When a Mayfair client wanted an invisible lift to take his car down to underground parking beneath his house, nothing less than a magic carpet ride would do, whatever the cost
When Scott Fitzgerald said, 'the very rich are different from you and me', he was probably thinking of a lifestyle not dissimilar to that enjoyed by the inhabitants of a house created in Brick Street, Mayfair, from the former coaching stables of the Marquis of Londonderry.
The big difference when you are really rich is that if you want something, you can have it. It will take two years to dig out the basement? No problem. You want a car lift that is virtually invisible? Of course. With money almost no object, a solution to any problem can be found.
Thorp Design - the architect and designer for the entire transformation of the Brick Street building - had the car lift as a relatively small but certainly significant part of its work. The house is set around a courtyard, and the owner wanted to be able to drive in and drop down to its underground parking.
Easy? Well, no.
James Thorp of Thorp Design explains:
'We couldn't do a ramp because that would have spoilt the courtyard.' Not only would the owner have objected, but, since the building is Grade II listed, so would English Heritage. A car lift was the 'obvious' solution, but not an easy one. 'Most car lifts work on the basis of a box, ' says Thorp. In this case, though, there would not have been enough headroom, and, anyway, a box would have been ugly.
Pleasure ride What the client wanted, says Thorp, was 'a sort of magic carpet ride'. He just wanted to drive in, drop down a level and park, without anything clunky or aesthetically unappealing. But behind this simplicity was a great deal of complexity.
'When you look at what can potentially go wrong, it's a nightmare, ' adds Thorp.
'What if the platform isn't there? What if you aren't in the right place?'
To cope with this, the doors from the street to the courtyard will not open unless the lift is at ground floor level. A series of infrared sensors were built into a railing to ensure the car is in the right place. Before the car descends, a barrier comes up 1.2m on every side to enclose the lift. The car then travels down 4.5m (in a lit enclosure, naturally - everything must be as pleasurable as possible). At the bottom, basement doors open and you can drive straight into the underground garage. Then the lift returns automatically to ground level.
The architect chose a scissor lift, with a false platform to accommodate a slope in the courtyard. 'We wanted speed, ' says Thorp. 'The whole sequence takes only 40 seconds.' And guess what? Nobody wanted to make it. 'We went to all the normal lift companies, ' he explains, 'and they all said, forget it.' Eventually, he found a manufacturer of lifts for aircraft carriers.
The mechanism itself is relatively simple and well tried. While the manufacturer ensured functionality, Thorp dealt with the aesthetics. 'The only problems we had were at the commissioning stage - to get all the systems to work together, ' says Thorp. For example, it is possible to order the lift up or down from anywhere in the house.
Thorp reckons the lift itself cost around £100,000, and that with all the ancillary work this price was at least doubled. He enjoyed exercising his ingenuity, but does not believe he has blazed a trail. 'I can't see somebody doing a commercial development wanting to use this approach. Its cost is prohibitive.' Nor was it entirely necessary in this case. 'There's a perfectly good underground car park opposite, ' he adds. The very rich most certainly are different.