Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would find myself being consoled by Dermot Bannon about the restrictions imposed by our Government during a global pandemic, but it is 2020, and if we’ve learned anything this year, it is to expect the unexpected.
We caught up over the phone two weeks ago, when Dublin was at level-three and Cork looked to be heading that way. “Level-three is grand, Ciara,” he assures me cheerily.
“But I feel sorry for the businesses, I feel sorry for the restaurants. They are struggling as it is and they are trying to do their best. I wish someone would just put an end date on all of this and it would all be grand.”
The lockdown back in spring wasn’t too bad for our favourite architect, all things considered. He had just started to film the next season of Incredible Homes and was back from Canada and preparing to travel to Spain when the world came to a screeching halt.
Spain announced severe restrictions the day before the team were due to fly out, forcing them to put their plans on hold. “Jesus, imagine if we were over there?” he says. “We would have been stuck there and had to get on one of those repatriation flights where they have to come and rescue you.”
Cosy in his new house in Clontarf, Dermot and his family embraced the notion of Hygge.
“We cooked and got takeaways from our favourite restaurants, and we were fine doing that,” he explains. “There was an incredible novelty back in the beginning, with this sense of freedom almost, ‘oh thank God, we don’t have to go into the office’, kind of thing. I used to get so busy I’d wish that everything could just be put on pause for a week. Then it happened and it was very strange and I won’t say that part of me didn’t enjoy it. It was lovely having someone else telling us that we had to stop, there was no choice.”
With a fine garden and the sea a short walk away, the Bannon family settled into the spring and summer, embracing the outdoors with barbecues and firepits.
The Incredible Homes team decided to pivot their focus of the season, focusing the remainder of their production time on Ireland and the incredible houses across the island.
Of course, this meant something else: armed with a special letter from RTÉ, Dermot could gallivant around the country during lockdown.
“I didn’t know whether to Instagram as I went because we were up in Donegal filming while the rest of Dublin was in lockdown,” he says. “I was allowed to travel because it was for work, but I felt like it would have been weird to be posting pictures of me travelling around.”
And you would have been savaged on social media too, I suggest. “Well, you’re always going to get that, aren’t you,” he replies.
Dermot had one request when it came to the Irish houses that were featured in the series. They had to be able to teach him something.
“You could go to an amazing house on the side of a cliff with a lovely view, and a big balcony looking out over the sea. That would have looked incredible and would have been really nice, but would I and the audience have learned something from it that they didn’t ready know?”
Whereas in the first season of Incredible Homes, Dermot was teaching us as much about the country as he was its houses, an Irish focus had to take a different approach.
“When I went to Sweden, the houses were built around the fact that during winter these houses are in darkness from two o’clock onwards and they don’t really get any light until 11, so how do you design for extreme darkness and long winters? When we were in Australia, it was all about the humidity and the heat — each country has its own weather and culture to live with. In Ireland, everybody already knows. There was no point in saying ‘oh my God, it gets really wet here and very damp’ - everybody knows that already.”
This season will teach us all to appreciate the scope of a house and its capabilities, says Dermot. “Some of the houses are divisive, but I’m hoping that in the instances where maybe you don’t like some of the houses in the beginning, you’ll grow to understand it by the end and see all the merits.”
When it comes to his favourite house, Bannon is anything but coy. “I am going to pick one, I’m not going to be a politician on this one. One house that I was desperate to get into for the last 10 years was designed by a hero of mine called Níall McLaughlin in Goleen in Cork, which was built in 2009. It is just stunning.”
Pre-Covid, almost every time Dermot Bannon got on a train, he was approached by someone who would painstakingly draw out the plan that they had in their head for their own house — often on a paper napkin — and then implore him for advice. Given that it has clearly been a while since a Bannon Clinic has been open for business, I decide to ask him to solve what seem to me to be the architectural issues of the nation.
Now that we all own a full toolkit that we bought on Amazon during lockdown, is DIY going to usurp banana bread during the winter? “Look, I’m not going to tell you that it’s ok for someone to start knocking down walls in their houses, ok?” he laughs. “Most construction accidents happen in people’s houses when they don’t know how to do the jobs properly, so no — do not start doing that.”
How do we un-open-plan our houses now that we all work from home? Can we erect moveable walls with ease, I wonder? Can we buy them at Ikea? “We used to do it before in the 1970s because there were no restaurants to go to,” he says. “Everything happened in the house. Back then we had the Good Rooms — the dining room and the Good Sitting Room, so you had places for people to go on a Friday night that felt different to the rest of the week. You had spaces that were used for special occasions.”
Our houses, reckons Dermot, have to start to become chameleons. “We need our houses to be more multifunctional,” he explains. “We need big spaces so we can set out work. It also needs to be a cosy intimate space. It’s really hard for people to recharge their batteries in the same space that took all the charge out in the first place. If you’re working at the table, it’s going to be very difficult to sit at that same space and have a relaxing meal, for example.”
Lighting is the best way around this, he suggests. “It’s a bit like being in a theatre where there’s a play where they bring up lights on one part of the stage and then drop them and bring up lights on another part, and it seems as though you are watching multiple stages but you are only looking at one. Our houses will need to become a little bit like that.”
His own new house, which we all know very well because we watched him renovating it on the telly, is not open plan, but rather, broken plan. “We did an L-shaped kitchen and sitting room. So when you’re in the living room you don’t feel like you’re in the kitchen, but you are. If we turn off all the lights in the kitchen and dining space and just have low lighting in the living room with the fire on, it shrinks to just that space.”
As a man who works on projects that may take a year or more, Dermot Bannon is trying to take the spectre of Covid-19 in his stride, but even he cracks sometimes. “The hard bit is not knowing when it’s going to end. What are we going to do at Christmas? That’s the kind of time that you might meet up with friends, to go for dinner or go to the pub… not knowing when all of this is going to end is what I’m struggling with at the moment.”
With a winter of broken planning and transforming our homes into cosy places to nest ahead, the brightest glimmer on the horizon is that Sunday nights are going to be the way all Sunday nights should be from tonight onwards, because Dermot Bannon will be back on our screens.
- Dermot Bannon’s Incredible Homes airs on Sunday, October 18 at 9.30pm on RTÉ One and on RTÉ Player.