Dermot Bannon has invited cameras in to follow his own journey towards an ideal home — but will it be a dream or a nightmare?
He talks terrazzo floors, toothbrush holders, and Twitter with Marjorie Brennan.
It’s almost midday and Dermot Bannon is hiding out in a bedroom — he’s frazzled, hungry, and taking refuge from a horde of assorted builders and tradespeople clamouring for his attention.
“The house is like a building site, I have everyone screaming at me for answers to things — I’m just going from person to person while they’re doing all the work… we have no running water, I haven’t eaten yet, and Diarmuid Gavin is out in the garden, wandering around like a headless chicken.”
The architect has been a fixture on Irish television screens for more than 12 years now, shepherding homeowners through the often fraught process of achieving their dream home on Room to Improve, one of the highest-rated shows on RTÉ.
The project he is working on today, however, is extra-special. Because now the tables have been turned and the spotlight is on Bannon’s new home — the transformation of which is the subject of a special two-part Room to Improve.
The project is in the final stretch as we speak, and Bannon and the rest of the team are preparing for the shooting of the ‘big reveal’ scenes.
Viewers of Room to Improve who are familiar with Bannon’s taste for bright, airy spaces and his exacting standards will probably be surprised to hear that it has taken him until now to realise his own plans for the ultimate family home.
However, it turns out he is reassuringly normal in this regard.
“I was kind of lethargic when it came to my own house. I did it every day for a living, I didn’t care.
"But then I realised I had been saying ‘some day’ for the last seven years, and it was never going to happen.”
Bannon, his wife Louise, and three children lived in Drumcondra, a location they already loved and when the opportunity arose to buy another house in the area on a perfect site, they took it.
“We weren’t looking for a house. We’ve lived in the area for 20 years and houses on this road never come up for sale.
"It’s a very special road — the views out the front are stunning because you’re overlooking the park and the church. And the views at the back — the gardens are just massive so you’re not overlooked.
"The house had all the original features still attached, old fireplaces, all of that. So when the house came up for sale, Louise and myself said, ‘will we see if we can afford it?’
"So we did our sums on a scrap of paper, which turned out to be a load of nonsense. It was more of a sales pitch to Louise.
"We just kept bidding and before we knew it, it was ours and then it was kind of ‘holy shit’,” he laughs.
It may be low blood sugar from the lack of food, but when Bannon talks about the house, he is as giddy as a small child on Christmas Eve.
“The countertops are going in today, they are amazing. I’m looking down at the floor, which I agonised over for a good month but it is just stunning.
"So everything I look at brings me a little bit of joy because I know I’ve thought about it, I’ve considered it, I’ve drawn it, I’ve got samples, I’ve tested it in rooms.
"I can see them bringing in the countertop now, there were four or five visits up to see the piece of stone and now it is going in, it looks amazing.
"I’ve got the most amazing terrazzo floor which we were able to make up our own recipe for and the kids were able to collect stones from our favourite beach and throw them into the floor, so it’s there forever.
"I agonised for two months over the door handles, that’s how bad I got.”
Bannon has visited some of the world’s most stunning houses in his other RTÉ show Incredible Homes, but for him, luxury is finally having an en suite bathroom with a walk-in shower.
“We only ever had one bathroom — I’ve never had an en suite in my life. I never had a shower screen before, I’ve always had a bath with a shower curtain.
"It’s great to be able to just open a door and get into a shower. When we bought our first house, it had one tiny bathroom, I remember when the kids were small, only one of us could be with them at a time because two of us wouldn’t fit.”
Apart from a brief cameo by his children, Bannon’s family won’t be appearing in the programme.
“My wife Louise is incredibly private, always has been — she wouldn’t go to things like The Late Late Show with me, in case the cameras would pan around to her, that is just the way she is.”
However, she and the rest of the family have had an input into the design and renovation process, although Bannon’s self-confessed control freak tendencies meant he insisted on signing off on most of the elements.
“Louise has got pretty good taste and I trust her but because we’re filming this, I asked her to run everything by me.
Bannon does a good line in self-deprecation and evident throughout our chat is his wry sense of humour, something he acknowledges may not always come across on screen.
“The show makes me out to be a bit serious. I’m more fun than people think — that sounds desperate, ‘I’m a fun guy’,” he laughs.
The ability to laugh at himself comes in useful on the social media platform Twitter, where Room to Improve has assumed a whole parallel existence, with fans and non-fans alike live-tweeting through the show and making their feelings known about the featured homeowners — and Bannon.
“Room to Improve on Twitter is another show in itself. I’m dreading it now because all of the comments are going to be about me,” he says.
That won’t stop him having a scroll through the comments when the show is on, he says.
“Bring it on. Sometimes people say something and you might think ‘that’s a bit cruel.’
"But I imagine myself in the pub, having a bit of banter with my friends, and I put the tweet into that context and would I think it was funny, and if I laugh, then I like it or retweet it — you have to take it in the spirit that is meant.
"I know there are some trolls out there but generally people are just having a bit of a craic.”
Bannon also doesn’t get worked up about criticism of the show.
Last season there was much discussion on social media and elsewhere that budgets were too high and the show was out of touch in a society where house ownership is beyond the reach of an increasing number of people.
"For me, Room to Improve is just an extension of my day job so if somebody comes to me with a budget of half a million and they want to create an amazing home, am I wrong to do that?
"I know lots of people can’t relate to that but does that make it unwatchable? A lot of the houses we’ve been doing up the last few years, they’re wrecks of houses that we are retro-fitting.
"We never show any of that. I’m not going to go into a house and say ‘I’m only going to do two rooms for you because that’s all your budget will allow and that is all people will find relatable’.
"If I am doing a job on your house, I’m doing it properly. You’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”
There are unlikely to be any negative comments about the return to the show of fan favourite Patricia Power, the no-nonsense quantity surveyor and foil to Bannon’s ever-increasing budgets.
“She has dug me out of I don’t know how many holes in this. She has been amazing.
"I well up when I think about it because it’s only when you’re pinned to your collar that you realise who your friends are.”
As for being a celebrity architect, Bannon says the day job will always come first.
“I don’t consider myself a presenter — I never have. The celebrity thing is kind of weird.
"I’ve seen it with other celebrities, people might look and point but people don’t do that to me, they come up to me, and they start chatting about their house.
"We have a very normal life — we don’t go to anything. I sometimes feel it’s all wasted on me a little bit because you could get somebody much younger who’d love to be in town hanging out of the chandeliers in nightclubs.”
For now, Bannon is more interested in hanging out the washing in his new utility room.
“I have a massive utility room. I’m obsessed with washing and ironing.
"You know the way people do meditation and all that, just do a bit of ironing instead.”
Room To Improve, RTÉ 1,January 5.