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A Double-dip of Home Building Innovation

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    Sliding the kitchen into the flex room and inner-foyer makes a lot more room for the living and entertainment areas. Photo taken from top left corner of floor plans.
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Some of the best innovations are simple concepts reimagined. Looking for what is missing can be an effective way to begin that process, and listening to customers can help you see what is missing.

"Over and over again, we would hear customers say 'I love the kitchen in model 2, and the layout in model 1. I wish I could combine the two...' ” explains Ken Peterson, vice president of sales and marketing at Shea Homes. “After a while, we noticed what was missing.”

Production building is about production, standardization, and systems, so floor plan options have largely been off limits. "Options are usually feature oriented, like cabinets, appliances, flooring etc., not function or lifestyle oriented,” says Howard Englander, a long-time consultant to Shea Homes and unofficial “innovation guru.”

“Room options are to typically confined to bedrooms adjustments (den versus bedroom), garages alterations, like converting a third bay to a craft room or expanded great room.”

According to Englander, Shea wanted to give customers a variety of design options from which to select the look and function of their core activity area (great room, kitchen, and dining).

Strange name, great concept
So earlier this year, Shea unveiled 3D, which stands for Dream, Design, Dwell. It focuses on the public living area -- the space where people spend 80% of their time -- allowing buyers to reconfigure the core living space to suit multiple lifestyles, dubbed kitchen-centric, entertaining-centric, and outdoor-centric in the marketing brochures. Each model can accept multiple arrangements of the core activity zone.

"The 3D concept recognizes the fact that no one design concept satisfies multiple lifestyles,” continues Englander. “Hence, the unique proposition that allows the buyer to determine kitchen placement, indoor-outdoor relationships and activity space dimension.”

Behind the flexibility is a flex room located adjacent to the main living area, which either remains a separate room or is combined into the main space.

Three variations of a simple box
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The core floor plan has the smallest living area to take advantage of a flex room, which can be anything you want. This unit would be a good option for smaller families or those who do not need space for a house full of people. The extra flex room could be great for fly fishermen who tie flies. Or a craft room.

Despite the particular lifestyle 'centricity' of a model home, each design delivers on all three foci -- the main focus just shifts slightly.  The kitchen-centric design is well suited for entertaining, entertaining-centric has a great kitchen, and all designs have ample connection to outdoor spaces.

To further differentiate the houses from local competition, Buddy Satterfield, president of Shea Homes Arizona, suggested that the design team drive the neighborhoods of old Scottsdale for inspiration. The result shows up in the elevation choices: ranch hacienda, early Spanish, and modern takes on bungalow and urban, Prairie, and farmhouse styles. Not all elevations are available on all models, but at least three are available for each size class.

Modular construction means flexibility in standardization
Three lot sizes define three house choices based on square footage. Each base model has three variations, at least one of which is a two-story option, and each of those variations are available in  three more variations (kitchen-, entertainment-, and outdoor-centric concepts. Forget about the elevation choices, 3x3x3 equals headaches for production people.

In order for the design team to sell the idea to the more pragmatic parts of the executive team -- operations, purchasing, finance -- the variations needed to be akin to upgrading flooring or appliances -- simple changes that wouldn't throw a wrench in production. The core framing  needed to remain extremely similar among the  models. A flex room combined with an open floor plan provides the  flexibility to dramatically change the feel and utility of the plans.

This small room behind the main living area can be leveraged for extra kitchen or entertaining space, or customized for semi-private room. The concept is that all models share the same basic box, but afford different configurations within that box. Because there are few interior walls, reconfiguration is relatively simple.

Energy guarantees are free
Also, because the box remains standard, a very tight building shell makes it possible for Shea to offer energy bill guarantees. Tight building shells are accomplished through meticulous air sealing by the insulation crew, third-party energy-based plans review, and blower door testing after construction.

All cracks in framing are sealed with canned foam and caulk, blown-in cellulose insulation provides affordable and thorough thermal control, and details such as capped soffits and airtight can lights keep the whole package clicking on all cylinders. AC units are 14 SEER, meaning that they meet current the Energy Star standard.

Sometimes it is hard to explain something simple
The whole idea behind 3D was to dramatically recalibrate the buyers’ expectations. Peterson elaborates on homebuyers pointing out what Shea had been missing.

"Not only can we accommodate the wishes to combine features from different models, but we encourage it," he says. The problem then becomes communicating those options to customers who are accustomed to hearing “no.”

That's where the sales team did a little innovation. By breaking the mold at the first impression, the sales process is redefined right out of the gate. "As buyers wander through model homes in various communities, they develop mechanisms for shutting down sales people," explains Peterson, "so we wanted to circumvent that normal process."

Normally, the sales office is the first house that prospective buyers see. The garage in that model is often converted into the office so as not to steal an impression of the actual home. But that creates confusion with buyers because it is hard to see the actual house.

So, Peterson's team re-thought that concept. Instead, a flex room is set up as the office in the main sales unit and also in the models.

Build excitement and change the expectations
Rather than confusing buyers with a converted garage, and then sending them out on a model home tour, buyers must slowly drive past the nine models, featuring five architectural styles with one- and two-story choices. This builds excitement and anticipation as they get a taste of what is to come. The drive ends at a small parking lot behind the main sales office model. Customers enter through multi-slide glass doors, which open to the rear yard and that are standard in all houses.

Upon entry, the large kitchen island will resonate with her, while a massive digital screen on the wall will resonate with him. Chances are, most buyers are at least superficially engaged at this point.

A sales video on the mega screen piques interest in, but doesn't exactly clarify what the buyer is about to see. The video alternates between plan drawings, three dimensional line drawings, and photo-realistic renderings of rooms. It seems like a typical sales video until the kitchen island shifts to the opposite wall and living layout changes dramatically.

Sales reps gently ask questions about the number of bedrooms and size requirements to narrow the choices of brochures to hand to prospects. Here, the concept of modular design takes focus using low-tech tracing paper to illustrate the alternate “lifestyle” layouts over the base floor plan.

Let the magic unfold naturally
But because most buyers cannot look at floor plans and visualize a house in three dimensions, the magic isn't  unleashed yet. That happens when prospects walk into the models.  There are nine models to explore, but buyers typically focus on three to six  (three within their target size and two to three in an upgraded size -- who can resist?). The magic won't really kick in until prospects walk into the second model when they  experience how an open plan they saw five minutes ago in the previous model can be reconfigured to live so differently.

After walking the models, buyers can have a serious conversation with sales reps back in the main office, where a large touchscreen display in the flex room allows them to customize their home. The touchscreen is WiFi enabled, and the display can be ported to a smart phone or tablet for viewing by someone offsite. ("How about this configuration, honey?")

The virtual conversation is two-way -- the smart phone or tablet user can mark up the images as well, and the conversation is in real-time.

Plans, choices, and options also can be ported to iPads for buyers to carry along on a second walk-through with a sales rep. Further customization takes place within each mini sales office inside the models. Choices can be saved for viewing (and alteration, customization, and planning) later.

By now, buyers are hooked, and it is just a matter of reeling them in with the correct package.

Takeaways

With a strong central core to the living area, you can dramatically change what you offer customers without dramatically changing what you have to build.

You can side-step traditional shutdown mechanisms in the sales process by building excitement and setting prospects off-balance with new choices. Let the customer come to you with questions.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Phoenix, AZ.