The way to disarm architect Dermot Bannon is to tease him. So, I point out that the star of his new, two-part series, Dermot Bannon’s Super Small Spaces, is his footwear, which is front and centre in the opening scenes.
“Are you talking about the white runners?” he asks, sharply. I know I am on to something here. “Yes, Dermot. The white runners. The ‘cool’ trainers.” He starts talking rapidly. “The producer said, ‘Would you casual it up a bit, and get a pair of white runners’.” Oh, I see, it’s ‘the producer’s’ fault.
Bannon is like a train off the tracks now. “I was like, ‘Oh no’, because, usually, when I think of white runners, it’s all I see. They stand out. I look like a toddler.”
After reassuring him that he is gorgeous in his runners and not at all toddlerish, we settle down for the real chat. Super Small Spaces marks a departure from the Dermot Bannon we know, and he’s nervous about it.
“I feel like people know what to expect with Room to Improve and Incredible Homes. I hope people get it,” Bannon says.
I don’t have to pretend when I tell him there is no need to worry: Super Small Spaces is great. It’s full of heart, and we see an emotional side to Dermot that we haven’t seen before.
He’s travelling around Ireland, visiting the people who embarked on their own DIY projects during lockdown. It’s not just about the builds, it’s about the story behind them, and, in a way, Dermot is documenting our emotional response to the pandemic the best way he knows how: Nosing around our houses.
Each project strikes an emotional chord, but none more so than siblings Thomas, Anna, and Rachel McCarthy, from Ballinadee, who, last year, lost their father, Patrick, to suicide. They dealt with their grief by taking on a project together, and converting an old bus into an Airbnb on their family farm.
I’m from the same parish as the family, and I am disappointed in myself when I discover that Bannon has been travelling under my radar, undetected. They must have had to sign legal documents to prevent the ‘bush telegraph’ from igniting with Dermot Bannon gossip, I suggest. Not a bit, says Dermot.
“I’d stop at this van in Innishannon on every trip, and I’d blab to her about where I was going and what I was doing and I’m surprised, really, that it didn’t get around quicker.”
I know that to get the real story, I must go to the source, so I initiate the bush telegraph to talk to the McCarthys. It’s not that difficult, to be fair. Rachel McCarthy has almost 80,000 followers on TikTok and the Ballinadee Bus Instagram account, which is run by her brother Thomas, has been documenting the renovation.
“Ah, I’d say people had a fair idea that Dermot was around, all right,” says Thomas McCarthy. “We absolutely love Dermot. He is so genuine, so down-to-earth. We got on really, really well with him.”
Bannon is impressed by the Ballinadee Bus, when he climbs aboard in episode one. Giddy, you might say. He pads through the vehicle, nodding and gesticulating as he visualises the end result. The first thing he pooh-poohs is the toilet position, which is intended to be in the driver’s seat.
“Think about it, guys. You’re sitting on the toilet and where are you looking? Out a big window!” He clambers into the driver’s cabin to show what he is on about. A poo with a view.
Millennials are a new breed when it comes to the Bannon influence, and even though the McCarthys accept his advice, there’s no telling if they’ll act on it.
“He had great ideas,” says Thomas. “We are very impulsive and we know what we want, so we took Dermot’s ideas that we liked, but the ones we didn’t, we just didn’t listen to them.”
Dermot Bannon’s Super Small Spaces celebrates the ingenious ways we adapted to a pandemic, says Bannon.
“People were being very inventive under adversity and there were all these things, like coffee shops in containers and offices in the garden, happening around the country. This is the thing about Irish people: When their backs are against the wall and they really need something, they just go and build it.”
This is not a show where you’ll see people throw a pile of money at a project and come out with a giant kitchen island and some Dermot Bannon windows. It’s about throwing caution to the wind, and using your wit and a copy of Bungalow Bliss to teach you how to construct the answer to your problems.
“Let’s face it, if you’ve got €5m and a great, big view of the ocean, it’s not going to be that difficult to build a fabulous house. What’s difficult is building a house in the back garden when you are surrounded by 26 other back gardens, or building a tree house or renovating a bus,” Dermot says.
He wants us to come away from watching the show feeling confident that we, too, could build our dream mini-home in our back garden, without bankrupting ourselves.
