Deirdre Whelan On Watching Room To Improve Through Her Fingers

Home of the Year's Deirdre Whelan on why she watches Room to Improve through her fingers


In this day and age, pretty much every television show of a competitive nature comes with a prize fund or a charity donation or even just the chance of overnight fame.

So it’s surprising that a programme that’s now going into its sixth series has only one prize: the title of Home of the Year.

Today's top videos

‘They get a trophy,’ laughs interior design expert and Home of the Year judge Deirdre Whelan. ‘ There’ no money — they do it for the glory.

The judges of Home Of The Year and Celebrity Home of the Year - Patrick Bradley, Hugh Wallace & Deirdre Whelan. Pic: Ruth Medjber

‘I suppose they can tell all their friends, “We won Home of the Year” and that’s about it. You get a trophy and a handshake and a “well done”.’

From next Tuesday onwards Deirdre and her fellow judges Peter Crowley and Hugh Wallace will be hitting the road to find a successor to Ciara Denvir’s Belfast mansion, last year’s outright winner.

It’s the second series that Hugh will be appearing in at the same time — he’s also part of the Great Restorations programme that airs on Sunday nights.

The judges of Home Of The Year and Celebrity Home of the Year - Patrick Bradley, Hugh Wallace & Deirdre Whelan. Pic: Ruth Medjber

And it’s only a month since we were all glued to Dermot Bannon’s special Room To Improve show where he fixed up his own new house.

Audiences reached 641,000, just weeks after it was revealed an episode of the previous series was one of the top ten shows of 2019, hidden in among the sports fixtures, news and the final of I’m A Celebrity.

In a time where we are in the throes of a housing crisis, first-time buyers are stuck in rental traps and more families are stuck in houses that they’ve outgrown, there’s nothing the Irish viewing public love more than a snoop around other people’s houses.

Dermot Bannon. Pic: Colin Keegan, Collins, Dublin.

And it’s not just the Irish — Home of the Year is sold to more than 20 countries around the world where people are just as keen to see what’s going on behind the closed doors of the Irish homesteads.

Larry Bass, head of production company Shinawil, which makes the series, says the company targets people with pride in their home, no matter what the size or design.

‘It’s not an architectural competition,’ he says. ‘It’s about what truly makes a house a home. Different homes have different little parts which in some cases they might not even win the episode but there is something in there that people think is lovely. It’s one of those things where there is something for everyone.’

Bass thinks that maybe our obsession is linked to the fact that it’s so hard to get a house.

Larry Bass, CEO of Screentime ShinAwil. Pic: Collins, Dublin Pic Collins photos

‘For people in Ireland, someone’s home is their castle. It’s their domain, they have pride in it. Maybe it’s got to do with the fact that these days it’s so hard to get one.  We aspire to it but can’t have it but at least we can watch this for half an hour  and escape.’

For Deirdre Whelan, it’s kind of a busman’s holiday but one she relishes because of her natural curiosity.

‘I’m a curious creature,’ she says. ‘I could look at everyone’s home every single day and say, “That’s really nice, that’s lovely, oh I’m not sure about that.”’

The appeal, she says, is a mixture of escapism and our own inquisitiveness.

Home Of The Year & Celebrity Home Of The Year Judges. Pic: RTE

‘There’s a bit of both. We all are very nosey. If someone’s curtains are open and you are walking past, you’re going to have a look.'

'And even if you don’t have a house or the house you want, you still dream — someday I am going to own a house and it will look like that or I will have my house looking like that or I will do my own thing.

‘It is still something that everyone would like to have at the end of the day, even if you are struggling to get there. It is a bit of escapism.’

Deirdre’s day job is as co-lead of the design studio at Scott Talon Walker architects.

Home Of The Year & Celebrity Home Of The Year Judges. Pic: Ruth Medjber

‘My business is being a designer so I think being allowed into other people’s homes is a great way of being inspired and learning new things from other people,’ she says.

‘Sometimes that includes maybe learning not to do something because it doesn’t work. But most of the time the houses on the show are absolutely amazing and it is a lovely humbling experience to be allowed to go into someone  else’s home.’

Deirdre’s work is mostly commercial, designing interiors for offices, hotels and large spaces. If you wanted to hire her for your house, you would need to have plenty of cash in the bank.

‘It is a little bit different from domestic work as they tend to be unique. It’s not very viable for a private home as it just becomes a little bit more difficult to produce something at a cost that they can afford.

Home of the Year, Deirdre Whelan. Pic: RTE

‘I love doing small jobs and I do them sometimes but it takes a bit of time to do something for very little money and work out the most cost-effective way of doing it.'

‘You need to be quite imaginative to come up with something that isn’t going to cost a lot of money but still looks amazing.’

But these are the things the judges will be looking out for on Home of the Year.

‘This year the contestants are very diverse and there is definitely something there for everyone. It’s another exciting year and I think the reason that people love Home of the Year is that you get great ideas and you get to see how people live. Sometimes it can be inspiring, sometimes it can be a bit of fun and I think everyone gets something out of it.

'Home Of The Year' - Deirdre Whelan and award winning architect Patrick Bradley. Pic: RTE

‘It’s something you can do with the whole family is sit down and watch a show like this.’

