Meet Marnie Oursler, the Force of Nature Behind HGTV's 'Big Beach Builds'

She’s taking over the East Coast one cozy-yet-indestructible getaway at a time. 

Photo by Maria DeForrest

Marnie Oursler bought her first house — a fixer-upper in Bethany Beach, Delaware — at the tender age of 24 with money she’d saved working odd jobs and subsisting on peanut-butter sandwiches. Was handing over that hard-earned down payment nerve-wracking? For a fifth-generation builder who’d grown up on construction sites with her father and brother, “it really wasn’t,” she says.

“I guess it was just a goal I had — I was studying the market, so I knew it was really strong, and I saw this house I wanted to buy.”

No big, right? Not for Marnie, who amasses interests and expertise the way some people collect snow globes. (A sampling of her recent blog posts: favorite coastal-classic cabinet hardware, reasons to buy American-made goods and a cold-weather checklist for winterizing your home.) After nine months of renovation work, she sold that house for $110,000 more than she paid for it, thank you very much. So she bought another one. (Remember: She was still in her mid-twenties.)

“I like to stay busy,” Marnie says.

Fourteen years later, she’s the president of Marnie Custom Homes. She’s a member of the Board of Advisors for The Center of Entrepreneurship and Innovation at The Fuqua School of Business at Duke University, where she earned her master's degree in business. According to PureWow, she’s the coolest woman in Delaware. And now? She’s ready to get you through hurricane season in the most stylish manner possible on her new show, Big Beach Builds.

I Heart HGTV: You grew up working with your dad and brother [on construction sites]. Did you always know real estate and building was the field for you?

Marnie Oursler: I was an information technology and education major, so I thought I’d be in the education sector — most of my family are builders or teachers. I went to the Naval Academy out of high school, so there was a time when I thought, "Oh, I’ll go work for the CIA and be a spy, maybe I’ll work for the Pentagon." I got a job [in Bethany Beach] working for a real estate agent, and when I was living there I just got hooked on the market, which was crazy busy. I had never been in an oceanfront home before, and this whole world of people who had vacation homes was foreign to me. I’d go into these houses that had elevators and amazing kitchens, and I thought, This is what I want to do, I want to build these — and one day I want to live in one.

IHH: It seems like you have a very clear picture of who that beachfront property owner is and what they want.

MO: A lot of that is being attentive to what people want — that’s how you know your market, people ask for the same things. In building house after house after house, you [become able to say], "You’re going to want this, because this is going to be a problem for you in the future if you don’t have this now. If we don’t take care of this, your house isn’t going to be as livable as it could be."

IHH: Do you get much pushback from homeowners when you say, "OK, this is a beautiful, old, historic thing, but it’s not going to last another five years"?

MO: Not really, because I can explain why a house isn’t worth keeping the way it is, why it’s going to fall down. When you can see there’s a sag in the floor [and that] someone’s house is sinking and you can break that down in simple terms, people understand it quickly. There’s a lot of being able to relate to the homeowner and say, "I love your house and I know you love your house, but it’s not going to hold up much longer, especially if there’s a hurricane or flood."

IHH: It seems that the environment is very much a character on Big Beach Builds and that you’ve had to become an expert on climate change, as well.

MO: You really do. The weather is unpredictable, and at the beach, it’s even more unpredictable, because you get these storms that come off the bay or the ocean and the water doesn’t come straight down sometimes, it comes at the houses from all different angles. A lot of the damage to the houses [I work on] is from flying debris, so we have to keep that in consideration, and then there’s FEMA on top of it, where they changed [building] codes after [Hurricane] Sandy and then they changed them again recently, and they remap the flood zone. We have to know what that means in relation to the houses and preserving them over time.

IHH: There’s a kind of aspirational durability to your designs — sturdy refrigerators, using stainless-steel screws — and even people who don’t live anywhere near the beach can relate to that.

MO: Good! It’s totally true, because, I mean, there’s more salt and moisture in the air [at the beach], but over the same time it would be the same kind of wear and tear on your house in Manhattan because you have the same type of elements in the air. It would be better if all of your screws were stainless because they won’t rust.

IHH: There’s definitely a signature to the way you put your interiors together, as well. What elements of those beach homes can translate to homes in other parts of the country?

MO: One is the utilization of space. Especially on these renovations, you’re limited with the size of the house, so you’re utilizing the space under the stairs by putting cubbies in. And making sure you have a place in the laundry room for beach towels and bags. That’s easily translatable to a primary home, where you’re going to want a place for the kids to put book bags and boots and soccer cleats and not track that stuff all over the house. Another is the open living concept—people like that in any environment. And the beach tends to be more relaxed — you’re on vacation, it’s more of a laid-back atmosphere. Your primary house can also give you that feeling that life doesn’t have to be so uptight and so formal in terms of the way you live. It can feel like a soothing oasis for you to come home to at the end of the day.

IHH: What are some of your favorite sources for furnishings?

MO: I get stuff from everywhere. I get a lot of accessories from HomeGoods, where you don’t have to spend a fortune to add a pop of color or some height with things like vases, candles and lamps. I like Garnet Hill and Serena & Lily for pillows and throws, and then I’ve bought a lot of my furniture for my home from Restoration Hardware — I just love the style of the big sofas and comfortable chairs.

IHH: How about vendors and shops in the Bethany Beach area?

MO: The one I really like is called Tulip—they have great art and accessories. We use Bethany Resort Furnishings a lot for the show, and Creative Concepts is another good one.

IHH: You started out living in houses that you renovated. Is it hard to pass your home into new owners’ hands? Do you feel a twinge?

MO: It’s part of the process, and it’s actually nice to see what other people do with them! People ask me, "How do you sell this house? It’s so pretty and amazing and has all of your unique touches.” And for me it’s like, well, I’m going to do another one and it’ll be [even] better.

IHH: What do you want viewers to come away with when they see Big Beach Builds?

MO: People should not be afraid to get creative in terms of how they live in their house. There really is no set, formal rule that you need a dining room and a living room and all of these segregated spaces. I really [encourage] people to have an open mind in how they want their house to function. I also have an empowering message: People can learn how to build parts of their houses themselves and shouldn’t be afraid to work with a contractor and ask a lot of questions.

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