The path that leads to Dermot Bannon’s office might be called “Self-Improvement Way”. There’s a fancy gym and a cosmetic dentist next to each other, before you get to the presumably more substantive and costly leg of the full life makeover: Bannon’s firm.
he man himself answers the door, looking lean and fit, with a warm, TV-ready smile. I had half assumed that these days he only worked as an architect when the cameras are rolling, but he quickly disabuses me of this notion.
“TV doesn’t pay, 80pc of what I do is in the practice,” he cheerily clarifies. “Well, maybe about 60pc and the rest are the Room to Improve projects through the year.”
In person Bannon has an easy charm and is as self-effacing as one might expect. But just as he might order a wall to be torn down to let in the light, there are other myths he’s happy to dismantle.
The first is that everything he does on Room to Improve is “for my ego. That’s a huge confusion that makes me laugh at this stage. [People think] I need to get my way or my ego won’t survive it. But I’m doing it all for the people on the show. I’m making decisions on their behalf. But they, or the audience, don’t always see that. And then they’re all on Twitter giving out.”
Then there’s the perception that he’s always as sunny and unflappably good humoured as he appears on camera. Not true, he says.
“I have anxiety. I have the same insecurities as everyone else. I have days where I think I haven’t achieved enough in my life. I have nights when I think I’m the worst parent in the world and the worst architect in the world. I have stress.
“Sometimes I think I’ll never get through all of this. But I think those feelings are normal. You can’t feel elated about something unless you’ve been really stressed about it previously.”
Housing is, of course, a huge source of stress at the moment for many Irish people and he’s aware there can be mixed feelings about all the property porn on television that takes as a starting point the fact you have a house to work with.
In the midst of a housing crisis, when the gap between the haves and have-nots seems to yawn ever wider, some might mutter about the appropriateness of programming like his.
“I have a pile of magazines on property beside my bed, because it’s what I do for a living, but I don’t know how the average person does that to themselves,” he says.
“We do have an obsession with property and with our homes. And I know a lot of the angst that is felt at the moment comes from programmes or media. I see that, and I see what people can afford and what they can’t. I understand their struggle.”
And so, to use a political catchphrase, he insists, “we are listening”. This is why the new series focuses on “average houses, average budgets, average projects”.
“But the important thing is that they are not average solutions and they are not average constructions. We went out looking for a three bed semi-d because that is the most average house in Ireland.
“And with a small budget we helped people make small changes without going over the top. Because, again, there’s a skill in design, and I keep ranting and raving how that can be applied to anything.”
Bannon’s popularity and ubiquity – this is the 13th season of Room to Improve – are about more than our national obsession with property. They’re about a yearning for a sophistication which once felt out of reach in Ireland.
“For a long time there was a mania for cookery programmes and that represented a type of aspiration. But even as that was happening we, as a nation, maybe felt that architecture and interior design was beyond us. It was for other people, it was for TV shows, it was [BBC architecture series] Grand Designs.
“If you put an extension on to the back of your house, the builder just came along, stuck it on the back. People didn’t really think they had a huge amount of say or control over it. You went into the kitchen showroom, there’s probably five kitchens, you picked one. Everybody in the street got the same kitchen.”
In the Dermot era all that has changed.
“Now I would say that how your home looks, the interior and layout, is a very important part of self-expression,” he says.
But of course it couldn’t have been just any old architect that moved us away from being satisfied with draughty extensions and crap kitchens, it had to be someone with a certain camera-ready charm and a nascent showman streak.
Bannon had a peripatetic childhood. His father, a horticulturalist, had to move to Cairo with work when Dermot was seven and the family spent a few years there, where Dermot was homeschooled by his mother.
They returned to Dublin and, growing up in Malahide, he used to watch Anything Goes with Mary FitzGerald.
“She used to have kids on the show every week and I was desperate to be one of those kids. I wrote in to ask if I could and they sent a reply saying ‘we have you on file’ which I now know was a polite ‘no’.”
Undeterred, he actually rang the programme at RTÉ and got to speak with FitzGerald herself. “At the time I thought that was shocking but now I know how surprisingly accessible TV people are. You could ring here and I might answer the phone.”
Fast-forward a few years and Bannon is studying in England, at the Hull School of Architecture, when a TV booker arrived into the student union room, looking for male contestants to appear on Blind Date.
Bannon, by now sporting a faintly boybandish curtain fringe, agreed to do it and although he didn’t get the girl (Jenni Falconer, who has since become famous in her own right as a DJ and TV presenter in Scotland) it’s possible a certain fuse was lit within the young Dubliner.
“There was something in me [that wanted fame] if I’m being 100pc honest,” he concedes.
He came back to Dublin just as the boom was beginning to heat up and found a city awash with opportunities for an ambitious young architect. He worked in a practice that designed schools and hospitals, and took immense satisfaction in those projects, but, surprisingly, there were no millionaire mansions.
“I never designed a home until I did it on Room to Improve,” he points out.
In 2006 he applied for a presenting job on the now defunct show House Hunters – which focused on fixer uppers – as its then presenter Róisín Murphy (who now lives near him) was due to go on maternity leave. “I thought that would be really cool, to be an architect and be on TV, so I went for it.”
