In our grand city townhouses the space below the ground was usually designed for servants, kitchens, storage and wine cellars, so they aren’t always the best laid out rooms for residential use.
But more and more imaginative conversions are making use of these subterranean spaces and creating unique city homes with many advantages over the homes further up the building.
And conversions which create a duplex ground and basement apartment are among the most sought-after family homes in the city, as they come with access and views over city gardens.
Peter Lyell, of Savills, says that there are great advantages of basement properties in Edinburgh’s New Town particularly. “Planners and Historic Scotland are a lot more amenable to changes at the basement level in A listed buildings. So modern fashions for open plan living, extending out into the garden or adding en suite bathrooms is a lot more achievable with a basement flat.”
He says many first time buyers go for a basement because they are an affordable way to get easy access to a garden and then move to a ground and basement because they need the extra bedrooms when children come along, so such flats are a popular route up the property ladder. And even if the garden isn’t private, it is seen as an advantage, Lyell says: “People higher up the building are less likely to use a communal garden, so it is usually possible to colonise it for yourself if you are in the ground or basement.”
At the other end of the scale, a good ground and garden flat which has been well laid out and has a private garden, he says, can be the pinnacle of Edinburgh New Town property: “There are plenty that achieve over a million pounds and make great family homes.”
For those who can afford a whole townhouse, Lyell says he would always advise that they buy the basement as well as the upper floors, even if it is a separate property. “It is preferable in terms of controlling the space and you have the option of creating a modern living kitchen with access to the garden on the lower level. If nothing else you can create a basement flat with a separate entrance and let it out, which keeps the control of it.”
In terms of bringing a previous utility space into residential use, it is the ultimate sustainable way to create homes, according to Natasha Huq.
The architect, who has her own practice, has just received a Highly Commended at the Scottish Home Awards for a project to refurbish and extend a small ground and basement flat at 72 St Leonards, Edinburgh.
She says: “It was my first project, taken on with my husband, to create a home for ourselves, but it was a real challenge.”
The duplex flat was in a poor state when they took it on as it had not been lived in for nearly a decade. She says: “The ground floor had been a shop, but in the 1980s at some point had been made into a flat but the conversion wasn’t great.”
The problems they confronted were about as bad as you could get - damp and structural issues all needed to be sorted. At the time the flat had just a single bedroom downstairs, but unusually for a subterranean project, there was an opportunity to extend.
Huq says: “Down in the basement was a store that was communal to the whole building. It had the same problems as the flat so would have cost the other residents to put right. Instead we negotiated that we would take on the space and solve the problem, which they were very happy to agree to, as the store was never really used.”
The total reconfiguration of the flat has made room for a living room and kitchen and two bedrooms - with a bathroom and utility room put in the dark space taken from the store.
The relocation of the staircase to one side of the building, and the use of glass balustrades and a glass floor has meant that there is maximum light penetration to the previously dark lower floor. And innovative technology has allowed the best use of the available space. Huq says: “There are flexible wall panels used between the kitchen and sitting room, and the second bedroom, so when it is not in use for guests, it is incorporated back into our living space.”
“It is all about adding light, space and air, that is the key to making the best use of a basement space”.