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The modern Mike Mulligan
June 5, 2014 8:08 AM   Subscribe

The challenge of adding new subterranean floors to London houses has become a highly lucrative business. The difficulty is in getting the digger out again. To construct a no-expense-spared new basement, the digger has to go so deep into the London earth that it is unable to drive out again. What could be done?
posted by Chrysostom (80 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite

 
Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Anyone got some?
posted by BeerFilter at 8:17 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


I know, right? This article really could have benefited from some pics of diggers in basements.
posted by rbellon at 8:20 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]


Sounds like the construction industry's version of cow tipping. Everyone knows a guy who buried an excavator in a basement, but nobody's actually seen one get buried.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:22 AM on June 5 [5 favorites]


We need the biodegradable surgical implant solution here. Digger stuck at the bottom of a rich man's house? Just spray it with our patented solution and watch it melt away!
posted by elanorigby at 8:23 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Ok my bs detector went off. It doesnt "take a whole day" to position a crane. It takes about 10 minutes. And it costs for an average person like me around $500 to have a crane capable of 20 tons come out and lift a hot tub or something. So even at an order of magnitude its still pennies. And of course people who own and operate diggers probably own and operate cranes.

Rather apocryphal account for me. I'd love it to be true and I'd double love some photos...
posted by chasles at 8:23 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


A steading (barn) got converted behind our cottage in the Highlands of Scotland. A very quiet spot, out of view of the roads in the area. The contractor ran late, then over budget, then got into tax trouble. Then, his digger got "stolen".

A local informed me that diggers get stolen all the time, put on boats to Eastern Europe, as does farm machinery. Also, that dodgy builders claim they are stolen, while burying them in farm fields, to cash in on the insurance. So there is a digger that got buried.
posted by C.A.S. at 8:25 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Why not dismantle the digger?
posted by maryr at 8:26 AM on June 5 [4 favorites]


If it were my basement I would want the digger left in place as a conversation piece. Or as maryr suggests why not dismantle it, like they did with this Mustang? Did anyone check the date on that article?
posted by TedW at 8:30 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Are we talking about what US of Americans refer to as a "backhoe?" If so, depending on the size of the equipment, burying one would require digging and then filling in, with backhoe and backfill, an area above and beyond the height and width of said equipment. The math doesn't work for this. Also, there would be a huge price differential for backhoes should ~500 go missing in any given city.
posted by jsavimbi at 8:33 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


That's how MIT students did it too, TedW.
posted by maryr at 8:33 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


As a bonus, once it's been "buried" in sand and gravel and had concrete poured over it, it's hard to verify whether the extra £5,000 digger fee is legitimate.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:35 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


Well, it does appear that much larger digging machines are sometimes abandoned.
posted by Chrysostom at 8:36 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


and that a used one goes for 5-6k pounds used ? Unless we're talking bobcat sized things, I'm dubious ..
posted by k5.user at 8:36 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


"No, no! Dig UP, stupid!"
posted by Brodiggitty at 8:39 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]



"No, no! Dig UP, stupid!" yt
posted by Brodiggitty


Eponysterical!
posted by Optamystic at 8:42 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


Great, so now when the zombie apocalypse happens the zombies will be driving diggers that can be used to unearth deeper zombies
posted by oulipian at 8:44 AM on June 5 [4 favorites]


Ok my bs detector went off. It doesnt "take a whole day" to position a crane. It takes about 10 minutes. And it costs for an average person like me around $500 to have a crane capable of 20 tons come out and lift a hot tub or something.

The houses these conversions are done to are generally in terraces with no front garden amongst narrow streets. I have no problem believing it's impractical to position a crane large enough lift a digger out of the back garden.
posted by grahamparks at 8:48 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


and that a used one goes for 5-6k pounds used ? Unless we're talking bobcat sized things, I'm dubious

The one time I worked on a project where we dug out a basement under an existing house, the contractor used a bobcat. They're actually pretty versatile, and you can attach a bunch of different equipment to them - in addition to the standard Bobcat mini-bulldozer thing, I've seen them with backhoes and giant jackhammers.

Since the property we did the basement on was sloped, the basement level daylighted (i.e. was fully exposed) on one side, so they could easily just take the Bobcat out on that side. On a flat site, it would be pretty trivial to just have a ramp out of the basement that gets filled in once the basement walls are constructed. Our only issue was whether the Bobcat could fit down the sideyard between the house and the fence.
posted by LionIndex at 8:50 AM on June 5


> and that a used one goes for 5-6k pounds used ? Unless we're talking bobcat sized things, I'm dubious ..

