Once underground extensions were the preserve of the super rich. Now, with lower building costs, they’re affordable for the rest of us. Meet the downwardly mobile
When Miriam Levin first set eyes on the five derelict garages in Crouch End, north London, she knew she’d found her ideal home. She and her husband Miki are part of the wave of home-owners investing in bunker builds. Unlike basement conversions, these subterranean spaces are dug below foundations, stretched out under gardens or, for the Levins, under tumbledown lock-ups.
The Levins couldn’t afford a family house in their preferred neighbourhood, but a trawl of local streets unearthed scraps of undeveloped land, and “nice letters” to owners found through the land register paid off. The couple picked up the keys to the garages, which came with planning permission for a bungalow, and redrew the layout. “We couldn’t go up, so we went down,” says Miriam.
Outside, the white letterbox building gives no hint of the upside-down house within, with kitchen/living area on the ground floor, study, master bedroom and ensuite bathroom. Below are more bedrooms, linked by a courtyard, the bathroom and utility room. Skylights and glass walls create a light interior. “I always thought I’d live in an old house, with the stories and fingerprints of the people who’d lived there,” says Miriam, who used to work for English Heritage. “Here, we’ll make the memories.”
The house is incredibly energy efficient and, at £750,00 for land and build, the Levins have already made £250,000 profit. Not that they intend to move. “If we hadn’t built down we’d have grown out of it,” says Miriam, who has two children. “Now we never need move again.”
Bunker builds were the preserve of the über-rich, but the cost has come down dramatically as the number of basement specialists has increased, with firms in fierce competition. For home-owners, digging down often creates more space for less money than it would cost to move. So now it’s families not millionaires braving the mess of building, the wrath of the neighbours and the looming possibility of restrictions on planning for more bunker builds from the Subterranean Development Bill.
Fellow bunker builders in Richmond, Andrea and Jeremy Titchen, dug down and out to create a playroom and utility room. A spiral staircase snakes up to garden level. “It’s for the children,” says Andrea, “which means that upstairs we have a civilised, grown-up space.”
For Rosemary and Giles Jerrit, their underground home in Kew was a stepping stone; something to make a profit so they could move on. A chartered civil engineer, Rosemary project-managed while working full-time. “We were first-time buyers and builders.” It took the Jerrits six months to find the land on plotfinder.net. The house is just 125sqm but, says Rosemary, “It’s so big and light. The 12m run of windows along the main room means that, even on a miserable day, it’s light and pleasant.”
For £600,000 all in, the couple have built a unique home with three bedrooms and an office, living area, balcony and courtyard gardens. And now, as planned, it is up for sale. Despite the huge amount of “sweat equity” that went into their first bunker home, the Jerrits want to burrow again.