Bethany Beach homebuilder Marnie Oursler makes being a woman in a male-dominated industry work to her advantage.
“If I’m building a house for a husband and wife, I connect with both. Naturally, the women feel comfortable asking me questions. With the men, there’s a stereotype that they’re supposed to know about cars and houses, and most people don’t know about either one. We’re a team - you tell me what you want and we’ll figure it out,” she said. “And being a female makes me different. So if there are 10 male builders and me bidding on a house, I’m instantly memorable.”
The 39-year-old Oursler will star in “Big Beach Builds,” a TV show that focuses on homes throughout coastal Sussex County, premiering March 20 on the DIY Network.
Though she grew up in Prince George’s and Calvert counties in Maryland, her family often vacationed in the Bethany area. After college, Oursler wound up at their Ocean View beach house.
“I didn’t want to get a job,” she laughed. “I thought I could come to Bethany, live in my parents’ house and work in a bar, kind of have one last summer. It didn’t go over so well with my parents, so I had to get a real job.”
Oursler, who went to East Carolina University on a softball scholarship and had just obtained her degree in informational technology, ended up doing website work for a realtor. As a hiring condition, she was required to stay on through at least the end of the year.
“I ended up getting hooked on the real estate market,” she said. “I’d never been in an oceanfront house, and I couldn’t believe the size, the scale, the views. I decided one day I was going to buy one, so I just started working a bunch of different jobs and saving money.”
But with five generations of builders in her family, Oursler couldn’t just buy a house.
Her father owns Marrick Properties, a residential and commercial construction company in southern Maryland, her maternal grandfather was a Washington, D.C.-area builder, and somewhere along the line, members of Oursler’s family helped build the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
“The whole family is in the business,” she said.
Oursler’s grandfather was a master carpenter, and she spent a lot of time as a child in his wood shop. She did odd jobs for her father on build sites, sweeping houses and picking up trash, and spent a lot of time riding around in her uncles’ trucks as they worked.
“Every conversation around the dinner table was about building,” she said. “I never thought I was learning anything, but I was learning a lot. It’s amazing how much you pick up.”
Oursler put her skills to the test in 2003 when she bought her first fixer-upper beach house. She renovated it and flipped it for an almost $100,000 profit in less than a year, then immediately reinvested in another project. She had a knack for it, and in 2007, founded Marnie Custom Homes.
At first, being “a woman in her 20s, built like a ballerina in a business completely dominated by dudes” made it hard for her to succeed.
“I can’t tell you the number of times people approached me on job sites to ask me, ‘Where’s your dad, sweetheart?’ and ‘Are you the decorator?’” she said. “My lowest point came when I found out prospects were taking my plans to competing builders instead. I almost gave up.”
The turning point came when she stopped bidding for jobs and let the jobs come to her. She decided to show people what she was capable of by designing and building a new home.
According to Oursler’s website, the home “had a custom oversized front door, wide plank wood flooring, impeccable interior trim details, 8-foot solid wood doors, cathedral ceilings with exposed beams, a sea glass palette.” Upon its completion, she hosted a party for 400 people. That got people talking, and soon, business was booming for Oursler.
However, Oursler’s talent isn’t the only thing that sets her apart from competitors. In 2008, she built the first Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design-certified home in Delaware.
“This was way before the mandates were in place,” she said. “The clients kept saying they wanted the home to be sustainable, so I started researching sustainability in construction. I said, ‘If we’re going to do this, let’s really do it, let’s get it certified.’”
In order to have the home LEED-certified, everything had to meet a higher standard.
“Air loss is a huge factor in energy efficiency,” Oursler said. “The appliances at the time weren’t all energy efficient, low-flow faucets weren’t readily available. There were a lot of changes to the blueprints in order to get the house in line with LEED, which is now required. So I was educated early on and start building that way. I was ahead of the curve in sustainable design.”
Oursler also challenged herself to use locally-sourced materials.
“When we were coming out of the recession, a lot of local lumber yards and places like that were going out of business. So I try to use as many products as I can from the United States, and as many local products as I can as well,” she said. Those efforts garnered her a position as spokesperson for 84 Lumber’s “We Build American” initiative.
While running her business, in 2012, Oursler began a rigorous 18-month program with Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business to obtain her master’s degree in business administration. She studied remotely for six weeks at a time, and every eight weeks would travel to a different foreign city to study emerging world markets. Oursler visited Shanghai, Dubai, India and St. Petersburg.
On top of her degree, Oursler has a laundry list of awards to tout. She’s also on the Board of Advisors for The Center of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at The Fuqua School of Business at Duke and an advisor of Delaware Tech’s Architectural Engineering Technology and Construction Management Technology programs.
When you take into account Oursler’s history, achievements and uniqueness in her industry, it’s no surprised she was approached to do a TV show.
“About two years ago, I had won an award for entrepreneur of the year and a production company called me and said, ‘Hey, you’d be a good fit for this show,’” she said.
Thirteen episodes of “Big Beach Builds” were filmed between May and November of 2016. The series features Oursler transforming dilapidated fixer-uppers into dream beach houses, and will be aired on DIY Network, the self-described “go-to destination for wall-breaking, roof-ripping, house-hauling, yard-crashing series.”
“My approach [to homebuilding] is different. It’s a part of who I am, and part of that is being a woman,” said Oursler. “It’s been a hard road, but I don’t dwell on that. It’s all about attitude.”
“Big Beach Builds’” two-episode premiere will begin on Monday, March 20, at 9 p.m.