If 500-1000 of them are abandoned in site, there should not be a market in used diggers.
posted by ardgedee at 8:50 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Yeah looks like exporting used bobcats to London is a good business.
posted by stbalbach at 8:52 AM on June 5


when the zombie apocalypse happens the zombies will be driving diggers that can be used to unearth deeper zombies

"Didja ever, like, really look at human flesh, man?"
 
posted by Herodios at 8:53 AM on June 5 [4 favorites]


Makes one long for the days when it was practical to just go down to the poorhouse and hire a crew of stout wretches to do this sort of job.
After a few weeks when the digging's done, a man should have enough energy left to make it back out again, if the rationing has been calculated correctly.
posted by Flashman at 8:56 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Used excavators are cheap and basically disposable, so I'm sure some are buried here and there.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:03 AM on June 5


I saw someone drive a skid steer aka bobcat into the basement of a west village townhouse a few months ago. This trend is spreading.
posted by JPD at 9:05 AM on June 5


And yes often I see a bucket parade of Chinese laborers digging out a crawl space in other townhouses. The bobcat thing only makes sense I think if you are try to add new levels.
posted by JPD at 9:07 AM on June 5


was totally going to mention Mike Mulligan

saw the title just in time

goodnesses were thanked
posted by RolandOfEld at 9:09 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


The first thing I thought of was Mike Mulligan as well. Seems a waste to bury these diggers under concrete.
posted by starscream at 9:11 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


What worries me is that they might be following the ancient Egyptian practice of burying the workmen alongside it so that the digger will have someone to operate it in the afterlife.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:14 AM on June 5 [10 favorites]


It'd be entertaining to take some abandoned diggers and dig out tunnels between properties.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:15 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Interesting article from the year before on the challenges and benefits of "basement conversion". Gives some insight into the neighbour hassle as well.

BBC video with digger (scroll to bottom) on health & safety of the basement construction boom.

Doubt anything could climb out of that 2 storey waterfall.
posted by infini at 9:16 AM on June 5


Have Britons not yet invented the inclined plane?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:21 AM on June 5 [6 favorites]


Well, it does appear that much larger digging machines are sometimes abandoned.

Indeed, according to Wikipedia article on the Channel Tunnel: "Towards the completion of the undersea drives, the UK tunnel boring machines were driven steeply downwards and buried clear of the tunnel."
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:24 AM on June 5


Have Britons not yet invented the inclined plane?*

"We don't get much call for it 'round here, sir."


------------------
* I sawr ye!

posted by Herodios at 9:26 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


Those who are sceptical should get on Google street view and look at some of the houses in question. You only have to look at the terraced houses in Kensington to understand that conventional building site logistics simply aren't feasible. Despite the article's picture, I believe the type of digger they are referring to looks like this. (I'm not sure if that design is common in North America?)

The cost of gutting a house from the inside to vastly increase it's internal space without giving any hint of the work to the outside is orders of magnitudes greater than that of a compact digger. The cost of buying and expanding a house like this could easily be tens of millions of pounds.
posted by leo_r at 9:31 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


Nothing would surprise me with these basements. They are London's version of the Google Bus and a real flashpoint for class rage.

A property worth 10-20 million pounds becomes 30-40 million with a double-height basement under the garden and lower floor, and there are literally hundreds of them now. But since they're all owned by bankers or oligarchs, I'd want my money as quick as possible if I was the building contractor and get out. London is so densely packed that getting a big digger out might well involve closing a road for a morning etc.

Really what all Londoners would like to see is the Goldman Sachs f*ckbags that live in these things getting entombed in them somehow.
posted by colie at 9:34 AM on June 5 [6 favorites]


1) Clearly something is getting out of this basement, namely the dirt that the bobcat is excavating, so there has to be sort of exit route. Bobcats don't just make dirt disappear.

2) I can't imagine why a ramp is not feasible.

3) The cost of the renovation itself is of minimal relevance here, what matters is the claim that building a ramp/hiring a crane is more expensive than buying a new piece of equipment.
posted by kiltedtaco at 9:37 AM on June 5


What do they do with all that dirt, then ?

Oh.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 9:48 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


My first thought was that instead of cementing them in, they should just wall them in, so if they want to do further digging later, they could conceivably avoid opening up an excavator-sized hole to throw another one down there.

But then I realized no, what they really should do is take a bunch of those excavators out of the basements and weld eight of them together into a giant robotic spider.
posted by aubilenon at 9:54 AM on June 5 [4 favorites]


Jon Peters, is that you?
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:55 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


I like how the author not only claims it's a trend to bury diggers in basements, but doubles down with his claim of a sub-trend of those digging out their basements finding that there's already a digger buried there.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 9:57 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


Despite the article's picture, I believe the type of digger they are referring to looks like this.

