Dermot Bannon: 'Our house is very modest. Everyone who visits is kind of underwhelmed, but it's home'
Dermot Bannon is on a mission to make good architecture available to everyone, not just the rich. The Room to Improve star talks about budgets, family life and why his own house is 'underwhelming'.
Before we had Dermot Bannon, Weekend magazine's new home columnist, could anyone outside of the profession name a living Irish architect? There had certainly never been one fronting a popular television series until he appeared on our screens in Room To Improve, now in its ninth season, and bringing architects into the mainstream.
"The show is my way of getting architecture out to people, in a very understandable, accessible way," he says over coffee on the seafront in Bray, just along from a striking art deco villa recently extended and refurbished by architect Ian Hurley from Bannon's practice. "I hate when Irish people are talking about their homes and they say: 'When I win the Lotto, I'll do this or that'. It makes architecture elitist, as if it's for other people when it should be for everyone."
Bannon is the polar opposite of the stereotypical black polo-necked architect, anguishing over shadow gaps and explaining the concept behind their design in excruciating, pompous detail. First and foremost, he's a democrat and he's on a mission to show Irish people how the quality of their lives can be improved by good design. It helps that he is an ordinary bloke, who discovered architecture for himself, rather than growing up surrounded by it.
"I've often talked to other architects who say, 'Yes, my father was an architect and we grew up in a mansion with a double-height mezzanine …' That's not me.
"I grew up in a four-bed semi in Malahide that was one of 400 identical houses around a green. I always wanted to change it as it was east-west facing and the whole south side was blank, and there was a big side garden. I was constantly sketching how I would change it. My mum still lives there and I have an emotional attachment to it; it's my home and it's cosy, I love going back there. When she was in hospital a few years ago, we did the kitchen for her, but that's it. God love her, every time she needs something done she rings me for months on end and nothing happens. It's like my own home - the cobbler's shoes are always the worst."
Bannon and his family - wife Louise, who manages Bannon's practice ("she had a job in UCD but I needed her more than they did") and children Sarah (10), James (7) and Tom (almost three) ("very normal names for an architect's children") - live in a small terraced house in Drumcondra. They could do with more space, he says, but, like a lot of others, they have a tracker mortgage that they are loathe to relinquish, and aren't prepared to compromise on the handy city location.
"Louise and I bought a tiny house and spent a year doing it up ourselves," says Bannon. "Because we spent all our money on the deposit, we couldn't afford to get builders in. Our friends were buying houses in the suburbs, getting the first-time buyers' grant, and moving in straight away to brand new houses that needed nothing done to them. It was nine months before we could move into ours, but when we did everyone came to us for parties because we were in town."
Ten years ago, the Bannons moved from that first tiny house to a slightly bigger one around the corner.
"Our house is very modest. Everyone who visits is kind of underwhelmed, but it's home. We are very cramped. We had no kids when we bought it and now we have three. Louise and I are both from Malahide, but since I left home I have always lived in the city centre and cycled everywhere - to do the shopping, to go for a pint - and I've got very used to city living. I wouldn't want to live anywhere else." The rural lifestyle holds little appeal for Bannon. "People say to me that kids have a lot of freedom in rural Ireland, but I don't agree. They have to go everywhere in the car because the roads are too dangerous and there aren't any footpaths. At home, we park up the car on a Friday evening and don't use it again over the weekend unless we're going out to Malahide. I finish work on a Friday at 4pm so I can bring the children swimming, and they go to music classes and chess club in the school, and football on a Saturday morning. We walk to Andersons' Creperie, and Louise and I go for dinner to Washerwoman's Hill, which has just opened around the corner."
It's the normality of his own life, says Bannon, that informs the way that he designs for his paying clients, and the homeowners who get his services for free when they sign up to participate in Room To Improve.
"I understand what it's like to have no space, to have bikes parked in the hall, to have a three-year-old climbing the walls, to trip over a scooter. I live that life. People think that once you're on the television you live in some kind of house on the hill in splendid isolation, but I don't. I just live a regular family life with a normal family and normal family issues. I don't think you can understand family issues or design a family house unless you've had a family yourself; I don't think you understand the stress or chaos. A badly designed house can actually raise your stress levels whereas a well-designed house can reduce them. Le Corbusier described it really well; he said that houses should be 'a machine for living', with enough storage, and places to put things, and spill-out space, where people can go to be by themselves for 10 minutes.
"These are all really important. Nobody lives a utopian lifestyle. People love to hear other people shouting at their kids in the schoolyard because it means they're not the only ones doing it. It's the same with houses. I stand on the Lego in the morning too! I'm screaming because I've tripped over something that shouldn't be there, I know what it's like. I have a family, I'm on the same page as my clients, I live the same stressful, trying-to-juggle-everything kind of life that they do."
In his new monthly column, Bannon will be addressing the most common concerns that he encounters when talking to Irish people about their homes. "In Ireland," he says, "most people live in one of a few different types of houses: bungalows, dormer bungalows, or semis. They are generic house types plonked onto a site that doesn't really relate to anything around it, so the same problems recur.
