Inside Room to Improve Dermot Bannon's home
Architect and TV star Dermot Bannon welcomes Marie Kelly into his own (admittedly snug) home to talk design, family values and life as an unlikely sex symbol
More than once during our conversation Dermot Bannon references iconic architect Le Corbusier's famous remark that "a house is a machine for living in".
And the flat-roofed extension built by Room to Improve frontman Bannon to the rear of his 1920s' semi-D in Drumcondra, on Dublin's northside, is certainly the engine room of a house that is also full of heart and soul.
With its floor-to-ceiling glass doors that open on to the garden - or "the room outside" as Bannon calls it - generous ceiling height and sky lights, the contemporary add-on to the two parlour-style downstairs rooms of the original house is reminiscent of the open-plan, cube-like structures often revealed in the final moments of his RTÉ 1 property show.
But instead of the meticulously curated space one might expect of the 42-year-old architect, this streamlined structure is very visibly home to all the rough and tumble that comes with three children under the age of 11. Refreshingly, there's nothing austere about Bannon or his home. In fact both exude warmth and charm.
The Malahide native is an advocate of open, multifunctional living spaces and he certainly practices what he preaches. This afternoon Sarah (10), James (6) and Tom (2), demonstrate the sometimes chaotic reality of the open-plan dream: a white wooden toy box has been emptied of its contents and bundles of Lego, Matchbox cars and early learning books carpet the floor. Vibrant finger-print paintings hang proudly from cupboard doors, while a variety of sports paraphernalia have been abandoned by the children as each rolls up his or her sleeves to bake chocolate chip cookies with childminder Megan.
"Everything happens in this room," says Bannon of the 40-square-foot space (the largest he and wife Louise could build without planning permission) that houses the kitchen he designed - a small island unit sits central and parallel to a single wall of base and overhead cabinets, all made of birch plywood with Orinoco surfaces and a 12-seater dining table made by carpenter Ian Hart - and a TV area, which Bannon confesses has become a bit of a walk-through from the hallway to the kitchen. "If I could redesign the extension now I'd do it so differently," he confesses with easy candour.
"Most of the time it's mayhem," he admits, "but we've spent 10 wonderful years here with the kids under our feet, and the pros of living in an open-plan space far outweigh the negatives." He does, however, admit to occasionally questioning the sanity of not having a separate playroom every time he walks barefoot on a Matchbox car (the grimace on his face suggests he may have done this once too often over Christmas). "There's nowhere to hide and no corner to sulk in here," he says. "Louise and I can see everything that's going on. When we're at home, we're here together, as a family," he says before sweeping his youngest into his arms and proudly telling me of daughter Sarah's aspirations to be an Olympic gymnast. "Tricky enough when you're not Russian though," he concedes with a grin.
Bannon and his wife bought their house 10 years ago. Having already sold their first Drumcondra home and lost out on four subsequent houses, they bid aggressively to secure the property despite the fact that it wasn't their dream home. "It was small and it was a shambles, but we could see it had potential," he says. It had the fundamentals of a good house he explains: a big back garden, a south/west-facing aspect and a great location. "I can be in Stephen's Green in five minutes and drive to my parents' house in Malahide in 12," Bannon says. It also offered enough original features (cast-iron fireplaces downstairs and up, thick-planked original floorboards and 1920s' picture rails) to make Bannon believe it could be beautiful again.
The family has reached full capacity here. "It's crawling with children as you can see," he laughs. There's the possibility of adding another bedroom upstairs - something they didn't have the time or budget for in 2005 as Louise was pregnant with their first child, so they gave themselves a firm eight months to transform the run-down shell into a comfortable home. His only prerequisite for the space was that it could accommodate the extra-large dining table, around which family life plays itself out. "I used to watch re-runs of The Waltons," Bannon admits sheepishly (I assure him we all did…) "and dream of having a dining table as big as theirs that friends and family could gather round."
Any further work they do to the house will be to accommodate the children's needs as they get older, he says, rather than to fulfil any of his own architectural or design ambitions. The dream for Bannon is a self-build by the sea. "I grew up by the sea and I'd like to go back to living by the sea someday," he says, "but for now it's not practical." In the meantime, Bannon has plenty to keep his mind occupied, running his own practice, Dermot Bannon Architects, which he set up in 2008, and fronting Room to Improve, now in its eighth season and occupying the coveted Love/Hate slot on Sunday evenings. According to Bannon, the latest trend is to buy a "fixer upper", so the new series showcases several complete renovations. "In previous series, clients simply weren't in a position to move, so the brief was to create more space with extensions of one kind or another. This year we're starting from scratch in many cases, so a lot of the projects are bigger and more complex." The season kicks off tomorrow night with the renovation of an old boathouse in Dún Laoghaire. Bannon leans in and his speech quickens as he describes with nothing less than giddy excitement a couple of the stunning architectural details revealed in the renovation of the 1,500-square-foot property.
