The RTÉ Guide Interview
Room To Improve is a design series for the SSIA generation: if you can't afford to move on, why not add on? Donal O'Donoghue meets the show's presenter, architect Dermot Bannon, at his Dublin home.
Serried sunlight streams through the skylight. It illuminates the pages of Dermot Bannon's notebook - the markings of an architect - and the innards of his home. With the new six-part RTÉ design show, Room To Improve, the Dubliner gets to run the rule over home improvements. For these SSIA times the mantra could be 'don't move on, add on'. Bannon has first-hand experience of it.
We sit in the white space of his Drumcondra home. Through large double doors we look out on to a long garden: the room outside. Inside, on the walls and shelves, are photographs and paintings, including two drawings by Bannon. One is of his two-year-old daughter, Sarah, which he gave to his wife, Louise, as a Christmas present. The other is of a reclining nude. When they bought the house in 2005 it was, "an absolute kip". Today, after initial intensive renovation, including a 40-metre, flat-roofed extension, the house reflects his priorities of light, function and view.
Dermot Bannon is a youthful 35-year-old, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the RTÉ broadcaster Ryan Tubridy (he shakes his head; it is not the first time he has heard this). He works with Moloney O'Beirne Architects in Dun Laoghaire and is passionate about his profession. "I would quite happily read an architecture book in bed," he says. Last year, he co-presented the property show, House Hunters, with Liz O'Kane, after replying to an advert posted on the RAI website, followed by an interview and screen test. But that series about the property market is an entirely different animal to his latest opus. "House Hunters was just my opinion based on what I saw," he says. "Now I actually have to do everything from surveys to the final design. I would have to work closely with the clients, tweak the design, send the plans out to tender, find the builders, and oversee the on-site work right up to the snag list."
Architecture was always his first love (although he did once consider becoming a pilot). His mother, Mary, is a teacher and his father, Jim, who died suddenly about three weeks beforehand, was a horticulturalist. Occasionally, his father wanders into his conversation. Jim Bannon (honoured before the recent Dublin-Meath game at Croke Park where he worked as a chief steward) used to look after his son's garden, the professional offering advice and applying solutions. He also bought the shed at the end of the lawn - with its "Rastafarian colour scheme".
"I always loved buildings and spaces and making things," Dermot says and so in 1991 he enrolled at the Hull School of Architecture (he was one point shy of qualifying for Bolton Street but didn't want to wait another year). It was his first time living away from home in Malahide. In the middle of the academic course he took a year out to work with Dublin-based architect Ross Cahill-O'Brien. "He really opened my eyes." He learned about the grand masters, Corbusier and Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He realised the potential of the empty space, saw the world in three dimensions and the significance of detail in the jigsaw of design. "What makes a building a joy for me is that everything is right down to the smallest detail."
With Room To Improve, the devil can lurk in the detail. Projects include a couple who want to upgrade their limited extension into something brighter and more substantial, including a brand new kitchen (¤50,000). Other challenges include upgrading a basic holiday home to a full-time residence for ¤70,000 and making a home wheelchair-accessible for ¤40,000. As with many of these DIY TV shows, the sticky part was the budget. Occasionally, the first estimate became redundant, after the client revised plans and threw a few extras into the works.
"The problem is that people don't think about what they want to do," says Bannon. "They don't think through what they want their house to achieve. Some people think that for ¤40,000 they can slap a bit on to the end of the kitchen. They don't look at the whole house and how it might perform. You have to look at the whole house and examine everything from the front door to the back."
A sigh of frustration: hell can be people who now want a bigger fireplace, but don't factor it into their original budget. Hell can be people who just want him to draw exactly what they have in their head. "It can be difficult to say to people that their taste is crap," he says. But he enjoys winning over the clients. "When people say that they know what they want, in many cases they just want what they know. They can get stuck in that rut. So I ask them to allow me to help: I'm professionally trained to look at people's houses and tell them what can work best."
Dermot rails at the hacienda-style houses that litter the Irish countryside: monuments to ego over intellect. He makes the case for the architect, but tempers his argument. "I'm not a 'taste doctor', someone who comes in with sirens blaring to tell you that you are wrong," he says. "It's a profession and you should allow the professional the space to do it rather than dictate what you want. The fundamentals are wrong in a lot of cases with these houses that dot the countryside. Very few houses face into the light, very few houses face into their views and very few houses bear any relationship to their site. There is no sense of proportion."
When we leave, it is late morning. The long garden with the Rasta shed is lit up by sunshine. A few gardens along, a builder is laying blocks for what may be a garden shed or a mews. Bannon surveys his own allotment. He wonders whether he should plant some trees, but worries about losing the light. His late dad, who would visit armed with the latest fertilisers and guaranteed weed killers, would probably have some suggestions. Perhaps a eucalyptus or poplar? To the south, the hedgerows reflect the summer and there is a sense of optimism in the air. Everybody, it seems, is looking for room to improve.
Interview by Donal O'Donoghue