"People say to me, 'We have a north-facing extension that doesn't work.' Of course it doesn't work, it's a north-facing extension! It's like when you read a parenting column and you recognise yourself and your child. You say, 'Yes! That's me!' It's the same with houses.
"People can write in to me with questions and I'll pick the ones that keep cropping up when I meet people around the country: houses that don't work, houses that are poorly built or badly insulated. It used to be that people would come up and say 'I want a conservatory or a walk-in wardrobe', now they say that they want more light, or they notice that there is no flow to their home. It's an indication to me that regular people are starting to engage with architecture.
"I want to try and get more of these conversations happening in Ireland. I want people to expect more, to feel that they have a right to a light-filled home. Twenty years ago, no one in Ireland thought like this, but in Scandinavia and Germany they wouldn't stand for it. It's not the fault of the Irish people; there are so few examples of architect-designed homes that most people just haven't been exposed to good design. I'm hoping one day that we'll all feel that we're entitled to a well-designed house. My big thing is that good design is for everyone, not just the elite. Sometimes with Irish people, it's like pushing a boulder up a hill, but when someone looks at a house that I've worked on and says, 'I love the light!' I know that something has clicked."
One of the most popular segments in Room To Improve is when Bannon brings his television clients to see examples of successful domestic architecture in Ireland, to help them to visualise what he has in mind for their home. "Every time I go to do a consultation with a new client, people pull out books and magazines to show me buildings that they like and the houses are all from the southern hemisphere. 'This one is from Brazil, this one from Australia, this one is from Malibu…' Ireland is incredibly different to Malibu, so we can't design the same kind of buildings. We don't have the same climate, for one thing, and materials behave differently in different climates. But we do have our own climate with lots of greys, and fantastic light that changes really quickly, and we have to embrace that.
"There are plenty of talented young architects in Ireland - practices such as Lawrence and Long, Donaghy and Dimond - and it's a chance for me to show some of the work that they have been doing. Over the last 10 years, because of the recession, many of the projects that Irish architects have worked on have been smaller rather than big public commissions, but I've seen house extensions where the level of detail is like something that Mies van der Rohe might have done."
The budgets for the projects featured on Room To Improve are the stuff of water-cooler conversations around the country. Other architects mutter that they are very low, and give their own clients' unrealistic expectations as to what they can expect to achieve for the money they have to spend. But Bannon is happy to defend his budgets.
"Yes our budgets are low, but they are all based on current rates and Patricia Power, the quantity surveyor, prices up everything. With a lot of architecture, you design the space and then you do lovely details. In the show, we have to strip away some of those details because we can't afford them, so the shadow gap between the wall and the skirting, for instance, has to go. What I try to do is give them good design for their budget, with as much as we can in the way of good detail. Sometimes I want a €5,000 roof light but I can't have it. I might want to spend €30,000 on a kitchen, but I'll only have five, so it'll be standard carcasses and plywood.
"I'm working on something at the moment where the budget is €170k and Patricia has just sent it back to me at €270k, so I've got to rip €100k out of it by tomorrow. Basically, I have to re-design it.
"Sometimes I have to use materials or window systems or flooring that are a compromise, but it's real life and that's what happens. Another architect might have a budget of €500 for a handmade door, while I might only have €90 to buy a door off the shelf and see if I can do something nice with the architrave or the frame. Hopefully the quality is as good.
"Obviously, I would love if everything was handmade and bespoke, but if I am promoting architecture for everyone, then I can't be telling people that they don't have enough money to use an architect so they should just leave their house the way it is, or get the builder to do it. That's not fair either. At times, if we had an extra €1,000 to spend on something, it would be really beautiful. But maybe I'm the only person who sees that and if the light is coming in and you can see the view and it's getting to 80pc of what you want to achieve, then you have to pull yourself back and say, 'Well, that's OK.' I do my best with the fundamentals - function, light, and space - within the budget that I have. If we don't have amazing architraves or doors that can slide into a wall at the push of a button, I'm not that bothered. Well, I am - but it's not what I'm about. I've made peace with myself that if the space is good, I can live with it. It's democratic architecture.
"You can get caught up in yourself, and you'd love if someone came in to you with a budget of a million for a house extension, but if my role in all of this is to make architecture accessible and to show that good design doesn't cost the earth, then there's no point me expecting that I have the earth."
Roof light or a walk-in wardrobe?
Walk-in wardrobe is the new conservatory. They don't work unless they're enormous, otherwise they're just cramped spaces. I'd ban them if I could.
Dublin: northside or southside?
I live in Drumcondra, the northside is definitely underrated.
Home: city or suburbs?
I love living in the city, being able to get to Grafton Street in five minutes.
Chuck it out or hang on to it?
We have a throwaway society, whereas the Scandinavians buy something once, hang on to it for the rest of their lives, and then hand it on to their kids and grandkids. But, look, we are who we are.
Holidays: home or abroad?
For the last few years we've been going to Lanzarote. Louise and I used to go on great road trips, visiting buildings and houses. But holidays are really about family, and my interests have to take a back seat.
Sandwich on the run or plate of dinner?
Because I spend so much time driving around the country, I know where the best carvery is in every town in Ireland.
Photographs by Mark Condren