Do a ‘brain dump’: Dermot Bannon on how to work with an architect

In Open Door, architects offer hour-long consultations in return for charity donations

"An open mind," says architect and TV presenter Dermot Bannon, when asked what members of the public should bring to next month's Open Door event. Now in its 18th year the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland's fundraiser for the Simon Communities enables people thinking about building or renovating their home to have an hour-long consultation with an RIAI-registered architect who gives freely of their time.

Each meeting costs €95 and all proceeds go to the Simon Communities’ work with people already experiencing or at risk of homelessness and who need housing and treatment services. During the pandemic the number of single homeless adults increased by 7 per cent, says Jennifer Kitson of Simon.

Open Door is a nationwide event with architects participating from Kerry to Kildare and from Westmeath to Waterford, via a good number of Dublin firms, some of them more usually known for large developments. It is a good idea to meet someone who practises in your area, as they will know the geography and the planning background. They might even know your property, says Bannon who has been involved with the project since it began: perhaps they have moved back to the locality after a stint elsewhere and have a deeper connection to it.

You do not have to own a property to have a consultation; if you are hoping to buy a particular type of house and would like to see how to make it work for you, or you have moved to a town or village and are considering a living-over-the-shop project, then a consultation may help you.

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Once you register on the website you can see all the participating architects and can search by location, practice name or date; those whose slots are all taken appear at the end of the list. Have a look at the practice website to get a feel for their style, scale and suitability and remember that meeting a particular architect at Open Door does not commit either side to progressing with a project.

Meeting in person

The pandemic moved the event online and some architects are offering this option again, but Bannon advocates for meeting in person, if possible, saying “there’s nothing like sitting with a sketch to get an impression of people”.

An architect will help you tease out why you want to do a project, identify the root of the problem with your house and help you work out how to solve it. Perhaps you would love to open up two rooms but fear demolishing the chimneybreast in a dividing wall. Maybe your house faces away from a magnificent view of the sea.

Describing himself, with a gracious laugh, as a “method architect”, Bannon says he likes clients to do a “brain dump” description of their lifestyle: for example, some people say they would like a big kitchen for entertaining but during conversation it emerges “they never cook for their guests; in which case, they need a smaller kitchen and a bigger dining area”. Others de-stress by cooking all weekend, “so they need a big kitchen and a pantry to store 25 tins of tomatoes”.

And, as with many types of consultation, it is often what people do not think of saying that tells him the most. Picture, for example, the couple who surf all weekend and dry their wetsuits on the garden furniture: “Ask them if they’d like a hanging rail off the utility room, and their eyes light up.” Verbalise your problems, says Bannon: “I’m trained to turn your words into a design ... and design doesn’t have to cost a fortune.”

Design is not so much about adding more space to fill with more stuff, but about clever use of light and colour, choosing the correct windows, putting a good roof light in the right place.

When asked who he would choose to consult for his €95, Bannon recalls an eye-opening visit to Cambridge as part of the Room to Improve TV programme about his own renovation. There he met award-winning architect Niall McLaughlin, who critiqued his plans and spoke about light – the key element of any design, says Bannon. This anecdote underlines the importance of the client-architect relationship, with candid conversations necessary to achieve a better outcome: “I know how overwhelming a project can be,” he says.

Sustainability

In the early years of Open Door Bannon says people were looking for walk-in wardrobes and kitchen extensions. Now, with a lot of people still spending much of their time at home, he expects many will want to make their existing space work better for them.

Most important, he says, is the push for sustainability, whether that means buying and refitting a not-great bungalow instead of building a one-off house, or retrofitting your home to hold on to the heat you have. We have got to do something now, he says, and become less – or not at all – reliant on fossil fuels. Top of his list is insulation, followed by roofing, flooring and windows: architects at Open Door can advise about all of this as well as on technical solutions such as solar and PV panels, heat pumps and passive building.

What to bring

Many of the participating architects will have checklists and forms on their website but in general it is helpful to take photographs of your home, and print some out so the architect can sketch ideas on them. If there are good views from particular windows, photograph those too.

Make a note of your Eircode; this will ensure the architect can locate the property with Google Earth and get an idea of your setting and surroundings, as well as the orientation so they can help maximise the natural light.

Take measurements and, if you can, draw a rough floor plan on squared paper. If you can find the sales agent’s brochure for your property or housing estate, it will have floor plans and site layouts.

Do not get hung up on mood boards, cutting out magazine pages and creating galleries of fabulous interiors, but try to distil what it is you want to achieve.

Above all, Bannon says, bring an open mind. You are unlikely to resolve your problem within an hour, but you will have started a process.

Open Door runs from May 4th to 14th; see riaisimonopendoor.ie

Joyce Hickey

Joyce Hickey

Joyce Hickey is an Irish Times journalist