If that's the case, why don't they just have one guy pull it up by hand with a block and tackle?
posted by Sys Rq at 9:59 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


1) Clearly something is getting out of this basement, namely the dirt that the bobcat is excavating, so there has to be sort of exit route. Bobcats don't just make dirt disappear.

That's I went article hunting (linked in comment above) - seems they use a conveyer belt.

2) I can't imagine why a ramp is not feasible.

This image shows how small and narrow the opening is as compared to the depth. The ramp would have be inclined almost vertical
posted by infini at 9:59 AM on June 5


> 2) I can't imagine why a ramp is not feasible.

A ramp through what? Clearly you have an insight into the logistics of urban excavation that an entire generation of construction engineers lack.

I don't know how plausible these claims of buried diggers are (I'm among those suspecting the diggers are disassembled for removal), but a ten thousand pound line item to expedite completion with least mess is, seriously, a trivial cost at the scale the property owners are spending at. The fucking speakers for their home theater cost many times that.
posted by ardgedee at 10:02 AM on June 5


The view linked by leo is inspiring:

I have often walked down this street before;
But the pavement always stayed beneath my feet before.
All at once I slip
Several stories deep.
Knowing I'm on the street where you dig.
posted by TreeRooster at 10:02 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


But then I found this sentence buried in the article: "Obviously, the idea of leaving the house to pursue such pastimes – and thus engaging with the human colour and spectacle that were once considered inextricably bound up with living in a city – was too ghastly to countenance.

Which made me happy.

I've heard a similar apocryphal story from the US about the making a forklift safety video. One of the scenes required them to drive a forklift off the end of a pier, and when the divers went down with cables to retrieve it, they found several more forklifts. I want to believe.
posted by sneebler at 10:03 AM on June 5 [2 favorites]


What do they do with all that dirt, then?

The workers carry it out every day in their pockets, and shake it out of their pant legs a few handfulls at a time.
posted by ceribus peribus at 10:06 AM on June 5 [19 favorites]


Looking, not finding any pictures of buried diggers, but I can imagine one like This one being buried in a properly large basement.

They're talking London here, MUCH tighter space than most americans are used to, likely no space to dig down to make the basement from outside, without taking out a road, and I'm sure that's rather prohibitive in a rich London neighborhood.
posted by malrimple at 10:06 AM on June 5


Oh believe me, we're all looking for buried diggers here ... soon Google will trend most eccentrically...
posted by infini at 10:10 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


A ramp through what? Clearly you have an insight into the logistics of urban excavation that an entire generation of construction engineers lack.

I'd phrase it differently; the complexity and ingenuity of construction logistics astounds me, so much so that I am extremely surprised by the article's claim that an entire generation of construction engineers is unable to find a way to get their own equipment out.

The answer to "through what?" is "the hole in the house they brought it in through".
posted by kiltedtaco at 10:13 AM on June 5 [3 favorites]


Oh!! Mechanical diggers. Oh, well that's not quite so bad then... still...
posted by Naberius at 10:13 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Heh... love the tone of this evening paper article, maybe this is why you'd rather bury the damn thing then bother the neighbours with a crane.

The Duchess of St Albans, who had just heard the news when the Standard visited her this week, says it is “a nightmare”. She has lived in the house she shares with the 14th Duke — directly descended from a son of Charles II and Nell Gwynne — for more than 20 years, and spends most of her time in it since retiring from interior decorating.

“I just think it is absolutely outrageous that these little artisan houses can be mucked around with,” she tells the Standard in her ornate living room, sitting underneath a grand portrait of a family predecessor. One of the seven properties where digging can now commence is directly opposite her house across Ovington, a prospect that terrifies the Duchess.

“Why should we have lorries and noise and goodness knows what right down this street? We all do things artistically — how can you think when you have got drills going on?” After a recently completed basement on the street — thought to be the first on Ovington— proved to be a serious disturbance to neighbours, residents shudder at the thought of seven more.

posted by infini at 10:18 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Digger in a dug basement, looking for an onramp.

They are radio controlled. Was a joke
posted by infini at 10:19 AM on June 5


Oh believe me, we're all looking for buried diggers here ... soon Google will trend most eccentrically...

I would suggest beginning in either Surrey or San Francisco (and possibly Marin County for the more successful ones).

