Belfast Telegraph

Behind the scenes at Bangor DIY SOS - by its Northern Ireland building boss

The BBC DIY SOS team (from left), Belfast-born Mark Millar, Billy Byrne, Nick Knowles, Chris Frediani and Julian Perryman
The BBC DIY SOS team (from left), Belfast-born Mark Millar, Billy Byrne, Nick Knowles, Chris Frediani and Julian Perryman
Claire Williamson

By Claire Williamson

He's the man who fits weeks of building work into just a few days.

For most people, DIY is a daunting task that takes months of planning.

However, for Mark Millar, who is the build manager on the hit BBC programme DIY SOS: The Big Build, creating incredible, tailor-made homes in a short time frame — is all in a day’s work.

He is one of the most recognised faces on the BBC One show alongside the team of Nick Knowles, Chris Frediani, Billy Byrne and Julian Perryman, as they mobilise a huge community effort recruiting friends, family and local tradespeople to help transform the homes of families across the UK.

Originally from Belfast, Mark moved to Bangor at a young age — and he’s delighted that the programme has come to Northern Ireland for the first time.

Now based in Bristol,  he runs his own building firm along with his role on the hugely popular DIY series.

He worked as a joiner here before moving to England.

He said: “Work was quiet here at the time and I ended up heading over there and landing on my feet.

“I got good jobs and ended up working across Europe, America and all over the place.

“My career became very different. I thought I would be a joiner and work on sites, but I ended up in theatres and on cruise ships, I’ve done house building -  I’ve done so many different parts of the trade.

Mandy and Davie McCreight from Bangor with children Ben and Kara
Mandy and Davie McCreight from Bangor with children Ben and Kara

“I’ve had a flavour of everything and then the BBC approached me to come on board for DIY SOS.“

Despite being a fan of the show — Mark wasn’t sure it was for him at first.

“I’d watched the show and loved it.  But I wasn’t interested in getting involved at all.

“They actually offered me the job four times and I turned it down each time because I was just so busy work-wise and I was really enjoying what I was doing.

“They talked me into going to do one to see what I thought of it, and I got completely addicted to it.

“It was so lovely working with really enthusiastic people who were giving something back to the community.”

Mark Millar and Prince Harry working on the SOS project for veterans
Mark Millar and Prince Harry working on the SOS project for veterans

He then joined the programme, which is well-known for its incredible designs as they adapt and transform homes for the needs of the family at the centre of the build, in 2006.

They were even joined in Manchester by Prince William and Harry in 2015 as they worked to turn a derelict street into housing for veterans.

But after 20 years of the show, how do they keep it creative?

Mark said: “What you do if you want to create amazing things? Surround yourself with creative people.

“I’m surrounded by an amazing team of people.

“Our designers and our team they are all very colourful, bright people with vision and everyone is prepared to think out of the box.

“Then we come to the community and we feed on what that community can supply as well and what part of the country we are in.

“For example, we have come to Ireland and I’m feeding off the positivity of everyone here and that is what we are here for, we are here to make the community work. 

“We aren’t here for big businesses and companies to advertise themselves and show off their products, that’s not what it’s about.

“We are here to put a family into a house that will become a home for them that actually works, that they can get to every corner of the house.

“The major word is flow, that the house flows for us when we build it and that the house flows perfectly for the family when we finish it.”

Each project is a huge undertaking — as the team take on work that would take the average person months to plan, never mind complete.

And with a timeframe of nine days to get the job done — do they ever worry it won’t get finished?

“The stress never lets up.

“Don’t let anyone tell you ‘it’s lovely and you cruise through it and you have a lovely day at work’.

“Oh my God, it’s non-stop.

“You are never quite sure whether it will be done, because there are so many hurdles to get over.

“We rely on an incredible workforce, the people that have emailed in and want to give up their time to come along and be professional, to be hard-working creative, to get around problems.

“We turn up as a catalyst to get the thing off the ground, it’s the local community that puts it together.

“The one thing we notice, no matter how beautiful or incredible the finish, the house always feels very different, because it feels like it’s been built with the love of many people.”

Mark says it’s raw emotion when they see the finished house, and it’s going to be much more difficult for him when he completes this one, as it’s home.

This time the team are helping a Co Down mum whose newly-improved home will finally allowed her to spend time with her family. They will completely reconfigure the McCreight family home in Bangor as due to various health complications Mandy is bed bound 80% of the time in her upstairs room.

Mark said: “This one is going to be so difficult, especially for me.

“I am so happy coming to Northern Ireland and seeing people working together and putting the energy in the pot.

“This is the first time we have come to Ireland, 20-years we’ve been on the road, it’s the first time we’ve set foot in the country.

“We would normally get a response to a build of about 300 people, I came over here and did some press and when we got back there were 850 replies.

“Everybody brings something to the table and that’s what we live off, that’s how we build these amazing houses and create these fantastic gardens.

“It will blow your mind when you see this house when it’s finished.”

Mark says the team on the show is a “seriously dysfunctional family” but that everyone has their role

“We are constantly making decisions at 100mph and maybe we don’t agree with each other all the time, but they are a really amazing team.

"Nick is an incredible man to get the story over, Chris and Jules are just fantastic to work with, they are an energy on their own.

“And Billy, we’re not quite sure what planet he’s from, but he’s amazing."

For Mark, it’s the energy he gets from the community that spurs him on for the next project.

He said: “The whole process is incredibly special, but for me it’s the community.

“It's fantastic sorting the family out,  we have healed a part of their life that needed fixed.

“But when the communities come together, they’ve all healed in some way as well and fixed something.

“It’s the community that gives me the energy and the positivity to move on to the next build.”

And what about his own home — is it an unbelievable design too?

Mark, who recently got married to wife Lara, laughed: “Are you having a laugh? Of course my house isn’t finished.

“No chance. I don’t know when it’s going to be finished. I really don’t.

“I can’t be bothered going home and putting a curtain rail up.”

Mark explains that when he has finished a build, he likes to let the experience sink in.

“After a build one of the nicest things to do, which is really weird, is sitting on the motorway in the service station and staring out your window for an hour.

“For me I take it away and I try to consume the whole experience and take it in, because it is huge.

“People don’t come here as builders, joiners and decorators, they come as human beings and you see a different side to them.

“You see their skill and talents and you get a little glimpse into their life.”

He continued: “This is about human beings — it’s not really about building a house.”

“I just want to say a massive thank you to the people of Northern Ireland for pulling this off,” he added.

The DIY SOS: The Big Build is scheduled to take place in Bangor from June 18-27.

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