Ever wondered what it’s like to be on Room to Improve? As the series returns, Vickie Maye takes a deep breath – and hands her house plans over to Dermot Bannon.
It’s a strange feeling handing your house plans over to Dermot Bannon. First, you feel as though you are betraying your own architect. Second, that minute or so when he pauses, starting to talk, and then stopping — as though searching for the right words, a polite way to make a suggestion that could see your drawings ripped to shreds — you feel your heart start to sink.
This is your future home he’s critiquing. And suddenly you have an insight into how those case studies feel on Room To Improve (thankfully without the cameras moving in for a close up).
Instantly though, Dermot ‘gets’ it. He’s intuitive, able to instantly read a room. He puts me at ease, tells me he knows just what I’m feeling, naming the emotion I haven’t even realised I’m feeling: vulnerability.
He sent the plans for his own new home — set to be the focus of a new RTÉ documentary in January — to another architect for a second opinion, he explains. There were sweeping suggestions, many of which he took on board. It wasn’t an easy experience, he admits, to have the shoe on the other foot.
Dermot is all about the detail, right down to the tree he recommends for my garden. When we meet, it’s just before his Late Late Show appearance (“I’m bricking it,” be says of the prime-time, live slot), and it’s the weekend series 12 of Room to Improve goes to air. Yet he’s rushing off to buy door handles for a house on episode three. And no, that isn’t something he just does for TV, he insists, it’s just part of the service.
If you aren’t lucky enough to be one of the six couples — out of 400 or so applications — chosen for the RTÉ show (his services are provided free of charge), there’s also the option of visiting his practice in Clontarf. His team of 10 is kept busy, he says, but there is no waiting list.
(People, he maintains, wrongly assume he is too full for new clients.) His role as an architect, he says, is to follow a family’s footprint, examine how they live — where they like to read a paper for example, or if football and swimming gear need to be stored after matches or galas. It’s his job to dig deep and examine the minutiae — so he can build a beautiful, yet practical home for a family.
“When we first meet clients tell me the Facebook version of themselves,” he laughs, “like, ‘we like to entertain’. And then you realise that’s twice a year — Christmas and Easter. I paint a picture of them so that when I’m designing I’m like, ‘no she’d be way to OCD for that, or whatever’.” The level of detail explained, suddenly that personal hunt for the right door handles, the perfect rug, makes sense.
Bannon is a perfectionist, who famously won’t take no for an answer when it comes to his house designs — his passion for the job, and his weekly meltdown as families eventually object to an aspect of his plans, are legendary, and the stuff of Twitter gold. (More on social media later.)
Thankfully, he’s a really nice guy too — there’s no TV persona. What you see on the telly on a Sunday night is just what you get in reality too.
“I’ve never been in to the ta-dah,” he says.
Charming and chatty, utterly down to earth, Bannon is no aloof, creative type. He hates the word ‘talent’, keeps his kids away from the limelight (his 14 year old is the only one that tunes in to the show — his two younger kids opted to watch 50 Ways to Kill Your Mammy rather than their dad’s efforts on a recent Aer Lingus flight).
Louise [his wife] said it at the beginning, this was my job, not theirs’. And she was right.
There are perks though, it means he can bring his eldest to Donnybrook this evening to meet Love Island’s Maura, a fellow guest on The Late Late. But he is determined they will not grow up to be ‘Dermot Bannon’s children’ — any egos can be left at the door.
And he lives by example. He’s late for our meeting, only by ten minutes, and he apologies as though it’s ten hours. And anyway, he has a good excuse.
The production team rang him at the last minute this morning. Desperate to wrap up episode three, they needed him to wear a particular outfit for continuity. He turned down the option of a courier going to his home, instead, straight from an interview at Today FM, he ran down to M&S to try to match up the shirt and coat.
He was delayed further when a woman stopped him for a chat. It happens all the time, he says, and it’s lovely. The people are lovely. Two minutes into the conversation and Bannon is, you realise, the nicest guy working in TV. He never chased the celebrity life, it doesn’t sit comfortably with him, he says.
When he saw an ad for a co presenter on an RTÉ series, House Hunters, on the RIAI website, he picked up the phone and applied from the boardroom of the architects’ firm he was then working at. (He went out on his own in 2008, the day Lehman Brothers collapsed.) A couple of years later, he had his own RTÉ show, Room to Improve.
Donnybrook wasn’t sure at first if he could hold the programme himself — they toyed with the idea of psychologists to support the presenter with his on-air home transformations. In the end they let him go it alone, and in a matter of years the half-hour, midweek show moved to an hour-long, prime-time Sunday night slot.
Now a household name, Bannon had the viewing power to command a show that saw him travel the world for RTÉ last season, visiting some of the world’s best houses.
He’s worked hard to reach that level though. Right now, in the final weeks of edits, he’s working flat out, seven days a week. They can’t dictate the schedule on someone’s home, after all. Delays are common and so the production team can find themselves wrapping up a home with just days to the air date. People want to see a finished product, Dermot says. They expect it now.
It’s a year round filming schedule, but it’s work he’d be doing with a client anyway, he says. The ante is just upped as it comes close to deadline. As soon as this series wraps, there’ll be a short break before the search begins for the next set of house renovators.
Dermot seeks the perfect house to transform, the production team focuses on the people and their story. He has no role in the editing process and insists there is no nudge by RTÉ to create tension or drama. It happens anyway, he says — this is, after all, someone building their home.
He gets to watch the final version and while he’d rather not watch himself, he does admit to tuning in on a Sunday night — only so he can soak up the Twitter coverage. “The way I handle the comments, I think how would I react if someone said that to me in a pub. And if they said the togs were a bit too tight there Dermot, you know what, they probably were,” he says laughing.
He pulls out his phone and shows me photos of his new build. High vaulted ceilings, clean open spaces, yet with a snug, cosy effect, it’s perfection. He hands me back my plans, and I see they are decorated now with sketches — a tree here, lighting there, a table placement adjusted. And I realise that yes, there was room for just a little improvement.