Tuesday 20 February 2018

Dermot Bannon on his new quantity surveyor: 'Patricia would never speak to me like that'

She's the tough-talking quantity surveyor newly charged with keeping Dermot Bannon's books - and ego - in check. Here, Lisa O'Brien and her Room to Improve co-star tell Katie Byrne why it's all about the client… as long as there's an atrium included

Back on our screens: Dermot Bannon and QS Lisa O'Brien. Photo: Verona McQuaid
Back on our screens: Dermot Bannon and QS Lisa O'Brien. Photo: Verona McQuaid
Dermot Bannon and QS Patricia Power
Dermot Bannon meets future architect Anna McGrath on The Toy Show. Photo: Andres Poveda
Dermot Bannon and Lisa O'Brien. Photographer Verona McQuaid,
Dermot Bannon with Room to Improve client Michael (14)
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

While RTÉ's Room to Improve is all about remodeling and renovation, there are certain aspects of the popular series that are part of the furniture by now. Tensions will fray, tempers will rise, and Dermot Bannon, the architect at its helm, will go over budget.

The calm and collected quantity surveyor Patricia Power usually crunches the numbers (and crushes Dermot's light-filled dreams) when this occurs, but she is conspicuous by her absence in season 10. After five years on the show, Patricia has decided to take a break from TV to "prioritise a young family and the work-life balance".

Enter Lisa O'Brien, the quantity surveyor (QS) now tasked with keeping the budgets in check, who, according to Dermot, is very different to her predecessor.

"There is no messing with her," he says. "She's on the ball. She's brilliant with builders. And she takes no bulls***."

Dermot Bannon and QS Patricia Power
Dermot Bannon and QS Patricia Power

He laughs before adding: "She busts my balls and asks, 'Why haven't you got that done?', and I say, 'Patricia would never speak to me like that!'"

This tenacity isn't for the cameras. Lisa is just as Dermot describes when we meet in a hotel close to where she was brought up in Santry, Dublin. She's no-nonsense: assertive and forthright, yet down-to-earth and engaging.

"I was a tomboy when I was a kid," she says. "I played football and I was out riding ponies. I always had this vision of me driving around in a Jeep with a hard hat on my head and a dog in the back. I was never that person who was going to be behind a desk. Never ever."

Her parents expected her to go to secretarial college, but she had other plans. After completing her secondary education at Dominican College, a convent school on Griffith Avenue, she signed up for Construction Technology in DIT, Bolton Street, where she was the only female in a class of 46. "The only disadvantage was that, being the only girl, the lecturers knew if I wasn't there," she laughs.

She continued her education when she graduated from DIT, studying Construction Economics by night, followed by a post-grad in Conservation and Restoration in Trinity College. Meanwhile, she gained experience as a QS and assistant site person before she was headhunted by G&T Crampton at the tender age of 24. Two years later, after a stint at Walsh Maguire & Co, she decided to go out on her own.

It should be noted that the property boom was at its peak back then. Cranes dominated the Dublin skyline and everyone thought they could become an overnight buy-and-flip property developer.

Dermot Bannon with new quantity surveyor Lisa O'Brien of Room to Improve. Photo: Verona McQuaid
Dermot Bannon with new quantity surveyor Lisa O'Brien of Room to Improve. Photo: Verona McQuaid

"Anyone starting any business would have hopped on the wave," she says. "But at 26, I was probably very naive, ignorant and arrogant." When the recession arrived, she was grateful that she hadn't hired staff or aggressively grown the business.

The opportunity to work on Room to Improve "fell out of the sky". A homeowner, whose project appeared on the show, called her out of the blue looking for advice. He called back eight weeks later to tell her that he had passed her details on to Coco Television, the production company behind the series.

"They asked me to price a job - which I did - and then they rang me a week later and said, 'We think you'd be great for the show'.

"I thought about it really hard," she adds. "It wasn't a decision I took lightly. You're putting yourself out there… and not everyone is going to like you. Also, I've 10 years of clients behind me, so I needed to know how it was going to affect my current business, and I needed to know that my integrity as a quantity surveyor wouldn't be compromised."

Dermot Bannon meets future architect Anna McGrath on The Toy Show. Photo: Andres Poveda
Dermot Bannon meets future architect Anna McGrath on The Toy Show. Photo: Andres Poveda

Lisa consulted with a few people, including her parents and Patricia Power, before she said yes. Her dad said: "I don't know how you're going to get on with that Bannon fella." Patricia assured her that they'd get on well (and also advised her to wear block colours on camera).