Here's one.
 
posted by Herodios at 10:21 AM on June 5


Found! The British homeowners illustrated guide to doing it yourself.

i'm done, outta here
posted by infini at 10:24 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


What happens when sea levels rise and overwhelm London's flood barriers? Will these basements flood epically due to a digger sized weakness in the foundation?
posted by ZeusHumms at 10:32 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


What happens when sea levels rise and overwhelm London's flood barriers? Will these basements flood epically due to a digger sized weakness in the foundation?

Those buildings are probably all well below the flood plane to start out with. No need for the sea levels to rise. Just a good storm timed with right tides and a sleepy crew at the Thames barrier will get the job done.
posted by srboisvert at 10:45 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Really what all Londoners would like to see is the Goldman Sachs f*ckbags that live in these things getting entombed in them somehow.

nah - the crowd that does this makes Goldman money look like chump change. Bankers have been priced out of Mayfair and Chelsea.
posted by JPD at 11:16 AM on June 5


I have to agree that this is hogwash. You're telling me that a thing that can load itself onto a truck isn't agile enough to get out of a basement? The guys who drive these things get dangerously bored -- if you handed them a beer and said "There's no way you can get that digger out of that basement. Why, I'd bet you the rest of this case of beer that you can't do it," it would be out before you finished talking.
posted by Etrigan at 11:33 AM on June 5 [4 favorites]


You're telling me that a thing that can load itself onto a truck isn't agile enough to get out of a basement?

The way they're describing the problem is that it can't go vertically. Sure, it was easy going in but now it's two stories lower and there's simply nowhere to dig an incline to drive it out on. You couldn't even assemble a ramp inside the basement space, because it's full of support structure for the house above.

That said, I don't know why you couldn't put a steeplejack over the hole and winch it out. Break it down into several parts first if necessary. Sure, there's some work involved, but there's also labor and materials involved in burying it, plus this way you don't sacrifice that precious square footage hiding an abandoned digger.
posted by George_Spiggott at 11:58 AM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Is there any parent who hasn't seen this yet? I love Virginia Lee Burton, sure, but that image just made my heart leap.
posted by wenestvedt at 12:00 PM on June 5 [6 favorites]


wenestvedt, I cannot favorite that enough. At my house growing up, we read Virginia Lee Burton books over and over; that cover horrifies child-me and absolutely delights adult-me!
posted by epj at 12:07 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


This discussion reminds me of Monty Python's The Great Debate skit.
posted by Chrysostom at 12:09 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Here are a couple of articles about the bling basements.
If the diggers are only worth 10K or so it is small change to leave them behind.
posted by adamvasco at 12:12 PM on June 5


My suspicion is that they don't just bury a whole digger. It would only take a few minutes to take off the digger bucket, and may be well worth their time to pull many of the more salable components out. Certainly, if I were the homeowner, I'd want to confirm that they've drained the petrol/diesel, coolant, and the engine and hydraulic oil before leaving it there, so you're already spending a few hours on cleanup. Might as well make a profit doing so. I could well see the stripped chassis, minus the tooling, tracks, controls, and so on, left in a hole with someone kicking the dirt back into the hole and topping it off with the concrete. But just leaving a whole working digger? I'd want to see pics to confirm before believing.
posted by Blackanvil at 12:23 PM on June 5


Another question this article raises for me is how they avoid underground utilities. My brother was an engineer on the Big Dig and a major cause for delays on that project was the maze of underground utilities, often not appearing on maps, that had to be identified as they were discovered. Imagine what damage a gas explosion under one of those pricey town homes could cause.
posted by TedW at 12:28 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Didn't Dick Cheney do something similar to the Naval Observatory when he lived there?
posted by TedW at 12:34 PM on June 5


Indeed, but instead of converting the stuck steam shovel into the building's boiler, they turned it into the Veep's artificial heart.
posted by notyou at 12:45 PM on June 5 [4 favorites]


This basement business, it's all going to end in Balrogs, mark my words.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:59 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I (was) read a story about this in the early 60's, when I was about 4.
posted by klarck at 2:30 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


^ title
posted by maryr at 2:40 PM on June 5 [2 favorites]


This has got to be urban legend. A couple guys with a rail saw could cut up and remove a small excavator like that by hand in less than a day and they would pay for the opportunity to do so. No contractor is going to pass up easy money like that. Especially since burying the digger is going to require transporting its volume of earth off site.
posted by Mitheral at 7:27 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


Didn't Dick Cheney do something similar to the Naval Observatory when he lived there?

Cheney would've had the whole work crew buried under the basement when they were finished.
posted by Flashman at 7:59 PM on June 5 [1 favorite]


I have been involved in a number of these ‘subterranean extensions’ in Kensington and Chelsea at the planning stage and find the story... somewhat implausible.

