Designs for life
'Room to Improve' host Dermot Bannon tells Ed Power about sticking to budgets, painting a nude and the birth of his third child
Chuckling wryly, Dermot Bannon is explaining the portrait of a nude lady that hangs in his living room. "A lot of people think it's my wife," says Ireland's most famous architect. It's not.
"I did a life drawing class because one of the aspects of drawing I could never master was the human body. And there it is, up on the wall of my house."
Bannon isn't what you expect when you think 'architect'. He doesn't wear trendy spectacles or emanate an air of tortured pretension.
The 40-year-old Malahide native is friendly and agreeably brash, as tends to be the way with those who have a long-standing gig on TV. Indeed, he seems to rather enjoy the fame brought to him by dint of his five-year stint hosting the RTE property makeover show 'Room To Improve'.
He's supremely perky, too, even after a 14-hour day in Cork overseeing the completion of a project for the latest season of the programme.
For those not au fait with this particular twist on the property-porn genre, in 'Room To Improve', Bannon charges to the rescue of householders who, for various reasons (usually money related), have decided to renovate and expand their home rather than up sticks and relocate.
This sets up lots of delicious reality TV moments, such as when he recommends a minimalist (and affordable) fireplace and they go off and splurge on the kind of marble atrocity Freddie Mercury would have deemed tasteless.
In other words, you'll learn something about home improvement if that's why you're watching. But you'll also enjoy it if you like to see people row over how big an en suite bathroom should be.
"There is this theory that it's all about my ego," says Bannon of his on-camera disagreements with clients. "That's not it at all. I'm actually on their side. I'm trying to build the best building for you.
"Often, people want what they know, something they will have seen elsewhere. That doesn't necessarily mean it is any good. Trying to convince them to go with something they haven't seen before; that can be a problem."
In the early days of 'Room To Improve', his projects frequently broke their budget. Blame the banks, he says. They were still throwing money at everybody. If his clients were in a position to splash an extra €30k on a build -- and insisted on doing so -- who was he to cry halt?
Nowadays, it is very different. 'Room To Improve' hasn't gone over budget in two years.
"If we designed a house for €100,000 the client would go out and spend an extra five grand on finishings," he says. "Nowadays, the banks aren't giving any money. Today, the bottom line is a hugely important part of the programme.
"In 2007, someone would say they wanted a four-bedroom house. And then they would think 'Why don't we add an extra bedroom? The banks will lend it'. Now, if we have €145,000 to work with, we stick to €145,000. Or we budget for €135,000 to leave €10k contingency if anything goes wrong."
Growing up in leafy north Co Dublin, Bannon never wanted to be on television. The idea didn't even occur to him until, one faithful morning in 2004, he stumbled upon an ad on the Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland website for a position hosting 'House Hunters' on RTE.
Not really considering what he was letting himself in for, he rang the number and, a few weeks later, there he was, standing in front of a camera, ad-libbing for all he was worth.
"I was petrified the first few times," he says. "I've become more used to it. The problem initially is that I tend to talk a lot and very quickly. I engage my mouth five minutes before my brain. It took a couple of years and a lot of editing for me to change that.
"They used to have to leave an awful lot of my rants on the cutting-room floor. I would not say I am a natural [on TV]. However, I have learned to focus on what is the most important thing: on the project."
The success of 'Room To Improve' brought fame and gave Bannon the confidence to start his own architects' practice.
The timing could not have been worse. He set up shop in 2008, just as the bottom was dropping out of the construction industry. Dermot Bannon Architects is still in business, though he admits it can be a push uphill sometimes.
"The show has given me a profile," says Bannon. "It is a very difficult industry at the moment. It is hard to make a living from the construction sector. That goes for everyone. Because of the boom, everyone who works in the business is tarred with the same brush. Everybody thinks we're all multimillionaires.
"It was never like that. It was generally just developers who got rich. The rest of us were working super hard. It is increasingly difficult out there. But I don't know what else I can do with my life.
"If I can keep the wolf from my door, well that's all I can hope for. The practice is going well. We are not making an incredible amount of money. We are holding our heads above water," he adds.
Bannon is certainly super-committed to 'Room To Improve'. In the last days of a series, he will spend more time with the householders to whom he is giving advice than his own family.
His youngest son Thomas was born just 16 weeks ago, bang in the middle of filming. He'd drive home after 12-hour days, hoping his wife, Louise, wasn't about to go into labour.
"When we are filming, it tends to go from 8am to 8pm," he says. "And then the whole thing all over again the next day.
"There is a glamorous side, but also a hugely stressful side, too. In the final days, there is so much to cram in. I live and breathe it. For nine to 10 months, I'm practically married to these people. I see them every day coming to the end of a project."
From what I'd read, I expected Bannon to have strong opinions about Irish people's taste in houses -- the blight of one-off McMansions, the horrific exurban estates the rest of us moved to during the boom.
But you get the sense that he isn't so much angry as hopeful that we can learn from our collective mistakes.
"I think our priorities got skewed in the boom," he says.
"It will go down as the first time in history Irish people had money. Up until then, most of us only had one good room in the house. It was the place you brought the parish priest to -- and it meant that, in the back room, you could have 19 kids crawling up the walls.
"Then, with the boom, we had this liberation. We started inviting people into our kitchens for the first time. It was about enjoying life and also about showing off. People were creating houses to show them off -- they were an extension of our wealth as much as anything else.
"With the recession, we are seeing our houses as homes again," he adds.
"Showing off has dropped right off the scale of what is important."
A new series of 'Room to Improve' starts tomorrow on RTE One at 9.30pm