Learning by Design

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Rachael Turner left behind a music career to chase her dream in the building game. Even now, she says, she doesn’t always know what she’s doing.

By John Burfitt

There is a consistent theme that has guided licensed master builder Rachael Turner, winner of HIA’s 2022 Professional Business Woman of the Year, from the day she flipped her first property almost a decade ago until now.

Turner, the mastermind behind Front Porch Properties, admits, “When I started out, I really had no idea what I was doing, and I was learning on the go. To this day, as a business owner, I often still feel like I am figuring it out, but I just push through, use my intuition and that seems to have steered me pretty well.”

It’s a candid confession from the woman who left behind a successful career as a classical musician to pursue her dream of working in home design and construction. But as Turner also admits, this lack of know-how is what has mainly motivated her to achieve all she has done.

At last count, Turner, 39, had completed over 60 projects across Brisbane; some have been flips, others have been houses she has built from scratch, with a number more on this year’s schedule. She has also won over a dozen awards for doing so.

“I remember early on making this clear decision that no matter what it took, I was going to take one small actionable step every day, until I had my builder’s license which I finally achieved in 2017,” she says. “I had to work hard to get my license and to get my TAFE qualification, but it was all those small steps that got me there.”

It also took a team that she purposely surrounded herself with, knowing that the stronger the talent she had working with her, the more she would learn.

“When I recently won the businesswomen award, the first thing that went through my mind was I won because of my staff as they’re the ones that have really propelled and stabilised the business. It would be a mess if I was doing all this by myself.”

A talented musician and accomplished classical pianist from an early age, Turner entered the Queensland Conservatorium at age 17 and studied for her Bachelor of Music in piano. After graduating, she opened her own music school which she operated for 10 years.

While her music career was a success, she had another dream. “Ever since I was a little girl, I always wondered how houses come up out of the ground,” she recalls. “I had no background in construction, but I decided I would do whatever it takes to become a builder. I just knew this was for me.”

It was her environment in her hometown Brisbane, particularly the wealth of traditional Queenslander homes, that offered the initial inspiration for the work Turner wanted to explore.

With a love of American-inspired styles, particularly Hamptons, Cape Cod and Craftsman designs, Turner found those styles adapted gracefully to Queenslander homes. It proved to be a winning combination on the first house she completed as a renovation flip.

“That first one ended up in a magazine and after that, people started contacting me,” she says. “In Brisbane, we’ve also got the luxury of old Queenslanders to work with, and that is a beautiful starting point with their charming rooflines and wraparound verandahs. But it is having skilled and talented people to bring it to life that makes all the difference.

“What thrills me about renovating is the challenge, turning something ugly or worn out into something lovely.”

The success Turner found with those early projects also showed her the value of carving out a niche in the crowded renovation and construction market.

“I decided it was better to find a niche and become a specialist in this design aesthetic, and that is why people hire us because they know we’re good at it,” she says.

“The mistake I see with some other builders is they try to offer too much of everything without being specific. I think there’s real value in being known for doing one thing really well.”

With the upheavals in the building game in recent years, as Turner has watched some fellow builders go out of business, she says her vision for 2023 is to remain clearly in her niche but to diversify. As a result, Front Porch Properties recently started a door business, designing and manufacturing American country-style doors. She has also launched an online course about managing bathroom renovations.

“This is about broadening my options and looking for gaps in the market so that we’re not solely relying on construction work, because we all know it is a lot harder for builders to make money right now,” she says. “It’s about being smart with your business.”

And as for the greatest misconception about flipping property? “That you are guaranteed to make money every time. It was a lot easier five years ago, so these days, you have to know how to manage the project well.”

Even so, Turner admits she has never once regretted making the move into the building game. “If you’re working eight hours a day, then it should be spent doing something you really love. And that way, you never need to worry about being motivated because you’re naturally driven.”