Friday 23 August 2019

Dermot battles with the budget on his very own 'home sweet home' renovation

Room To Improve's Dermot Bannon talks to Fran Power about the ups and downs of his latest project - the refurbishment of his own home - and his participation in this year's Simon Open Door fundraiser for the homeless

Dermot Bannon photographed by Gerry Mooney
Dermot Bannon photographed by Gerry Mooney

Fran Power

Pity the wife of architect Dermot Bannon. The couple are in the middle of renovating their newly purchased house in Drumcondra. And if there is one thing we know from the hit RTE show Room To Improve, it's that sooner or later Dermot and his client will go head to head. The shape of a window... the finish of the kitchen units or the flooring - something will set them on a collision course.

Rarely, if ever, is Dermot bested. And magically, his clients always come around to his point of view. His wife Louise doesn't stand a chance.

What is it like to be your own client? I ask him.

"Terrible."

You can't have the usual arguments with your clients.

"No. You have them in your head. You go mad."

GOOD CAUSE: Paul Sheehan, national spokesperson for the Simon Community, Kathryn Meghan, CEO RIAI, and architect Dermot Bannon
GOOD CAUSE: Paul Sheehan, national spokesperson for the Simon Community, Kathryn Meghan, CEO RIAI, and architect Dermot Bannon

Not with your wife?

"It's weird in a way," he says, "because my wife hasn't been hugely involved in the day-to-day of the stuff on site. I know her backwards so I don't feel the need to go and say, 'Do you like this?' Because I know she will - and I know what she wouldn't like.

"She's finding that a bit strange. She keeps saying to me, 'You're going to have to run some of this stuff by me.' And I'm there, 'Why?' I'm not saying why in a derogatory way, I'm just saying, 'Why, because I know you backwards. I've known you for 20 years.'"

In fact, he thinks that being an architect is like being a method actor. "You have to live [your clients'] lives in your head," he explains. "Every time you design something you say, 'No, they'd hate that. Or I know what they'll love…' Because you become them so you think like them. And you start to think, what are the really important things? What are the drivers in their lives? And that's how you design the house."

Room To Improve's 500,000-plus viewers (860,000 tuned in to see Daniel O'Donnell and Majella refit their home) will be delighted to learn that Dermot's new home will be the subject of a TV show later this year, with the working title of Home Sweet Home.

But until then, we can reveal that the place looks set to be a stunner with a large L-shaped open-plan space, a double-height kitchen, a mezzanine and what could be described as the architect's signature feature - a picture window.

"It just happened by absolute coincidence that when I put in the big picture window over [his 14-year-old daughter's] room… it kind of framed a tree."

He shows me a photo of a beautiful tree centred slap bang in view from the window as if it was a work of art. "That's magic. People go on about features and what's trendy. Bulls**t. That's trendy. Reaching out to things that are beyond you, you can't buy that."

Dermot has knocked everything but two walls of the period house. "But we've managed to keep all of the stuff. We have all the old fireplaces. We're reinstating the picture rails. We're reinstating the coving. The windows that were in it were PVC - we're replacing them. We're putting back in the old. And the old will be old, the new will be really new, but it will work seamlessly.

"All of the things that made the original house amazing we're hanging onto. And then we're carving out the rest of it and building around it."

The new house will be highly energy efficient. "I wouldn't let a product go through the office that we don't do our best to upgrade the fabric - the envelope of the building. We're trying to get every house over an A-rating."

That applies to his own refurb. "I'm eliminating fossil fuels so we're putting in a heat pump ... and we're getting it up to an A3 rating. So even though it's an old house, it's ramshackle, we're insulating it to within an inch of its life.

"We have no gas, no oil, no fossil fuels being burnt in the house, so that'll be making a huge difference. I'm putting in two electric charge points for the cars."

It's not just the big spend, he points out, that makes a difference. Small stuff like fitting a boiling-water tap to save putting on the kettle, or fitting a filter tap for the water to avoid buying single-use plastic bottles all help.

The refurb sounds expensive but his stalwart quantity surveyor Patricia Power, late of Room to Improve, is on the case.

"I think I underestimated what it would cost in the beginning," he admits. "But we're sticking to budget. We haven't deviated too much." There were a few unexpected expenses such as repairs to the valley on the roof, a tweak to the stairs.