“All the projects had something very clever about them and they didn’t have to be expensive,” he says. And it’s not just us — the great unskilled — who will learn a thing or two from Super Small Spaces.
In Room to Improve, Dermot advocates clean lines and minimalism, so it stands to reason that in the home of Dermot, there is a lid for every pot, a reason for every LEGO brick? Not so. While visiting a home in Dundrum — the owner had lost all of her belongings in a fire — Bannon realised that he is actually a bit of a hoarder.
“It really got me thinking about clutter and storage and what we store,” Dermot Bannon says. “We moved out of our old house two, nearly three years ago. I stored a load of stuff in my mum’s house. It’s still there. I have never once looked into the room where it was stored. So, how much stuff do we hoard, and how much stuff do we need?”
The pursuit of storage is, he says, at the top of every Irish person’s housing wish list. We all want great, big walls of invisible storage to hide our clutter of shame, where we can sweep the mountain of toys and crisp packets, should an unexpected visitor call. The most-coveted item on our list after a year of Covid-19 is a room: The utility room.
Dermot adopts a conspiratorial tone.
“Look, we’ve all seen it: The people on Zoom calls with the clothes horses in the background.”
All we want is a roomy ‘boot room’, like Dermot prescribes on Room to Improve, with shelves and cupboards and maybe a shower, in case someone comes into the house in muddy boots or home from a job on the frontline in the middle of a pandemic.
“Compared to this time last year, when utility rooms were just a nice thing to have, now it’s the very first thing on their list,” Bannon says. Home offices are also on our wish list and then what Dermot calls the ‘a-and-other room,’ which sounds like an isolation room for people who need to get away from their families.
“It’s like a contemporary version of the ‘good room’,” he says. “It’s a room that you can escape to and watch TV or read a book by yourself. It doesn’t need to be a big room, it can literally be a Harry Potter space under the stairs.”
Last year, Dermot told me that open plan was still the way to go when designing our houses. It was like balm to my soul, a few months into the pandemic and home schooling and permanent indentations of bum cheeks on my couches.
Last year, he convinced me that by altering the lighting in my great, big sitting room and kitchen — with no corner for a hiding spot — then all would be fine.
“Dermot, you lied to me,” I whine.
“Now listen,” he says. “I’ve read an awful lot of rubbish spoken about the death of open plan, and it’s just not true. The beauty of open plan is that, over the last year, it kept families together and kept families sane. If your open plan is designed well enough, you can have people in different parts of the room doing different things.”
The key is creating your own little room, or space somewhere in your house, where you can hide.
“It doesn’t have to be a sitting room,” Bannon says. “You only need a room the size of a small box room.”
We need to stop equating rooms with spaces big enough to accommodate a giant, L-shaped couch, he says.
“This is somewhere that you need to go and be by yourself. It doesn’t have to be massive.”
Surprisingly, there is not an isolation room to be found in Dermot Bannon’s Super Small Spaces. Dermot just hopes that we see what he sees. From treehouses in Donegal to a house that was built at the back of terraced houses in Cabra, Co Dublin “and could have featured on Incredible Homes — it was that good,” he’s been around the country, but one group impressed him more than any other.
Above all, Bannon was taken aback by the strength shown by Thomas, Anna, and Rachel McCarthy as they worked through their grief.
“The thing about grief is it’s not synchronised, so in doing this project, they were beside each other all the time and it’s a way of carrying each other through,” Dermot says. “The chat and the healing and the therapy kind of came through at random times and that was the beauty of it all.”
It wasn’t just the way the McCarthys dealt with their grief that impressed him. “They were just brilliant craic. They were infectious.”
Thomas McCarthy says that they would repeat the experience with Dermot in an instant, and that his advice was invaluable. While he couldn’t comment on Bannon’s choice of shoes, he did confirm that just like in every episode of Room to Improve ever, Dermot Bannon continued his unbroken record of being late to every single appointment.
“But you just love him for it. It’s Dermot.”
- ‘Dermot Bannon’s Super Small Spaces’ airs on RTÉ One, Sunday, June 6 and June 13, at 9.30pm
- Find the Ballinadee Bus on Airbnb.