Kellee Hansen, national director for purchasing at PulteGroup

In a sprawling 6,600 square foot, one-story warehouse in an industrial park in Norcross, Ga., Pulte this week is testing a new way at designing the "wow factor" into kitchens for its new homes, to give them a better chance of competing with the ideas Pulte's customers come across every day on sites like Houzz and Remodelista.

Home builders know they need to innovate to win the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of consumers--be they nuclear married-with-children first-time move-up buyers, cooking "enthusiast" move-down empty-nesters, or the new grail of customer segments, Millennials with good career paths.

Last night began a series of tests and contests of Pulte's highly-collaborative approach to kitchen design and development, as an invited audience of suppliers and corporate team members "crowd-sourced" a vote on which efforts most succeeded at blending a whole new level of performance and design for the hub of most households.

"I worked for a cabinet company for the first 15 years of my career, and I've worked at Whirlpool for the past 16 years, and what I like about this evening, is that everybody engaged in this process and in this room tonight is passionate about kitchens, and what they mean in our homes and lives," said general manager for contract builder sales Bob Bergeth at Whirlpool, one of the manufacturer team participants.

Thing is, there are well-known barriers for new ideas and new approaches, particularly when it comes to quarterly performance-driven high-volume public home builders. Whereas the automobile industry makes a general practice of having manufacturers of varying parts, pieces, and systems work closely together to create holistic, innovative designs and performance in, for instance, car doors, it's a rarity in new home building and development for that to occur.

That's why Pulte Group national purchasing director Kellee Hansen deserves hearty props for using her portfolio, leverage, and relationships to get 36 manufacturer partners to cross-pollinate and collaborate on the six life-sized kitchen vignettes built-out over the past week in on what was bare warehouse flooring when they all got started.

Chuck Chippero, PulteGroup national commodity director

Hansen teamed with Pulte national commodity director Chuck Chippero, former Coca-Cola marketer Diahann Young, director innovation and new product development, and Ryan Marshall, Pulte's executive vp for home building operations to disrupt Pulte's approaches to working with suppliers and working toward innovation.

"There's so much incredible consumer insight we can get access to if we work closer with our manufacturer partners," said Hansen. "Hopefully, this process of developing these vignettes and consumer testing them with focus groups can loop some of that insight back to the manufacturers, and we can push the process. We have to disrupt ourselves."

The way Pulte's "kitchen innovation project" worked is that six supplier teams--consisting of manufacturers of cabinets, counters, flooring, appliances, lighting, and detailing--each built a kitchen vignette, based on three consumer segments. The teams, starting 10 or so weeks ago each received a creative brief that describes the "avatar" household, a consumer segment.

Contributing to the effort were 36 manufacturers, working in rare collaboration with one another, to produce new ideas that aligned with the target segment and with the price range and principles Pulte set out for them.

Bertazzoni range, painted Ferrari red by the Ferrari auto company
Bertazzoni range, painted Ferrari red by the Ferrari auto manufacturing company

For cabinets--Masterbrand, Legacy, Wellborn, Echelon, and Timberlake--were participants. The appliance category included Electrolux, Whirlpool, Wolf, GE, Bosch, Sub Zero, and an as-yet new to America brand from Italy, Bertazzoni, whose Ferrari-red range was a "wow factor" in and of itself.

Among participants for sinks and faucets were Moen, Kohler, and Danze, and for countertops, accents, finishes, and other detailing, Cosentino and Daltile, as well as Sherwin-Williams brought their product and ideas to the teams. Flooring companies included Shaw, Emser, Mohawk, and Armstrong, and lighting systems and controls from Seagull, Kichler, and Leviton rounded out the manufacturer line-up.

Each of the vignettes had a team presentation of 15 to 20 minutes that spotlighted the ideas, the features, and exploratory ways the kitchens attempted to, first, delight, and then, serve, a household living in it for years to come.

What the initiative shows is the lengths both builders and manufacturers are going to as they try to break with hide-bound competitive practices that isolate and restrain them from understanding moving-target consumers.