Curiously, she didn't tell any of her friends about her new role. They only found out when the promo for the new season aired on RTÉ One. "I didn't want things to change," she explains. "Also, I had so much going on I didn't need the attention, to be honest. I'm just spinning plates and prioritising at the minute. I could have seven jobs on at once and I could come out of a meeting and have 20-30 missed calls."

Back on our screens: Dermot Bannon and QS Lisa O'Brien. Photo: Verona McQuaid
Back on our screens: Dermot Bannon and QS Lisa O'Brien. Photo: Verona McQuaid

To manage her demanding schedule, Lisa gets up at 5.30am every morning. This gives her an uninterrupted window before her five-year-old son, Dylan, wakes up at 7.30am. She uses the time to meditate for 20-30 minutes, after which she might skip for 10 minutes and lift weights for 10 minutes. "It primes me for the day ahead." Once that's out of the way, she sits down at her desk and lists her five priorities for the day.

She describes riding her 12-year-old horse, Flash, as another form of meditation. "When you're on a horse, you can't be anywhere else because you have a two-ton animal underneath you." Flash is in a stable in a livery yard near her home in Meath, which she shares with her partner, who is the director of a construction company, and her dog Kaiser, who was rescued from a pound. She's not sure what breed he is ("maybe part Wolfhound?") but she can categorically confirm that he is "nuts".

It's easy to forget that the personalities on Room to Improve have their own practices to run alongside the projects they oversee on the show. This can be a double-edged sword, says Dermot, who has noticed that when the show goes out on air, calls to the office stop.

"People stop me on the street and say, 'When I win the Lotto!', but we're just an ordinary architectural practice and always have been. We don't charge any more than anyone else. Actually, the reason I took on the show is to generate business and show people that we're open for business."

The other question that Dermot fields when he's out and about is: "Do you ever stay within the budget?" The short answer here is no.

"If there are cost problems on site, I'm always saying, 'We've no contingency' and Dermot is like, 'Ah, would you go away'," says Lisa. "His perspective is design, my perspective is affordability, so that can clash," she continues. "Not in a bad way; I might get back to him and say, 'that ain't happening - we need to rein it in, or I have an alternative.'"

Dermot Bannon with Room to Improve client Michael (14)
Dermot Bannon with Room to Improve client Michael (14)

Of course, the budgetary wrangling only adds to the texture of the show. While Room to Improve is ostensibly about architecture and design, the vast majority of people enjoy it as a family drama of sorts.

"It's like a soap opera with a new storyline every week," agrees Dermot. "The producers are always looking for characters who will allow us into their lives, while I'm always looking for projects. It has to be something that challenges or excites me."

Of course, every so often, Dermot can become more focussed on the client than the project. Like all of us, he was touched by special needs teacher Ann Higgins and her husband Barry McCabe, who wanted to make their house more wheelchair-friendly for Ann's former student, Michael, a charismatic 12-year-old.

Still, for every heart-warmer, there are 10 blood-boilers. "The first few years I used to ring the producer in tears and say, 'These people just aren't listening to me.' They'd say, 'Oh God, Dermot, that's terrible', but they were really rubbing their hands together thinking, 'Oh good, that's great TV'.

"There is a curve when people are really stressed and worried about money and I'm trying to impose something on them," he adds. "They think I'm doing it for myself. And then they start to think, 'This guy's on one big ego trip.' But I'm not! I'm doing it for them."

Would it be fair to say that he can be quite strong-minded when he's pitching some of his ideas?

"I can get a bit thick-headed sometimes and I don't let things go too easily. I know that. That's my own fault and sometimes that can cause friction... But I'd feel like a bit of a failure if I just went, 'Okay. Grand'.

While Dermot gets frustrated when he believes a client is making a mistake, he admits that he can get it wrong too. "I try to be as candid as possible," he says. "If I'm going to highlight a mistake a client or builder is making, then I have to do the same myself."

Part of the appeal of Room to Improve for viewers of a certain age is the Twitter conversation that unfolds around each episode. There's even a drinking game during which participants take a swig every time Dermot says words like 'courtyard', 'atrium' and 'windows'.