So what do Deirdre and her fellow judges look for?

‘It’s not something you can base on taste because everyone has different ideas on what they like and don’t like,’ she explains.

‘It comes down to functionality — the house has to function for the user at the end of the day.

‘For us, it’s lovely if we can see a bit of creativity and individuality where someone has been very original and very creative and has thought of something you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of.’

For Deirdre and her architect husband Paul Kelly, their home was initially centred around open-plan living in the house they designed and built themselves in Dublin.

Television programme: Home Of The Year, 8.30pm, RTE One - Hugh Wallace, Deirdre Whelan and Declan O’Donnell. Pic: RTE

‘We designed our own home so we have very much open-plan living,’ she says. ‘We live upside down — we have the bedrooms downstairs and the living areas upstairs so we can benefit from better light upstairs than we would have if we were living downstairs. It’s very contemporary.’

But for them, things changed when Anna Mae, their daughter who has special needs, wanted some space of her own.

‘It all started out with just the two of us and then we had a child and things certainly change as the child gets older,’ Deirdre explains.

‘Open plan is fantastic when there is just two of you or if you have a young child but when they become teenagers you realise that another space that can be separated from the open plan is a very nice thing to have because it can get a bit intense. We were very lucky to be able to do that.’

People pick up ideas from watching these property programmes on television and with the increase in travel and, of course, social media like Pinterest and Instagram, there’s more of an interest in interior design and making that space you have — whatever size it might be — stand out.

Home of the Year; Hugh Wallace, Deirdre Whelan and Declan O' Donnell. Pic: RTE

‘People travel an awful lot more and the younger generation has seen a lot that way and also on Pinterest and places like that where people can get ideas,’ says Deirdre. ‘Whereas say 25 to 30 years ago there was so little in the marketplace that you could use as a reference point for decoration, as well as a lack of choice.'

‘Years ago, you went to a friend’s house and there was the three-piece suite with a big sofa and two big armchairs taking up the whole room. But now you can buy chairs individually you can buy sofas individually you can buy things that suit the size of your house.'

'There are so many different people out there with different needs and different priorities in their home.’

Because of her day job, Deirdre says she can’t bear to watch Room To Improve as it adds a dose of stress to her Sunday evening.

The judges of Home Of The Year and Celebrity Home of the Year - Patrick Bradley, Hugh Wallace & Deirdre Whelan. Pic: Ruth Medjber

‘It’s too much like work and it’s too stressful,’ she says, and you can almost imagine her watching through her fingers as the cost rises. ‘I am watching thinking, oh Jesus, no the quantity surveyor is going to give out and this is not working out and this is what I am facing tomorrow.’

But she does think that Dermot played some shots for the camera during his own renovation project?

‘I think Dermot, with his last show, some of it was done purely for television to create a bit of drama,’ she says. ‘Because he must be extremely knowledgeable now about what an extension costs and what a floor will cost per square metre. You would have a fair idea of what the spend is going to be at the end of the day.'

‘I think the programme was fantastic but maybe a little over dramatised — “oh my god, how much?” when you know well what it will be.’

Deirdre wholeheartedly believes that different things make the perfect home for different people.

The judges of Home Of The Year and Celebrity Home of the Year - Patrick Bradley, Hugh Wallace & Deirdre Whelan. Pic: Ruth Medjber

‘For me, good natural daylight sets the mood for the day and not having to switch on lights all the time even if it’s a beautiful bright day outside because your house is dark.

‘You need a sense of space so you can walk around your home comfortably without tripping over stuff.'

‘You need a good functional home — you have a kitchen that works well and a bathroom that works well, good heating so that the house is comfortable. One thing I always think is if you are moving home and have existing furniture make sure it is going to fit.'

'If you are buying new stuff, measure the space and measure the furniture before you buy so that one, you will get it in the front door, and two, you will have enough room to circulate once the piece is brought.'

‘Never buy too much. Buy slowly so that you can build up and make sure you are happy with what you are doing.’

With Hugh and Peter, Deirdre is on a formidable team of judges but behind-the-scenes, they also enjoy each other’s company.

Home Of The Year & Celebrity Home Of The Year Judges. Pic: Ruth Medjber

‘Sometimes we do argue but that would be more Peter and Hugh — I will be the arbitrator.

‘We get on well absolutely,’ Deirdre says. ‘There is no animosity between us and we often meet for lunch or a bite to eat. We are a great team! Hugh is very bubbly and full of joy and fun — Peter is the same but he comes across as a little bit serious. Underneath it all, he’s not like that at all.’

So where does the source of tension come from?

‘Peter might like things that are a little more ordered whereas Hugh doesn’t mind a bit of clutter or business in a home. Peter likes a bit more clarity.’

And for Deirdre, forget those mansions or modern renovations, her favourite house out of all series was something very different. ‘The log cabin in Cavan in series two,’ she says of her favourite. ‘It was just a small little house that was really tastefully done up. It was near the water, it had trees around it, it was a lovely setting but they made the interior so comfortable and inviting. It was very small but absolutely beautiful.’

Home of the Year begins on RTÉ One this Tuesday at 8.30pm

Copyright © 2021 EVOKE
magnifiercrossmenuchevron-down linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram