Dermot Bannon is embarking on his biggest makeover to date — moving into his new home. He talks toabout his toughest clients yet: his kids
As one of the nation’s best-known architects, he has put his stamp and flair on hundreds of homes — and challenged many homeowners to unleash their imaginations on TVs Room To Improve. But Dermot Bannon’s most recent makeover is his most personal yet.
He and his young family are currently preparing to move into their new home in Drumcondra on Dublin’s northside and there are few more important ‘clients’ than your own kids, he agrees.
“We have three kids and we were living in a small house with two and a half bedrooms,” says Dermot, debunking the commonly held notion that as that architect off the telly, he must be living in a huge fancy house.
“It was fine, it was enough, it just got to the stage where we needed more space. I was looking at putting an extension on upstairs, and then a house in the locality came up that we loved. It had a great garden, a great aspect, a great view from the front windows. Everything. We worked it out and because it was run down, it wasn’t in great condition, we could afford it, afford to do a project on it.”
He agrees that working on your own home brings a different dynamic, because you’re creating for your own family’s future.
“I kind of knew what we needed. Our own house was great, but it was for the children and to give them more space. They’re at an age now that they’re bringing their friends back, you need space for that, for life to happen.
“I’m not a showy person, the house was very simple, it was open plan. It was a great house, it served us for years, I’m not one of these people who needs to show off through my house.
It’s been great designing the new house because I know every little eccentricity with all the children, with myself, and my wife.
“What I’m trying to do is design a house that will serve all of their needs but will grow with us. My own life experiences have taught me what a family house should be and I’m able to integrate all of that into it. We needed more storage because we’ve got about 100 hurls in the house, we’ve got gym bags and swimming bags.
"I’d like the house to be there for all of their passions and we can all be together.”
Bannon is genial, talkative and quick-witted — just like he is on TV — when we meet to discuss his collaboration with Vodafone Gigabit Broadband. Recent research estimates that by 2022, the family home will have an average of 500 interconnected devices covering areas like utilities and lighting, and powering everything from our music to electric shavers. But surprisingly, Bannon is rarely if ever asked about broadband capabilities at the design stage.
“Everything that happens in your house technology wise or gadgets wise is now going to be wireless. Ten years ago when I would have been designing a smart house, I would have been wiring up speakers into the ceiling.
“What’s happening in our house now is you’ve got iPads on the go, you’ve got a phone, you’ve got a laptop. You turn on the telly and everything starts to buffer. But nobody ever asks me: ‘What sort of broadband should I put into the house?’
Whether he’s working on a massive fixer-upper or a brand new build, Bannon’s ability to keep several plates spinning on a looming deadline, and challenging homeowners about what they think it is they want from their living space, has become compulsive viewing and a ratings smash for RTÉ.
Last year, the episode where he took on Daniel and Majella O’Donnell’s new home, amid some straight talking and spiralling budgets, was one of the series’ most successful ever.
“Sometimes when people do Room To Improve they start to focus a little bit on: ‘This is for telly’. It’s a big thing for them. Daniel and Majella have been in show business for a long time. They didn’t care about the cameras, so we got down to business from day one. Majella wears her heart on her sleeve which made her an amazing client.
"She was able to tell me what she wanted, there was no dilly dallying around it. She was able to tell me how a space made her feel and I was able to respond to that. Sometimes that can take a couple of meetings or a lot of digging to get to there with a client.”
While he realises the conflicts that sometimes emerge on the show make for great TV, he feels it is his role to push homeowners to think beyond their boundaries.
“I’m pushing a boulder up a hill slightly in this country where most people still think an architect, or design, is for the elite. My thing is, design is for everybody, if it’s a tiny project or a big project.
"Architecture matters. I wouldn’t be doing my job properly if I didn’t challenge people in how they live. For a house that revolves around your needs you have to get to understand the person. That’s what design brings, it makes a house completely for you. It completely nourishes your life. Sometimes you have to challenge people to get them to do that. I’ve designed nearly 300 houses in my career at this stage. It’s not an ego thing for me.
I don’t need to win. I just want to give it my best shot, if you can just listen to me, if you can just trust me.”
For Bannon, growing up in Malahide in Co Dublin, architecture was never about building a skyscraper, and as a young boy, he would play with Lego, obviously, and observe how people lived.
“Malahide was like a mini city because it had everything, it was quite self-sustaining. It was away from Dublin city, you had libraries, you had shops. It was a small little ecosystem.
A lot of people think architects are obsessed with the big glory buildings, looking at the skyscrapers. We’re not. I am obsessed with how we live in cities and in the in-between spaces. When I was eight we moved to Cairo, a huge big metropolis.
"So I was thrown into this massive big city. It was that mashing up of influences. It generated that interest, seeing the streetlife, people cooking on the side of streets. Selling things — everything happened on the streets. I just became obsessed with watching people and how people lived. I’m just as interested in the steps that lead down from a Georgian building to the footpath, as I am about the building itself.
"It’s the in-between spaces and that’s where my love of architecture and of people is. I’m constantly watching, not just in buildings, how people are in different spaces.”
Regular viewers of Room To Improve will also be aware of Bannon’s love of natural light. It was a passion honed in college as he studied and did his thesis on the revered Swiss architect Luigi Snozzi, who mantra is “but above all, light”.
“We’re phototropic creatures. We all feel better, you know those months when the sun starts to come out and you can take off the jumper and you can go outside?
"So why not have that in your home, that stream of light that comes in and makes us all feel better. It will lift your spirits in the house. It will make the house feel bigger, it’ll make the house feel brighter. There’s nothing nicer than a curtain pulled back and a chair pulled up to a window in the summer.
You watch in a house — people tend to gravitate towards the room that is warmer and the room that is sunniest, and that’s where they’ll tend to sit.
It doesn’t always have to be about brightness — one of Bannon’s favourite things to do on a Friday evening in his former house was light a fire in one of the small and cosy rooms.
He believes we live more casually now than past generations. “We don’t really live like we used to. People live in the kitchen — the kitchen has become the heart of the home. It’s where everyone meets up, it’s where friends go.
“How we live in houses is a lot less formal. Everyone needs a room to escape to, everyone needs a room to work in, but they’ve become more like dens. The big social space now is shouting distance to the kitchen, because people spend all of their time in the kitchen. The key to architecture is to help create a variety of spaces.”