The intention of these projects is to eek out extra volume and therefore extra value for the property and is only financially viable in the context of this borough’s property values. The controversy surrounding them means that the borough’s planning policy does not simply allow people to throw money at the challenge though – extensive structural engineer’s statements, soil reports, arboricultural statements and detailed method statements for the construction are required at the planning stage.

Looking at the plans for schemes I have done, there just isn’t ever the room to accommodate a buried digger in the scheme (or ‘hide’ one on the drawings the planners and your objecting neighbours will scrutinise) without compromising the intent of doing the work. As you can easy lose a metre from the site boundary on all sides in underpinning structure, the new accommodation actually tends to end up being quite poky – one lane swimming pools, gyms with two pieces of equipment etc.

Digging a simple trench in a London street may cost £1,000/m3 these days, so the excavation, structure (and lost-value) costs of just leaving something in a new basement would be huge – the 'digger space' could be, say, 10-15% of the excavation volume, but its removal costs would be far less than 10-15% of the property’s additional value.
posted by mml at 11:31 PM on June 5 [6 favorites]


I agree, as I'm living here in West London (not basement territory where I am however), and I find several items about the story implausible. For me, the key one is that he makes the lightest attempt to quantify how many cases he talks about, and supports this with one anecdotal guess of maybe 500, maybe 1000. I just don't believe there have been that many basement projects going to support that number of "left behind" diggers.

There are all sorts of unintended consequences related to underground water flow and subsidence with some of these basements, however. My sister in law in Kensington had a Russian bazillionaire build a new house across the street from here, he went 3 stories down (swimming pool, naturally), and now his neighbour wants to do the same, and water appears to be pooling against those structures and affecting the other houses
posted by C.A.S. at 1:07 AM on June 6


I just don't believe there have been that many basement projects going to support that number of "left behind" diggers.

Kensington - Over the past four years, this local authority alone has granted planning applications for more than 800 basement extensions, refused 90, and has a further 20 outstanding.

I wouldn't be surprised if there were some cases where leaving the diggers down the hole was cheaper and easier than extracting it. Whether or not that would add up to 500-1000 diggers I have no idea.
posted by asok at 2:16 AM on June 6


A fleet of diggers worth about £5m . . . How many? at least 1,000; more like 500 . . . why bother with the expense and hassle of retrieving a used digger – worth only £5,000 or £6,000 – from the back of a house that would soon be sold for several million?

I would like to challenge a couple of assuptions here.

Here's a site listing construction equipment for sale. I've filtered the list to show only mini excavators (<12000lbs), offered for sale in the UK, priced in GBP.

There were 167 matches, 134 that indicated a price.
# Items   Asking Price (in £)
10        0 to 6,000
41        6,001 to 10,000
32        10,001 to 15,000
13        15,001 to 20,000
 9        20,001 to 25,000
 1        25,001 to 30,000
 2        >30,000


Here are all of the items under £6k. Some are quite old and have a lot of hours on them. The newest machine listed under £6k was a 2008 with 780 hours on it, but it's out in Cheshire.

Here's the same list filtered to show only new equipment for sale. (If 500 to 1000 functioning machines are buried alive, their replacements must come from somewhere.)

Unfortunately, I was unable to ascertain a MSRP on any of these machines new, and no new machines of this type were listed for sale in the UK at all. Of 389 matches worldwide, 350 were disqualified either because they were duplicate listings, liars (a 2011 machine is not new, a machine with >100 hours is not new) or they weren't really for sale (if you put "CALL" as your price, you're not selling, you're fishing).

The asking price of the remaining 39 NEW mini excavators range from £13,391 to £45,274. All were located the US, save one item in Aus, but it seems unlikely that the prices of construction equipment in London would be significantly lower than anywhere in the US.

Conclusion
The author, or his informants, pulled the £5 - 6k price tag out of a dark place -- one most likely created by nature, not dug out a by Cat Compact excavator. This, combined with the lack of corroborative sources or photos, points to the entire story coming from that same dark place.
 
posted by Herodios at 9:23 AM on June 6


*dives down to dig deeper into Google*


feels tug of concrete shoes...
posted by infini at 10:09 AM on June 6


Discovers all the UK mefites tweeting and authoring refutations, pointedly.
posted by infini at 10:11 AM on June 6


That's fair. Post cheerfully withdrawn.
posted by Chrysostom at 1:27 PM on June 6


Having done manual labor as a youngster, I know if my boss told me "We're gonna have to bury this expensive piece of equipment." I would have approached the client and told them for an extra $1000, I'll remove this, no questions." then me and my buddies would have taken it apart, rebuilt it and started our own company. I mean really.
posted by evilDoug at 3:10 PM on June 6


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