Saturday 20 July 2019

'That was the worst day of my Room to Improve life' - Quantity surveyor Lisa O'Brien is leaving 'Room to Improve'

She's the yin to architect Dermot Bannon's yang, the quantity surveyor who drags his design dreams back to reality on RTE's 'Room to Improve'. Now, as Lisa O'Brien talks for the first time about her decision to leave the show, she tells Tanya Sweeney what really happened behind the scenes with Daniel O'Donnell - and what she plans to do next

Lisa O’Brien, the quantity surveyor tasked with bringing Dermot Bannon’s designs in on budget, is leaving the popular TV series, ‘Room to Improve’.
Lisa O’Brien, the quantity surveyor tasked with bringing Dermot Bannon’s designs in on budget, is leaving the popular TV series, ‘Room to Improve’.

When did Room to Improve cross the Rubicon from being just another lifestyle show to becoming 'event' TV? Many would point to the moment when the mild-mannered singer Daniel O'Donnell blew a gasket on camera. Architect Dermot Bannon told him that the €200,000 budget on his Kincasslagh home renovation had swollen to €395,000 after Daniel added extra en-suite bathrooms.

Behind the scenes, things were even more intense, says Lisa O'Brien, the show's quantity surveyor - who has just revealed to the Sunday Independent that she is to leave the series.

"That was the worst day of my Room to Improve life," she admits. "The week the tenders went out, I thought, 'I'll get a nice load of tenders back', and only three out of eight replied. It was a high-profile build, so a lot of contractors were like, 'Ooh, I don't know about that.'

"I was doing a tender analysis when I got my tenders back on the Friday, and I got a call saying that Daniel was going to Canada to tour for a number of months and we had to sit down and present our budget on Sunday. I did an all-nighter to get my analysis done in time. We didn't have much time to go through the budget in the end, and we didn't get a chance to sit with him and say, 'It's OK, we have this under control.' It was more like 'wham bam'.

Lisa O’Brien with Dermot Bannon’s on the popular TV series, ‘Room to Improve’.
Lisa O’Brien with Dermot Bannon’s on the popular TV series, ‘Room to Improve’.

"When we got that reaction, I was sitting there squeezing Dermot's knee, thinking, 'Oh s***'. In the end, of course, it all worked out."

Yet, what might have been a financial headache for Wee Daniel became a red-letter day for the show. The episode, boasting a 51pc audience share, became one of RTE's most-watched programmes of the year.

Last year, the highest-rated episode in the 10th series was enjoyed by 703,000 viewers. Not only has Room to Improve pulled in around 30,000 more regular viewers this year, the show is a regularly trending topic on Twitter, jockeying at one point for elbow room with RTE's other reality behemoth, Dancing with the Stars.

Lisa has her own theories as to why, after 11 series, Room to Improve has become the televisual juggernaut that it has.

"They're after getting the mix of people completely right, whether it's a semi-d in Stillorgan or a country farmhouse," she says. "Dermot has his own following. Irish people are so big into property and renovation, and while a show like Home of the Year is great, here you get to see the building, and the whole design process, from scratch."

There appears to be something of a motif in Room to Improve: budgets can occasionally derail as the client's vision - or the architect's, for that matter - grow grander in scope and ambition.

Lisa and Dermot with Daniel and Majella O’Donnell
Lisa and Dermot with Daniel and Majella O’Donnell

It's Lisa's job, ultimately, to plan and manage the construction costs for the entire life cycle of the project and keep the job coming in on budget. She's the practical and pragmatic yin to Bannon's creative yang, and it has, for better or worse, created a delicious good-cop-bad-cop dynamic.

Of her working relationship with Dermot, Lisa says: "To be fair, I don't give Dermot an inch, and he is very aware of the job inside and out. But it's my job to say, if we don't get this electricity plan in by Friday, we're in trouble. I'm very clear on everyone's responsibility and roles, and that doesn't necessarily come across on camera."

