Homeowners dig down for more space

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

COME ON DOWN, Stefan Lemperle says. Here, 13 feet under the ground, there’s sunlight and fresh air, an open-to-the-sky patio with a rock-lined pond, a high-ceilinged lounge and a media room large enough to host dozens of friends.

Lemperle’s new glass tower of a home in La Jolla comes with a swank subterranean space that’s anything but the dank basement of eras past. “It’s beautiful,” says Lemperle, “and it’s a bonus.”

At 1,800 square feet, this level of the house is longer and wider than any of the three stories that sit above-grade. But to city planners here who meticulously calculate whether a home is too big for its lot, basements are like carports: These square feet simply don’t count.

In beach cities with strict restrictions about the height and footprint of homes, residents and architects are digging down to get the most out of small lots. Building down can yield a bigger home that draws less attention from the street and fewer sneers from neighbors tired of maxed-out mansions rising next to modest bungalows.

The trend is particularly strong in affluent communities such as Coronado Island and La Jolla, which have some of the most expensive land in the state.

“Almost every new home we see now includes a basement,” says Lee McEachern, permit chief for the San Diego office of the California Coastal Commission. “It’s been increasing for the last several years until now -- I can’t think of an application for a new home that doesn’t have plans for underground space.”

The phenomenon is less common in Malibu because that city includes some basement space when calculating a home’s size, says Craig George, manager of the city’s Environmental and Building Safety Division. But Charles Posner, a California Coastal Commission planner, says he’s seeing requests to build basements on small lots in Venice and Marina del Rey.

The trend is clearly strongest in pricey San Diego County, where Harry Jackman says every house erected on Coronado Bay in the last five years has a basement.

As construction manager of Coronado-based planning, design and construction company the Jackman Group, he carved 4,300 extra square feet of living space on an 8,000-square-foot lot. One client in Bonita will have two basements: one in front of the house, with light wells to illuminate bedrooms, and one in back of the house for parking cars.

San Diego architect Steven Florman devised a below-grade museum and diorama space so a La Jolla homeowner could spread out his battalions of miniature soldiers.

Across from the Hotel del Coronado, contractor Fred Perry has built a house with 2,000 square feet of sub space to hold 6,000 bottles of wine as well as the homeowner’s car collection and occasional houseguest.

Critics might question why anyone needs 6,000 bottles of wine, let alone an underground space to store them. But McMansion backlash notwithstanding, some homeowners simply want their space, and despite the complications and expense, basements are seen as an increasingly attractive option for Southern Californians.

“Footage is footage,” Perry says. “You can’t tell you’re underground.”

INDEED, the new basements just may represent the future of design for densely built, space-starved communities, says San Diego architect Jonathan Segal, who is not shy about declaring his plan for Lemperle as an example of “the new generation of ocean-front architecture.”

Building underground is urban, Segal says, and more exciting than suburban sprawl. It’s also practical -- perhaps the best way to offset “unforgiving land costs” -- $4 million for this 4,200-square-foot, pie-shaped lot, half of which must be reserved for patios or landscape to meet building restrictions. Adding the basement created 72% more living space, expanding the home to 4,300 square feet total.

“Basements are the new baseline, what has to happen to make the project make sense financially,” Segal says.

“If you could imagine that house without a basement, you’d have a 1 1/2 -bedroom house. And it would not be valued at $10 million, as it is now.”

Though Lemperle declined to reveal his final outlay for construction, his contractor, Randal Howard, did say the basement cost 50% more to build than the other floors.

Excavation took a year: Workers drilled 30 holes, each 30 feet deep, to drop in support beams. Imagine writing a check for $25,000 to move telephone lines -- temporarily -- to accommodate a 70-ton crane.

After digging about 6 feet, crews hit water -- a series of underground streams trickling toward the ocean. They could have just built a giant concrete barrier to keep out the water, but they decided to collect and filter the water too -- about 1,000 gallons a day -- so what was pumped to the storm drain was clean.

Few visiting Lemperle’s subterranean patio would know that the pump lies beneath the wood deck and that the water splashing a stack of rocks is actually some of that filtered runoff. The water is so clean, Lemperle jokes, he should bottle it.

The three stories of glass walls are matched with glass floors that allow sunlight to flood the basement. Natural light also comes in from the below-grade patio, about the size of a single-car garage.

Fresh air streams in from two sliding doors that lead to either the lounge (with a stainless-steel bar and Bontempi bar stools) or the media room (with the classic white Barcelona chair and ottoman).

Lemperle, a surgeon and inventor of medical devices, selected the finishes and furnishings himself. For the underground rooms, he found two faux-pony-skin Paul Klee chairs, a Hamilton sofa chaise and leather tables by Minotti, and an Eero Saarinen walnut table and white tulip chairs from Knoll.

Custom cabinets made by Jacobs Woodworks of San Diego envelope the Gaggenau appliances and Dornbracht faucet in the underground lounge area. Below the glass ceiling hangs metal sculpture by local artist Matt Devine.

Lemperle moved into the house in December, and since then he’s been figuring out how to live in it. Surfers wave while waiting for a ride. Helicopters sometimes fly a little too close. But shutting them out is easy. He just walks downstairs.

“I’m totally happy,” Lemperle says. “I have plenty of space, and I get a good workout running up and down four floors.”