By Daniel Thomas
Buried beyond the wrought iron gates and tree-lined façades of mansions in fashionable locales of prime London lie the real gatekeepers of the ultra-wealthy: the guards hidden among the shadows; the microphones, pressure pads and sensor beams that criss-cross the gardens; and, deeper still, the concealed panels, panic rooms and vaults at the heart of the home that protect the true valuables, such as the spouse and children.
One of the appeals of London is its relative safety and financial stability but the influx of international buyers over the past two years, particularly from eastern Europe and the Middle East, has brought with it heightened security demands for some of the world’s most expensive properties, with a sharp rise in the use of ex-army bodyguards to sit alongside the high technology installed in walls and floors. Andrew Ellinas, director of independent property consultants Sandfords, says: “For very [wealthy] Russians, security has to be absolute and these clients may require bullet-proof glass, a house with two entrances and a bodyguards’ room with security cameras and monitors. One such house that we marketed had a lock-down top floor that in the event of a violent incursion could be shut off from the rest of the house. Such a set-up might cost £500,000 to adapt a house.” And that’s before staff costs. Fully secure panic rooms with independent air supplies come as standard in the world’s top residences. Technology has boosted security measures to Bond-movie levels, with gadgetry ranging from iris-recognition scanners to vehicle number-plate-recognition software.
Nick Candy, an interior designer and development manager – most recently of flats at One Hyde Park in Knightsbridge – says that recent projects include entire walls that slide in a variety of directions and angles to reveal secret vaults, panic rooms and hidden floor panels that reveal storage spaces. “We have created safes that are disguised as books and slide-away TVs that reveal Picasso paintings. We have also devised entire personalised entry systems that can sometimes include six levels of access. Not forgetting that sometimes the simplest of innovations can be the most effective and the most popular, for example artwork sensors,” he says.
Security is not the only consideration. Having the right brand and look has become important. And it matters where your security guards were trained. British army training carries the highest kudos. Camilla Dell, managing partner of Black Brick Property Solutions, says that there has been an increase in demand for security provisions among the wealthy for their homes. “As a result we are now working a lot more closely with security firms that we can introduce to our clients once we have sourced the property,” she says. “Their needs range from the basics – such as wanting a safe – through to much more complex security, such as surveillance.” London, in particular, has seen a rise in more visible deterrents for both the safety of the owners and their homes. Gated developments that boast underground or secure parking, electronic gates, surveillance cameras and security guards are in particular demand. One Hyde Park allows occupiers to park underground via a car lift, which means that they need never step outside the cosseted world of their luxury interiors.
Security advisers say that this minimises the risk of kidnapping. Dominic Grace, head of development at Savills, says: “Buyers of new-build developments get the bonus of tailoring the property to their specifications. For instance, they can choose where they want to put the safe, its size and shape and therefore where the reinforced floor will have to go.”
The Kenwood Place development in Hampstead is typical in offering state-of-the-art systems. While a digital visual intercom system operates electrical barriers and Maglock door latches, the intruder alarm linked to vibration detection devices and wireless movement detectors connect to a security terminal on the concierge’s desk. The escalating level of security can in part be traced to the typical buyers of such luxury accommodation over recent years. The market has been fuelled by the influx of buyers from eastern Europe, and in particular from Russia, where security concerns are real given the political and social upheaval. The other main group of buyers is from the Middle East. Dell says that many clients are from emerging-market countries where security is an issue, and they want to replicate measures even in major cities such as London where the risks are lower. This generally means some sort of bodyguard or chauffeur, and the UK has seen a remarkable rise in the use of such services in the past few years. The number of close-protection licences (an exam qualification recognised by the security industry) has risen three-fold in the past four years from 1,992 licences in June 2006 to 6,220 last month. London agent Gary Hersham has noticed a sharp increase in guards, particularly at the mansions along “Millionaires’ Row”, or Bishops Avenue in north London.
“I have noticed this security aspect much more frequently, particularly when the resident is from eastern Europe,” he says. He says that the majority of central London homes of more than 10,000sq ft have full security rooms that could monitor dozens of cameras, while some on Bishops Avenue and Eaton Square in Belgravia also have strongrooms and “safe haven rooms” generally well concealed behind a library bookcase or a dressing room cupboard. But the desire for security also relates to the nature of the tenure for many owners, for instance those who leave their homes empty for months, raising serious risks of burglary or even squatting should they not have people on site. It is perhaps not surprising that agents report high demand for security systems that allow owners to monitor CCTV from remote locations. One agent was even asked for a direct link-up to a yacht in the Caribbean. Heta Shah, partner of agency The Residence Collection, says: “High-end security systems are no longer an option but very much a must in prime and super-prime residences. Buyers at this level spend so much time away that they are increasingly requesting remote monitoring systems, via secure networks, to be in place.” Chris Hartley, director of Vigilance Properties, a security firm that employs ex-army guards, says house security is a growing part of the business. “We’re normally in there alongside alarms that are linked to the police. We work across west London, with homes ranging from £50m down to £5m, mainly to protect against squatters [who] have become more opportunistic and aggressive.” All owners of such properties have an interest in keeping valuables protected, of course. Trevor Abrahmsohn, a London estate agent, says that panic rooms and strong rooms to keep family heirlooms, paintings, silverware and the family jewellery now come as standard in most luxury homes. “It is becoming more and more important for homes at this level. If you don’t install such rooms and devices, then you will have a problem selling them.” He adds that some buyers of prime property want infra-red cameras both inside and outside the property, normally monitored by a security guard around the clock. Some gardens have patrol dogs, or dog noises triggered by sensor, while others are linked to a service where remote security guards greet any visitor through embedded microphones. If the required response is not provided, they call the police.
Such requirements are driven by a real fear of burglary as well as for personal safety, he adds. “The police coverage is deemed insufficient. It is not just ‘Mr Russian Oligarch’: ordinary wealthy folk also want a degree of added security.” It is not only a feature of city-centre homes. Philip Eddell, who manages Savills’ country house consultancy business, is often required to set up security audits, usually involving former special forces teams who will test every window, door and potential access point to expose weaknesses. Some owners want their homes to be swept for bugs, and there are more esoteric demands reflecting the sort of assets that can be stored at home, such as considerable collections of art or wine. That the homes of the wealthy are rarely homely is always an irony, but they are rarely without a great deal of security. Luxury comes at a cost, of course, but the price of security can be just as high.