For those who are new to the show, Dermot has a predisposition towards light-filled interior courtyards, just as he has never met a floor-to-ceiling window that he didn't like. "It's true," he laughs, "there are things that we do over and over. But I still think it's great that people are engaging with it that much and that they're getting so much enjoyment out of the show. Even if it's piss-take tweets."

Room to Improve was the 16th most-watched programme in Ireland last year, and while it was something of a sleeper hit for the first few years, it now occupies the channel's coveted Sunday night Love/Hate slot.

The audience numbers and budgets have grown with each season, just as the demographic has widened. And if The Late Late Toy Show is anything to go by, Room to Improve's market share even includes the tween market.

Dermot appeared on The Late Late Toy Show last year to surprise 10-year-old super fan Anna McGrath from Sligo, who unveiled her own architectural plans and asked her hero some strangely perceptive questions about the distribution of power in romantic relationships. Dermot says he was "really chuffed" that a young girl wanted to be an architect, even though the experience itself was hectic.

"I wouldn't call it organised chaos. I would just call it chaos," he says. "There were kids everywhere. Hundreds and hundreds of them. When I went out on to the stage, I couldn't hear anything people were saying. It was the most surreal experience I've ever had. I've been on The Late Late Show before," he continues. "There are lots of people there to calm you down but with The Toy Show, the people who are there to calm you down are in heaps themselves.

"There's this floor manager and he's a really sophisticated guy. He's always in a suit, always telling you everything will be fine and everything will be great. The night of The Toy Show, he was wearing a T-shirt and he was head-to-toe in sweat. I said, 'When am I going on?' and he said, 'I have no idea'…

Of course, Dermot knows better than anyone else that the show must go on, even when disaster strikes. Season 10 of Room to Improve introduces seven challenging new projects. First up are Robbie and Julie from Darndale in north Dublin who saved for over 20 years to buy the house of their dreams - a 1940s cottage in Malahide, Dublin. Suffice to say, not everything goes to plan.

"The generosity of the clients makes the show," continues Dermot. "They're very candid during a pretty stressful time. It's like giving birth to a baby and then having someone with a camera asking how you're feeling the whole way through.

"If someone is spending €200,000 on a house, they stop caring about the cameras after day one. And the audience likes to go on that journey with them."

It took a little longer for Lisa to get used to her new role - and small wonder when it involves reigning in Dermot Bannon on national television. "For the first five or six weeks I was very conscious of having the cameras on me," she admits, "but then I thought, if I just be true to myself, I'll be okay."

Series 10 of Room to Improve starts tomorrow, Sunday January 29, at 9.30pm on RTÉ One

If I had a budget of…

Dermot shares his advice on the changes every householder can make to improve their home, whether it's through saving up or a Lotto win…

€1,000 - I would buy a really nice piece of furniture or piece of art - something I could enjoy looking at. Or I would build in some bespoke shelving or storage units as a house is transformed when you get rid of the clutter.

€5,000 - I'd open up a window by dropping it down to the floor or I'd create a window seat - an opening that connects the outside to the inside. Otherwise, I'd treat myself to a hot tub!

€10,000 - I would do something that would make a massive difference to the energy efficiency of the house. The whole open-plan thing is great but we're yearning now to feel cosier. What I tried really hard to create in this series was open spaces that felt subdivided, so if you are sitting in the living room you didn't feel like you are in a warehouse.

€20,000 - It's not enough to do a major renovation but you could do a little extension or raise your ceiling height. Or you could get yourself a really nice kitchen or bathroom, maybe with a marble or quartz worktop.

What does your dream house look like?

LISA: "It would be in the country on a couple of acres with stables for the horses. I'm not into the shiny new pin so I'd be more into a heritage property or a cottage or maybe an old farmhouse. The outside space is more important than the inside space for me. Ultimately, home is about going back to the people you love. It could be at the side of a mountain in a shack, but if it's with people I love, then it's fine."

DERMOT: "My dream home would definitely be by the sea, preferably near a beach. I grew up in Malahide beside the sea and I love sea swimming. Dublin is brilliant because you can live by the sea and in the city at the same time. The house would be ultra-modern and really warm and cosy with sheer glass. It would have one huge living space with a stove that you could see from every angle, a bath overlooking the sea (with clear glass, not frosted glass) and steps that lead on to the beach."

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