During the long months of the pandemic, Torontonians have looked for sanctuaries in many spaces — a circle in a park, a cottage getaway, the comfort of their own worn couch.
For a particular class of city dweller, refuge has been found underground, in their icebergs.
Luxurious multi-level basements have been (and are being) dug in neighbourhoods such as Hoggs Hollow and Forest Hill, featuring amenities such as a seven-car underground parking garage, a basement golf simulator, and a subterranean swimming pool, theatre and wine cellar. And as the city’s luxury basements have been stretching deeper underground, they have also been stirring up controversy.
Toronto builder Paul Miklas, who specializes in custom luxury homes ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 square feet, says he’s been getting more subterranean projects recently.
“I think COVID had a lot to do with it because of the lack of space,” he said. “People really realize now that they’re living at home that your best investment honestly is your home.”
Miklas wrapped up a project with a basement golf simulator in the Bridle Path in December and has two more iceberg projects set to begin construction in spring. Among them is another home in the Bridle Path that will include an underground theatre, wine cellar and indoor pool.
The second project, in Leaside, will add 1,200 square feet to the home, bringing it to 4,200 square feet by digging all the way into the backyard area. It will feature a family room, theatre, wine cellar and a gym.
A third project in Forest Hill is in the preliminary stages.
Another builder, Max Danieli of Danieli Development, who focuses on the Forest Hill and Bridle Path areas, built an iceberg basement in 2019 in York Mills with an underground golf simulator and basketball court. He’s working on another project in the Bridle Path, expected to be complete by year’s end, that will include a 16-car garage, basketball court and Turkish hammam.
The projects tend to run $20 million and up, he said,and since the start of the pandemic he’s heard from at least four clients interested in icebergs.They’re looking for everything from gyms, pools and home theatres to bigger garages.
“The overall luxury market in Toronto has increased tremendously,” Danieli said. “Previously, people were travelling, they weren’t really focused on their backyard.”
Miklas, who’s working on a television special on iceberg homes, likely to air in the fall, says there are lots of benefits of building underground, including expanding square footage without losing yard space or greenery. But not every property is suitable for digging, he says, such as those with “underlying water issues,” or lots that are so tight that excavation equipment can’t fit through.
Controversy emerged over Toronto iceberg homes last fall when a proposed mansion in Hoggs Hollow — approved by the Committee of Adjustment — led to nine trees, including a sugar maple thought to be 250 years old, being chopping down.
Last October, city council voted to review the impacts of iceberg houses and ways to address them. The motion cited problems observed with these builds in London, England — where icebergs are more common — including effects on the environment, collapsing foundations of neighbouring homes, altered ground levels, and noise and vibrations during construction, noting restrictions have since been introduced on the homes.
In London, more than 7,000 iceberg homes were built between 2008 and 2019, according to research from Newcastle University in England. About half of them were “legitimate” digs by families needing more space, while the rest were for luxury, said the article’s lead author Roger Burrows, a social scientist and currently professor of global inequalities at the University of Bristol.
The mansions included everything from gyms, cinemas and swimming pools, to staff accommodations, massive garages complete with car lifts and, in some cases, even panic rooms.
But Burrows says they became less common after changes in the real estate market and local restrictions were introduced. “Disastrous” consequences — such as basement flooding and noise, vibrations and dust during construction — also contributed.
In a particularly bad case last summer, the lead guitarist for the British band Queen announced he was leaving London after his basement flooded after a heavy rainfall.
“It’s almost certainly the result of all the basement building that has been plaguing this area for the past 10 years,” Brian May wrote on Instagram in July.
Though icebergs in Toronto are nowhere near as common as they are in London, there are few rules stopping homeowners from building downward if they want to.
Currently, local zoning bylaws don’t limit how many floors you can dig under a residential building, their square footage or how far the basements should be from property lines, said Kyle Knoeck, Toronto’s acting director of zoning, though he noted there could be restrictions from engineering or practical standpoints.
The city doesn’t have data on iceberg houses in Toronto (building permit data doesn’t track the size of basements, Knoeck says) but he’s aware of “a few, but not many” of them in the city. The city is planning to study the developments in the second half of 2022, in response to council’s October motion, and report back next year.
“What we know about this is largely anecdotal,” Knoeck said, noting the homes tend to be in affluent neighbourhoods, such as Hoggs Hollow, Forest Hill and Rosedale. He said he could think of examples of such homes from at least 10 years ago.
In 2011, a global luxury real estate blog featured a home on Forest Hill Road with a seven-car underground garage on the market for $8.9 million. In 2017, another global real estate site detailed a different home in Forest Hill boasting a lower level with a media room, games room, mud room, wine room and a large gym, along with a four-car subterranean garage. It was listed then for $16.8 million.
While the concerns around iceberg homes include the loss of planted landscapes — which offer character and keep away unwanted heat in the summer — reduced storm water absorption and the protection of trees, a University of British Columbia architecture professor says the idea of the uber rich building lavish subterranean sanctuaries while many are struggling to afford a home doesn’t sit right with people.
“It touches a nerve about growing inequality in our societies,” said Matthew Soules, who has a Vancouver-based architecture practice and wrote “Icebergs, Zombies, and the Ultra Thin: Architecture and Capitalism in the Twenty-First Century.”
Soules knows of some icebergs in Vancouver that popped up in the last couple of years, but says some cities are “magnets” for these “escalated hyper-frothy” developments.
“It’s a physical, spatial, architectural manifestation of rising real estate costs globally,” Soules said, noting the impulse to dig underground is driven by a desire to maximize space, and by extension, property value.
He compares it to developers purchasing land where the city would allow them to build a 100-storey building.
“Most developers wouldn’t buy it and build a four-storey building, right? That would be seen as crazy,” Soules says. “Now you have a kind of culture where people are like, ‘Whoa, wait a minute. We can actually build more stuff underground?’”
At the same time, Soules suggests the controversial desire to dig refuges deep in the depths of the earth perhaps tells us something about their owners.
“The fact that very wealthy people are doing it and creating these private layers, I think, is a manifestation of them sealing themselves off from the rest of the world.”
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