The show was his first taste of consistent fame but his colleagues at the practice where he worked were conscious of the number of hours it took. Bannon had his own solution.
“I had always wanted to set up my own practice and I thought, ‘well if I have a TV show behind me too…’”
With his then boss’s support, he handed in his notice and went out on his own.
“Leading up to that was very stressful, I wasn’t sleeping and just had a gnawing feeling in my stomach. Once I had made up my mind and actually said it, there was a sense of relief.”
The timing was bad, however: “Literally the next day after I left, Lehman Brothers collapsed. I had been on my own first and then Ian [Hurley, his business partner] joined. And the whole industry crashed in around us.”
There was some security in his TV profile but he had to take on a lot of unglamorous projects with no camera crew in tow.
“I would literally have taken on anything in the country at that point. I remember driving down to Dingle and other places to do tiny projects – anything to keep the wolf from the door.”
In hindsight it taught him some valuable lessons: “In some ways the best time to set up a business is in a recession. Because it teaches you how to cope, how to get by. You’re into the very worst of it straight away and things can only get better.”
He married his wife Louise in 2002 – the pair grew up together in Malahide and have three children together. They moved into their dream home in Drumcondra just before the pandemic and he says it “pisses me off that we moved in a hurry”.
“There are still boxes everywhere. I knew I had to get it to a certain point to be presentable, or else there would still be scaffolding there now, but there’s no pictures on half the walls. I’m one of those people who puts my own stuff on the long finger.”
His father died in 2007 and it was a huge blow.
“I was very close to him. And it was very out-of-the-blue. He had had a heart attack when he was younger, my age now actually [Dermot is 50] and the damage was done at that point. The doctors told him ‘go and live as healthily as you can’ and he did.
“He got us through college and saw the first grandchildren. And then, at 68, he was gone.
“It felt like it was against the natural order – both of my grandmothers had only died a year before that and I thought he was going to be around for a long time.”
As the economy rebounded, Dermot’s own boats rose with the tide. His firm reportedly returned to profitability in 2017, and as property prices soared, and many people found themselves unable to move home, there was a growing emphasis on renovation, which also made Bannon’s programmes very popular.
But there was also a sense that as the ‘architect from the telly’, he was answerable for perceived difficulties in dealing with the profession generally. When I mention the common issue of not knowing what a building cost is finally going to work out at, he quickly responds, “but why would you?” and compares it to medical costs or tax bills, which are often only ascertained as the work is being done.
“If I design a project, and I put in all the detail that needs to go into it, and somebody prices it, we know how much it’s going to cost,” he adds.
Daniel and Majella O’Donnell might beg to differ. Earlier this year Dermot renovated their four-bedroom, detached home in Kincasslagh, Co Donegal, with an original budget of €200,000 but in the end, it cost close to €400,000. Majella later said: “You can give Dermot a budget to renovate but you know he’ll totally ignore it.”
So, from Dermot’s perspective, what happened there?
“Without slagging them off, and they’re the nicest couple ever, I’m mad about them, they made changes. It was down to bathrooms really. Daniel wanted to put in a couple of extra en suites and that moved a couple of structural walls. In doing that, it added to the cost, and it was as simple as that.”
What about the perception that he loves designing various versions of a glass box? He comes as close as he gets to actual bristling when I mention this.
“I won’t forgive you for that,” he jokingly replies, but adds in all seriousness: “That’s modern architecture. Modern architecture is about connecting to the outside, it’s about providing views, and you can only do that with glass.”
It can be difficult to steer people towards what he feels are the right choices, and he says his tactic is to start off with images, bring the people on the show somewhere to look at an example of what he’s talking about, and if all that fails, “throw a strop”.
He gets irritated when people overlook the architectural aspects of what he does and focus instead on the superficial interior design details.
He cites an example of constructing an atrium within a house so a family could both have separate private spaces and keep an eye on their child who has special needs.
After all that ingenuity “people were still like, oh I don’t know – that orange couch! I can sometimes forget that people watch the show for how they can relate to it and what they would do themselves.”
He says there is going to be an increasing focus on green homes and “you absolutely should not be putting an extension on a house if you don’t make the overall house as warm as you possibly can”.
And his maxim for the essentials of a new home is: head, heart, guts. The heart is the open plan space, which despite the frustrations many of us felt with open plan in the pandemic, “is not going anywhere”. The head is “the smaller down-time space where you can go by yourself”. And the guts are the utility room. You can’t be sharing a working space with your laundry, he adds, otherwise “your mental to-do list just gets longer and longer”.
Architects, you might think, are the canary in the coal mine of the recession everyone seems to think is coming, so I wonder if he senses trouble ahead.
“You always fear it. And I think there is going to be an adjustment. Prices have risen so much in construction, that needed to adjust, and we are seeing drops in prices [on materials] now.
“I can’t see it being the big crash that we had before because the country was built on credit. It’s not anymore. But I think there will be a slowdown.”
Despite his seeming ubiquity as our national interiors oracle, he insists: “There’s no shrewd strategy going on in the background. I’ve always just done what I do. I think if I love what I do and I think if I can reach a certain audience and they enjoy it, that’s a huge bonus.
“But you can’t worry about everyone. There are always going to be people who think you’re a d**khead.”