For three couples it’s the year 10AD (after Dermot), and a decade since they and their homes appeared in a fledgling RTE TV series called Room To Improve. Walls were torn down, floors dug up, budgets were busted for all of us to see. Since then the series has taken off to become one of Ireland’s favourite prime time staples. But how do Dermot Bannon’s class of 2009 feel about their improved homes a decade later?
Childhood sweethearts Eimear Lynott and Niall Quinn saw their Co Wicklow home transformed when they appeared in the show’s third series. Ten years later, the pair are somewhat reluctantly leaving it all behind by changing their Enniskerry address to a new one in nearby Bray.
Their 1970s dormer bungalow took its turn in the limelight in an episode aired in June 2009, called ‘A Room with a View.’ When then-rising starchitect Bannon drew up his plans for the house makeover, his focus was on making the most of the property’s amazing views over Sugarloaf Mountain. The problem was that the views were all to the front and the living space at the back, so Dermot turned things around by changing the front entrance to the side and realigning the living areas with a triangular extension overlooking the mountain.
As filming began, the couple were up against the clock to transform their home before their first child was born.
“We’d been living there a few years and the house was freezing,” recalls Niall. “When we found out Eimear was pregnant, we knew we had to do something. You couldn’t bring a baby into a house that cold.”
With a budget of €90,000 – at least that’s what they told Dermot, having seen other budgets go pop on previous episodes – their brief was simple. As well as a warm, insulated house, they wanted a funky kitchen downstairs and a new master bedroom, nursery and family bathroom upstairs. The separate garage was to be transformed into a bar-cum-entertainment room.
“It was a great experience from start to finish. I’d do it all again,” says Eimear. “The only can of worms was when we discovered mid-build that the plumbing and electrics were shot. That pushed the budget up to €106,000. It was OK – we had a contingency fund, but we hadn’t told Dermot in case he’d factor it in at the start. Eating into that meant that our plans for the bar took a hit, but we did it up later.
“Two years after the show, we put in a proper bar, like you’d see in a pub, and a toilet. It’s also got sofas and a big-screen TV. Dermot designed a patio between the bar and the house, which we subsequently enclosed with glass balustrades to keep kids tucked in safely without blocking the view. We’ve had so many birthday parties, barbecues and celebrations here, they add up to a lot of happy memories to bring with us.”
The pair turned one of the four bedrooms into a playroom, having had a second child in the intervening years. Their son Max (10) and daughter Pia (4) attend Irish school and playschool in Bray, and between dropping them off, collecting and arranging after-school activities, Eimear finds herself spending much of her day in the car.
“The house was everything we wanted and more,” says Niall. “It’s just the location that’s an issue for us now.”
“Selling was a massive decision and one that we thought long and hard about,” says Eimear. “Where we live is beautiful but quite remote. So earlier this year we took the plunge and put the house on the market. It’s now ‘sale agreed’ at €550,000. We’re moving to a modern three-bed semi with an attic conversion in Bray. It also has an outhouse, so we can still have an entertainment space. Max can’t wait to move as all his friends are there, and as he and Pia become teenagers, they’ll have transport and amenities on the doorstep.”
Another 2009 episode showed Greg Fitzsimons and Siobhán O’Reilly who also had a budget of €90,000 to extend their house in Whitehall, Dublin 9, which they’d bought for €600,000 in 2006. The small kitchen was cold and led out to what the sales agent had euphemistically termed a “sunroom”. Dermot Bannon declared it a “shack” and said it was the worst room he had ever seen. He replaced it with a three-square-metre courtyard with white Japanese stones and a specimen tree in the centre.
The house was extended to fit a modern kitchen-diner with flat roof and a lot of glazing to bring light into the room. The original kitchen was turned into a utility room and wet room. As a landscape gardener, Greg planted the back garden himself.
As building progressed and unforeseen problems with plumbing and light were uncovered, costs started creeping up. A proposed additional spend of €600 for a high-end kitchen floor was the final straw. Siobhán put her foot down.
“I’d stretch to it,” advised Dermot.
“No,” said Siobhán. “We’re already over budget. Six hundred here, another six hundred there… it’s got to stop.”
Ivan Duggan, the builder, paid the difference as a housewarming gift.
With a new bathroom upstairs, the total renovation came in at a final cost of €98,000.
“From the cramped conditions we lived in to this – brilliant!” said Siobhán.
Since then the couple made a few modifications to meet the needs of their growing family. They have a 12-year-old son and twin daughters, who are eight.
“They’re mad into cycling and GAA, so last year we laid porcelain tiles in the hall, which are practical and easy to clean,” says Greg. “We upgraded both the downstairs wet room and the bathroom upstairs. We raised the roof and put in high-end tiling, heaters and walk-in showers. That all came to €11,500.
“We’re delighted with the house and don’t plan on moving anytime soon. I still run into Dermot as he lives nearby and our kids are in the same sports clubs. He did a fantastic job and we couldn’t be happier.”
When Quenton McGrath and Jennifer Burke were the first to appear on season three of Room to Improve, they had the distinction of having the smallest budget for a renovation at €35,000. Having bought their house in Artane, Dublin 5, for €495,000 at the height of the boom, a year later it had devalued by 30pc.
“We’d already spent €70,000 doing up the house one room at a time, but it wasn’t working for us,” says Quenton.
Instead of extending the kitchen into the garage as the couple had planned, Dermot dropped the bombshell that he’d be undoing some of the work they’d already done. The two rooms they considered finished – the kitchen and the living room – would be destroyed.
The wall between the kitchen and living room was knocked to create a big kitchen-dining-family area and an extension added to link the house with the back garden. Part of the garage became a utility room and bathroom, and a couple of years later Quenton and Jennifer turned the remaining part into a playroom for their two children, now aged 10 and 12.
“When Dermot first showed us his plans we weren’t initially that keen on them, but it’s made such a difference to our lives, we’re very happy,” says Jennifer.
“Dermot said he was designing a space that would suit our needs not just in the immediate future, but down the line as the kids grew, and he was bang on,” says Quenton. “It came into its own for us in the last five years especially.
“Everyone was used to big budgets on Room to Improve, but when they saw what was possible to achieve on a much tighter one, people related to that and wanted to see what they might be able to do in their own homes.
“What the show did for us was to cement the idea that we could stay here and adapt the house as our needs changed. Two years ago, we converted the shed in the garden into what I planned as a man cave, but has actually become a kids’ den. We put in sliding doors, insulation, a worktop, couches, a pool table and TV. The kids love to hang out there with their friends.
“The house devalued in the recession and bounced back in recent times, but that’s irrelevant to us. This is our home and we’re here to stay.”
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