Each series of Room to Improve takes just over a year to make, so Bannon intersperses the six to eight projects featured each season with private practice. Like every other architect who has weathered the storm of the past seven years, Bannon has no complaints about being busy. "And I love the show," he says unequivocally. "Traditionally a lot of architects wouldn't go near ordinary houses and extensions, but they're missing a trick. An architect can bring so much to these kinds of projects and Room to Improve showcases this," he explains with passion. His hope is that one day every town will have a local architect that residents can consult in the same way they do a vet, a GP or an accountant. If he has a mission, he admits, that's it. "Architecture for everybody," he states firmly.
Chosen for the show because of "my big mouth," he asserts (Bannon admits he likes to talk!), he also believes it's because he doesn't overcomplicate things. He leaves the architectural jargon at the front door and explains the ins and outs of each project as if he was running through the scheme with his mother. He makes architecture accessible.
Having said that, he slips easily into conversation about past masters and speaks fluently and passionately about the iconic buildings he and Louise travelled to before they had children. "These days holidays usually revolve around a swimming pool," he admits with a shrug. He speaks of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright and his favourite architect Luigi Snozzi. He recalls one of many road trips the couple took before they had children, a four-hour drive in the August heat across Spain to see the Alhambra. Again his speech quickens as he excitedly recalls trips to Alvar Aalto in Helsinki, the Guggenheim in New York, Le Corbusier's Chapel at Ronchamp ("We arrived at dusk and had the opportunity to see the whole building lit up as Le Corbusier intended") and the Carlo Scarpa Cemetery in Brion. "The best piece of advice I was given on my first day at college was, when the school of architecture bus leaves, get on it," remembers Bannon.
His vocation, he tells me, is to create spaces that are good for the soul, that nurture, be they skyscrapers or semi-Ds. After graduating from Hull School of Architecture, Bannon had planned to work in health and education, to design schools and hospitals. He joined Moloney O'Beirne Architects, but an interest in the media and TV prompted him to apply for a series called House Hunters in 2006, which he presented for one series alongside Liz O'Kane. A year later he was asked to front Room to Improve.
He admits it took him a long time to get used to having a public profile. "Initially I felt very uncomfortable being referred to as 'Ireland's best architect' or 'Ireland's highest profile architect'," he explains. "Especially given the amazing work being produced by practices like O'Donnell & Tuomey, FKL and Grafton Architects. I'm not the best architect in the world, but I've found a niche for myself. I'll probably never design a skyscraper, but what I do, I do to the best of my ability," he says firmly and with pride.
Bannon says the support from other architects has been fantastic. And the Irish public has certainly welcomed the Dubliner into their homes, and in some cases their hearts... Apparently Bannon has become something of a hot property himself and is the latest crush of many a suburban mum. His reaction to being called a sex symbol is firmly tongue-in-cheek: "I agree 100pc," he says in a tone of mock seriousness before exploding with laughter. "But you know if there are women who find me sexy, then that's great! I'm not sure that's the case, but if you say so…!"
Bannon has slowly learned to embrace his "celebrity" and when I ask whether people tap him on the shoulder in Ikea to ask for advice, he laughs and tells me it's the other way round. "If I'm in Ikea, or a DIY store, I find it difficult not to offer people advice if I see that they're about to make bad choice," he laughs. "I can easily get carried away discussing people's design difficulties with them on the side of the street. I never switch off." If he has one bugbear with Irish homeowners it's that they redecorate their homes too often because they buy pieces they see in magazine features rather than items they really love. "If I need a new toaster, I'll spend about a year researching it," he says earnestly. "And then another year saving up the astronomical cost of it," he laughs. "But I'll have that toaster for life."
He says he and Louise are not big consumers. They buy when they need rather than going out looking for things to purchase. Weekends are instead spent with the kids, at Malahide Castle, the Botanic Gardens, or simply kicking a football around a park. "The kids like swimming pools and playgrounds and what makes them happy makes me happy," he smiles.
He is enthused by young Irish design though - a plywood floor lamp by designer Davin Larkin is a noticeable feature in the corner of the room - and Irish artists such as Stephen Cullen, although much of Bannon's art work has yet to grace those pretty picture rails and instead sits propped against radiators and behind cupboards alongside some of his own oil paintings and pencil sketches. A drawing of their youngest son Tom was a recent gift to Louise. "I'll get round to hanging them eventually," he tells me.
But for now, Bannon is simply "having a great time". He admits that it can be tough to make a living in a creative field, "even with a TV show at your back". "But if you love what you do enough, it's a great business to be in," he says. "More money just buys you more stuff. But if you can spend eight or 10 hours a day doing what you love, you really don't need the stuff." Having said that don't be surprised if you get a tap on the shoulder from this famous face next time you're in Ikea.
The new series of Room to Improve begins on RTÉ 1 tomorrow at 9.30pm
Dermot's 5 top tips
Increase the amount of light in your home where possible. Opt for mood lighting by dotting a couple of lamps around the space rather than one overpowering central light source.
Use natural materials that will improve with age.
Play with ceiling heights. An alcove with a low ceiling can function well as a cosy reading area.
"Decommission" rooms that don't work or aren't used (like the "good room" that only gets an airing once a year). Think about how you live and what you need from a space.
5 OUTSIDE ROOM
Make the outdoors an extension of your home and love the items you put out there.