The clients, too, need an element of wrangling: "It's a Sunday night show, it can't get too heavy, but I have to let people know the financial risks they're walking into," she says. "All I can do is give financial information to the decision maker, and ultimately that's the client. Sometimes the client will talk directly to a builder, and that turns things into an absolute mess in terms of cost. I have to tell builders, 'if it's not run by me, you're not getting paid.'

"Sometimes the client can be a bit, 'Whose side are you on?', but I know only too well the path we're walking.

"With architects you need to be solution-orientated - you have to have an alternative," says Lisa.

"Dermot is great though - as much as I hammer him, he is very aware of costs. Architects are artistes and are very emotionally attached to their designs. I am delighted for the clients and hope they enjoy their homes for life, but I've no emotional attachment to the design.

"Whenever I see Dermot for a meeting, he'd be like, 'Oh Christ, another spreadsheet'.

"Working on building sites and working with men all my life means I've learned to be very direct," she adds. "You could have a scrap with someone at 10am and by 10.30am, you're having a coffee with them."

Lisa has been working on construction sites since she was 19, and says that being a woman has never held her back, even though it's a male-dominated industry.

"I earned the respect of the men on site because I knew what I was talking about," she says. "I understood construction, the materials, how things go together."

A graduate of Dublin Institute of Technology's Construction Technology degree, Lisa admits that she took the course purely through a process of elimination ("I crossed off everything I didn't want to do on the CAO form and was left with this and engineering").

"I hadn't actually got a clue what it meant but I rocked into Bolton Street and was the only girl in a class of 45 guys," she recalls.

"It was great, but a bloody culture shock. I'd come from an all-girls convent, even though I was more of a tomboy than anything else. The one disadvantage I came up against was that, as the only woman in the class, the lecturers always knew when I wasn't in."

Alas, the most endearing partnership on TV is coming to a close. While there's no doubt that Room to Improve will return for a 12th series on RTE with Dermot at the helm, Lisa is making a (very amicable) break for pastures new. For now, she is focusing on her new venture Brifin Homes Ltd, where she is working with high-end residential developments.

"I'm definitely there to help if they need me, but an opportunity to work on a new venture came my way and, while Room to Improve was a great experience, there's a big part of you that has to go back to the day job. For Room to Improve, you have to be there 100pc."

Coco Television is recruiting for Lisa's replacement (dust off your CVs, quantity surveyors), and she has plenty of advice for her would-be successor.

"You need to be your own person, but you also need to concentrate on doing the job," she says. "I don't need to create drama or act - that's not my forte. If you start acting it's really apparent, so stick to what you know.

"I'd love it if they got another woman," she adds. "Patricia [Power, Lisa's predecessor] helped put it on the map. I hope someone else comes on board with that strong female presence. It's very current, too, for women to stand up and be counted."

Come the next series, Lisa will be watching along with the rest of the country. "I don't see what they could possibly change in the next series," she says.

"Maybe they'll do more celebrity-type projects, although I'm not sure. The one thing I do know is that they're always on the lookout for an interesting project."


Lisa's tips on how to keep your renovation budget from spiralling out of control

1 Beware of bargains. "If something sounds too good to be true, it is," warns Lisa.

2 Stay away from the pub. "You'll hear someone talking over a few pints on Friday night about knocking an extension out for 40 grand, but Irish people love to say they've had a bargain. People come to me with their own budgets, saying: 'Harry down the road did this and that.' Very simply, get professional help. If your expectations are managed early on, it will help set you on a better path."

3 Remember that there are two budgets. "There's the build budget, which is what it takes for the builder to get [the project] up, and the budget for finishes like tiles, doors and ironmongery."

4 When you're given a list by a QS to go shopping, stick to what is outlined. "One of the homeowners on Room to Improve found a cheaper, herringbone floor, and then bought it for the whole house without consulting me," says Lisa. "Once you factor in the labour element to put it together, it ended up costing three times the price of a standard floor."

Sunday Independent

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