Dermot Bannon is a hard man to interview. Not because he's surly or circumspect: far from it. Anyone who has seen even five minutes of his RTÉ show Room To Improve knows that affability runs through him like writing in a stick of Brighton Rock. Rather, the "starchitect" is a hard man to pin down, and no wonder. The 12th series of the televisual behemoth is currently in production, and after a bumper year, demand for his private services as an architect is running at an all-time high. He's also in the process of selling his Drumcondra family home and buying another.
And, on the morning we find a valuable pocket of time to talk, there’s Daddy duty: specifically, his children’s sports matches.
We're talking about his role as ambassador of the 14th annual RIAI Simon Open Door initiative. In exchange for a €90 donation, homeowners with an eye on building or renovating can secure an hour-long consultation with a local certified RIAI architect. Last year's initiative – involving 191 architects in 1,350 consultations (Bannon included) – raised €124,000 in support of the Simon Communities.
Clients can expect general advice on design, architects’ fees, building costs, materials, planning requirements and the documents required for planning, tenders and building contracts.
“I’ve helped people design extensions – some are at a very early stage and don’t know what to do, but we work to get a brief together,” he explains. “Other people come with minor problems, like where to put a new kitchen or utilities. In some cases, I’ve done a house design in an hour – any and all queries are relevant.”
Thanks in part to Room To Improve, the Irish are warming to the idea of hiring architects as part of renovation or building projects.
“I think before it was seen as a bit elitist, or people might say, ‘I’ll use one when I win the Lotto’,” he observes. “There’s been a sense that architects charge a fee, and people can get the plans really cheap from a builder or just use someone’s existing plans.
I've heard so many people say, 'I love to cook, I love to entertain', and then when they leave the room the partner says 'they don't cook at all. It's all in their head'
“When I was in the early stage of my career, no-one wanted to know about architecture. I might as well have been a rocket scientist. Now people are coming up to me in the street and talking about it. It’s absolute music to my ears.”
Those who come prepared to the RIAI Simon Open Door initiative, says Bannon, can expect to really make the most out of that hour.
“First of all, bring loads of photos, especially on a smartphone which makes it easy to scroll through,” he suggests. “There’s no harm in having about 50 of them. Take pictures not just of the rooms, but of the views, too. If you’re building a one-off house, take loads of pictures of the site, as [architects] like to know where the wind is coming from.
“If you have a set of house plans, site plans, site location maps or even the brochure for the house, that’s perfect,” he adds. “If all else fails, put some squares down on a piece of paper. Find out where south is. Everyone with a phone can do this. If you’re worried about not getting it right, stand in the garden and take note of which way you’re facing.”
Once the basics are taken care of, an architect will likely ask a homeowner to describe – honestly – the kind of life they live.
“For people who go surfing, for example, I’ve seen many a garden ruined by wetsuits, so in this case a wet-room might be appropriate,” offers Bannon. “If you play football, do you wash the kit? Is it your dream to have a grand piano? Do you want a home office? It’s really worth thinking about the things you need, not the things everyone else wants. And it helps to embrace your own eccentricities. If you meditate every day, you could have a two-metre by two-metre meditation room, say, where your spare room’s en-suite bathroom is, which is probably in use two nights a year.”
Tempting though it is to put one’s best foot forward in a consultation, honesty really will help a client get real bang for their buck.
“I’ve heard so many people say, ‘I love to cook, I love to entertain’, and then when they leave the room the partner says ‘they don’t cook at all. It’s all in their head’,” laughs Bannon. “Don’t design your house around the idea of having a gang of people over, if it happens twice a year.
“You need to ask yourself, ‘what do I want these rooms to do in 10 or 15 years?’” he adds. “We [he and wife Louise] are doing this ourselves, where we’re looking at our life and what the kids do. I’ve three at different ages [Sarah, 13, James, 9 and Tom, 5]. The five-year-old won’t be doing the same things he’s doing now in five years’ time.”
The age-old idea of good rooms and guest rooms that are barely in use is a nostalgia that’s slowly ebbing away, says Bannon.
“There’s something lovely about a good dining room, but only if you have a big house. Maybe you’ll only use that room five nights of the year, whereas families spend 80-90 per cent of their time in the kitchen.”
Being aware of a potential budget also helps: “I hear people say ‘we heard the neighbour got their house done for 50 grand’, but that was 15 years ago when rates were different. The local builder might say it’s 60 grand and that figure gets stuck in their heads,” says Bannon. “But you do have to make the budget and the project meet.”
Now that series 12 of Room To Improve is underway, Bannon admits he is now in his favourite stage of the entire process.
“I’m designing houses until 1am and I’m happy out,” he enthuses. “I love when things are quieter. I don’t love watching myself on TV and I’m slightly uncomfortable with the attention.”
Most TV stars would give their agent’s right leg to enjoy the banter and the tweets that Bannon’s show creates on Sunday nights.
“I think most people would love it until they’re in that situation,” he laughs. “I’m incredibly flattered, and the people who make Twitter memes are amazing. I love that people come up to me to talk about design, but underneath it all we’re just doing a regular job. There’s a science to it, there’s ‘no hand of God’ bit. If I paid attention to any of it I’d be like, ‘out of the way God, that’s my seat!’
"But there are thousands of architects in Ireland, and being the one that's being pushed forward a bit, I find it slightly difficult."
Many argue that it was the moment where the normally mild-mannered singer Daniel O'Donnell blew a gasket at an unforeseen budget surge that saw Room To Improve cross the Rubicon from just another lifestyle show to "event" TV.
“Daniel and Majella approached us, and I took it with a pinch of salt,” admits Bannon. “I wasn’t interested in a ‘celebrity’ project unless it was a real [design] project. In many ways they were no different to any other couple on the series.”
Referring to O’Donnell’s meme-worthy reaction to his budget spike, Bannon adds: “I’ve gone through that moment with loads of other clients. I just think it was because it was Daniel going through that. It was €300,000 of his own money, and for a moment he let his guard slip and it was his real reaction.”
Though they're doubtless aware they've hit on a winning formula, will Room To Improve's producers be keen to enlist celebrities and other "big" personalities for the coming season? Not likely.
“The thing about this is that not one of these people are doing this just to be on TV – they’re regular Irish people in regular Irish homes,” Bannon notes. “Take it from me, no-one is coughing up €250,000 of their hard-earned cash on a renovation just to get famous.”
For more information on the RIAI Simon Open Door Initiative, which runs rom Monday, May 14th –Sunday, May 20th, see simonopendoor.ie.