly deeper. “The real key is ceiling height,” says Nicky Dobree, an interior designer. “An extra 50cm [20in] will make a world of difference to how you feel in a basement.”
It’s also about sacrificing square footage on the ground floor by creating large voids – internal light wells – that create double-height areas. Granit did this with an Edwardian property in Clapham to great effect, placing a huge roof light over the void on the ground floor, so daylight pours down into the new kitchen-diner.
Natural light also comes in from a double storey of steel-framed glazing, with doors leading out and up to the garden. Having this direct connection with what’s outdoors is another way to make basements feel less claustrophobic – although it means not being able to have full-width glazed doors on the ground floor.
Robert Dye Architects used a similar layout for a project in Belsize Park. The double-height area is emphasised by bookshelves running all the way up the wall, with a library ladder to draw the eye upwards. This vertical emphasis offsets the corridor-like feeling of the long, linear basements under a typical Victorian house.
The house already had a cellar, but it was significantly enlarged. James Peake, director of Peake Projects, the building firm that undertook the construction, says that having an existing cellar spurs on homeowners to get a full conversion – but while it can save a little money on excavation, the overall disruption tends to be similar. Extra soil removal, underpinning and pumping in concrete all cause significant upheaval, making it impossible to live in the house during the works.
If an internal lightwell isn’t possible, external lightwells are the next best thing – the larger the better. With no view, opaque glazing can be better than looking at a blank wall, but living walls have emerged as a natural alternative. “A bit of greenery makes it feel more homely and not so sterile,” says Georgina Turvey of Peek Architecture & Design.
Turvey says the space available should dictate how to design the area. “The layout is informed by where the light is. Concentrate the living spaces where the lightwells are, and always put ancillary spaces such as loos and utility rooms in the darkest areas. A staircase can provide a really good source of ‘borrowed’ light, especially if it has a roof light over it. Overhead glazing provides a greater amount of ambient light than a vertical window, so even if it’s coming down two storeys, it can still light a space really well.” Internal doors can be glazed, or
‘Greenery makes it feel more homely and not so sterile’
folded back to open up two basement rooms, to allow light to flow from one end of a long space to another.
Architectural detailing can also play a part in making basements feel brighter and more spacious. “A great way of bouncing light back into a space is to use coffered ceilings,” says Dobree.
Our brains use vertical windows to anchor us in place, even if they are opaque, with no views; without them we may feel disorientated. For a basement featuring only rooflights, Clare Pascoe of Pascoe Interiors used art to create a focus point with similar proportions to a window. “Your eye is drawn to any view, and by installing a large piece of artwork it helps to recreate the horizontals and verticals that you get with a window. The layout of the furniture is also quite linear, with sofas flanking the walls, which also draws you in.”
Artificial lighting is very important in basements, and can bring drama and cosiness that make up for lack of daylight. “Layered lighting can work very effectively,” says Danielle Joyce, a senior designer at developer Finchatton. “For example, recessed lighting, spaced evenly throughout the room, can remove shadows and give a greater feeling of space and openness; this can be complemented by accent lighting for a warmer aesthetic, with floor lamps and wall lighting. By using dimmer switches, you can tone up or down the lighting according to the atmosphere you’re trying to create.”
Pascoe also suggests fractionally dropping the ceiling and having an LED strip running round the room, which gives an impression of daylight flooding down the walls. As for colour schemes, it all depends on the use of the space.
Daytime rooms such as playrooms and kitchens are usually white, while cinemas and billiard rooms can be dark and cosy cocoons. But artificial lighting in these dark rooms is crucial, says Audrey Carden, an interior designer at Carden Cunietti. “Where we have used a space for a TV room or cinema, we have gone for a dark and dramatic scheme, but with multiple sources of light: illuminated shelving, floor lights, LED uplighting in cornices and we have even used stretch ceiling with tiny LEDs that looked like a night sky.”
Basements used to be secondary to the rest of the house, but now they’re starting to look like some of the most inviting places to be.
Bright ideas: a kitchen with lightwell and a living wall, above, and a dark media room, below, at Finchatton’s Knighton Place project in Knightsbridge; a 1,200 sq ft, two-bedroom basement flat in Islington, cover, is £1.3million with John D Wood
What lies beneath: the basement games room of the Whitelands mansion in Weybridge, Surrey, above, listed with Knight Frank for £16.95million; bookshelves cover the wall, with a ladder to draw the eye upwards, in a Robert Dye Architects project in Belsize Park, left