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Construction in America

Designing a High-Quality and Sustainable Beach House

Photos: Courtesy of Dana Hoff

We spoke with Marnie Oursler, president of Marnie Custom Homes, for insight into the process of building a beach house.

Marnie Oursler

President, Marnie Custom Homes

What characteristics make a quality beach home?

To make a quality beach home, it all starts with the bones of the house. We are building on the ocean with some of the harshest conditions so it’s imperative that our homes are of the highest quality to withstand the damaging effects of wind, water, salt, and sun. 

We use weather resistant materials on all exterior finishes, such as siding, windows, doors, railings, and decks, and always use hurricane straps for high winds. Specifically, we like NuCedar or James Hardie fiber cement siding. These materials are strong and dense, which makes them durable and energy-efficient. They’re finished in the factory, which means they won’t fade either. Bonus: they have a high R-value and an authentic coastal look. 

Other low maintenance and weather resistant exterior finishes we use are PVC products and post wraps for exterior railings. We flash our windows and doors to keep the water out and use only hurricane rated materials. The combination of durable exterior materials, extra insulation, and energy-efficient windows and doors helps make the home airtight. 

What does green construction mean to you? How has your team tried to incorporate sustainability into every building project?

As a fifth-generation homebuilder, I grew up in the construction industry and during the early days of Marnie Custom Homes, I started using energy-efficient practices back when it was still cutting edge. I built the first LEED-certified home in Delaware and began using reclaimed and recycled material to make clients’ homes unique.

In 2013, we built one of the first 95 percent American-made homes in the country — during construction, 90 percent of all materials were used and 96 percent were recycled. I quickly learned that it is not only financially viable to use products and materials made in the United States, but there is also a plethora of other benefits as well.

What tools and technologies are most helpful for you in being able to complete projects on time?

Building custom homes means our work is constantly changing, so setting up systems and using technology are critical. We use online tools like CoConstruct, Basecamp, and Monday to keep our team, subcontractors, and clients on the same page. CoConstruct allows us to provide our clients with a unique online interface where clients can access budgets, costs, and schedules from anywhere. Frequent one-on-one communication and weekly meetings keep things moving, and clients feel secure and on top of the project. 

What suggestion would you give to those who may want to purchase and fix up a beach home but are on a budget?

Beach houses should be bright and airy, so that should be the main objective and certainly can be done on a budget. Here are my top 10 ways to update a beach house on a budget. 

  1. Paint goes a long way to brighten and freshen up a home
  2. Replacing kitchen cabinets, countertops, appliances
  3. Re-finishing hardwood flooring
  4. Replacing carpet with LVP (luxury vinyl plank)
  5. Updating bathroom tile with budget-friendly tile – white subway tile or ceramic tile 
  6. Replacing door hardware and cabinet hardware 
  7. New window treatments can brighten a room – I like using white linen curtains to brighten up a space
  8. Slipcover sofas 
  9. New sofa pillows or pillow covers 
  10. Light color bedding

What steps do you and your team take to make health and safety a priority on job sites?

My biggest challenge during COVID-19 is keeping my workers healthy. We’ve set up strict social distancing rules and installed hand washing stations at each job site, and I’ve personally made hand sanitizer for all of my workers.  

What is clear from this experience is now more than ever it’s important to support local brands and adjust our methods to rely more heavily on sustainable building. We’ve felt the effects as our supply chain has been disrupted since places are shut down, so we had to get creative as to how to transport materials to job sites. And although residential homebuilding is considered essential, many suppliers have suspended operations due to their employees’ potential exposure. Overall, I’ve had to reroute deliveries and make adjustments to our “normal” sequence of building.

In 2020, what sustainable building materials are residents most interested in?

Thankfully over the years I’ve found that more and more consumers have opted to buy American-made goods instead of foreign imports – a choice I wholeheartedly support and encourage when building homes for clients. Driven by factors that include safety, environmental, and ethical concerns, as well as good old-fashioned American pride, the Made in the USA label has seen a resurgence with benefits that extend far beyond just the producers of these goods. Our clients prefer building an environmentally-friendly house that will resist the damaging effects of wind, water, salt, and sun.

Marnie Custom Homes also uses locally sourced materials. We work with a local mill, Old Wood Delaware, that helps us reclaim and reuse old wood. I build reclaimed accent walls, interior doors, bunk beds, and furniture from the old wood. A lot of times this wood is from old factories that were torn down in Baltimore, Maryland. I also reuse materials from clients’ old homes. For example, in the Bikinis & Birdwells project, I used their old hardwood floors to make their open kitchen shelves, fireplace mantel, and kitchen table.

In another project, Dock Holiday, I found maple wood from an old basketball court at Old Wood Delaware. Here I refinished it and added it to the kitchen countertop, wet bar, and range apron. These small details are how I like to take something old and make it new again. 

What steps are most helpful for you in being able to reduce costs while homebuilding?

Make sure clients’ selections and decisions are made early on is the No. 1 way to reduce costs. Of course, there will always be some changes; however, the easiest way to reduce cost is to make minimal changes once selections are made. 

Another big one is making sure we have a clear scope of work from our subcontractors that is comprehensive so we don’t get hit with extra hidden costs. Also, get competitive bids from subcontractors for labor and materials. 

What advice would you give to every new home builder?

Client relationships are the most important thing. Building a home can be a stressful and emotional experience, so it’s critical to have good communication and people skills. If you are honest, reliable, and trustworthy, this will lead to happy customers and will ultimately grow your business.

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