"But what I had in my head when we were looking at the house, we've kind of doubled that. But that wasn't necessarily a realistic budget as Patricia told me when she met me on day one. She walked around the house and I said, 'This much', and she said, 'You can double that.' And she was right."

It must be a funny feeling to be in that position for a change, I say.

"No, it's not a funny feeling. It's a very broke feeling."

Designing for himself, he says, is like being in free-fall. Not having any limitations imposed by a client makes knowing when to stop hard. "When you have [no constraints], when the shackles are off, it's just trying to keep yourself in check. Because you can throw the book at it with ideas."

For example, he has exposed the rafters in his double-height kitchen. He needed a way to tie the two sides of the roof together. "And then I said, 'What about steel cables?' And we started drawing up steel cables. That would look really cool. And I said, 'Oh God, whoa.' It starts to get to a point where we were overcooking it. We're running away with ourselves. It's too much."

His recent RTE series, Incredible Homes, featured award-winning houses around the world. Did any of these mega homes go too far?

"They weren't super rich," he says, "these were not bling homes. Some of them might have been bigger than others. They might have had cinema rooms. They might have had all of that, but they weren't about that.

"One house that we did see in Mayfair was all about how much everything costs. I think the audience can see what I thought. I'm never going to say I hated the shagging thing, but I did.

"I don't design things because they cost a lot of money. For me, your home shouldn't be a show of wealth. Your home should be about nurturing and it should be life-giving for your family. So if your family has certain traits, for instance, or eccentricities, your home should enhance it. If you live a certain way, your house should be about that.

"Form follows function," he says, "but the function is what you do as an individual, as a couple or as a family, so it should be all around that."

Shooting the series was inspiring - one house that stuck with him was the Cabbage Tree House by Peter Stutchbury in Sydney. It's a three-storey curved house built into the contours of a cliff with just two bedrooms.

"I think what I took home from that is the conviction that if you get an idea in the beginning, if you get a strong concept, carry it through. Don't give up. That's what I'm bringing into my own [house] and that's the difficult part because sometimes it's easier - like a builder can turn around and say, 'Dermot, you can do that, but it's much easier to do it this way.'

"I know it's easier to do the other thing, and I'm finding that really difficult because when your builder is telling you, 'There could be a leak there', and you're thinking, 'Will I take the chance?' you've got to take the chance. You have to design your way out of it because you have to keep that original thought running the whole way through it. Every single home that we went to had that - had that original concept of something very, very beautiful that was worked through right to the very, very end."

Which brings us to the reason that Dermot has agreed to chat. Tomorrow is the launch of the 15th annual Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland (RIAI) Simon Open Door fundraiser in aid of the homeless, and he is fronting the campaign. The event couldn't be more timely. February saw the figures for those in emergency accommodation rise to 10,264 for the first time - 3,784 of those are children.

For a donation of €95, members of the public receive an hour-long consultation with an architect to discuss a rebuild, build or renovation of their home.

Last year, 1,825 consultations took place, raising a record €163,800 for the charity. Dermot has been involved for many years and will again be one of the RIAI-registered architects to lend their time for free.

"I think it's an amazing event," he says, "because there aren't many charity events where everybody is a winner. Lots of people have small questions about their homes or they're embarking on something and they can't see the wood for the trees."

He advises supporters to bring along photos of their house, the exterior and interior, as well as the view out. "You'll get more out of it if you have a kind of brief worked out." But most important, he says, is "an open mind".

He has seen a lot of change in terms of our engagement with architecture in Ireland. "Twenty years ago when I worked in a practice people came up to me and said, 'I just want another en suite and a conservatory', and they had a list of stuff. The same people now are coming up to me and they say, 'I just need light.' It's brilliant."

He's flat out these days. There's his busy practice, his refurb, and then there's all the TV. How does it feel to be the nation's favourite architect? "Slightly embarrassing," he says laughing, and points out that there are few enough of them on TV. "I'm the favourite by default."

He thinks a bit and adds, "I can only do what I can and I do it to the best of my ability. If it's not good enough, I can't dwell on that. And so, I used to carry that weight, thinking I'm not good enough, I'm not good enough. I still am not good enough - but I'm as good as I'm going to be."

RIAI Simon Open Door event has been extended this year and runs May 11-19. Booking opens online tomorrow at simonopendoor.ie

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