Bert Selva is obsessed with innovation.

His California-based company, Shea Homes, is known for setting design trends instead of following them. The production firm has become one of the country’s most forward-thinking home builders by creating demand for new offerings that later become mainstream. For instance, Shea helped engineer the switchover from formal living rooms to open-space floor plans, and it was one of the first production builders to offer outdoor rooms with amenities such as kitchen appliances and fireplaces.

Selva says that despite Shea’s extensive research, design innovations don’t come from market analysis alone. “Focus groups only go so far as to tell you what the current preferences and needs are,” he says. “They rarely lead to breakthrough innovations.”

Bert Selva
Bert Selva

Instead, they are generated by the company’s visionary design team, led by Selva and long-time consultant Howard Englander, Shea’s unofficial “innovation guru.” The pair have their finger on the pulse of what home buyers want—even before they know they want it—and constantly brainstorm the next big idea. “We look at what’s missing in the market and where we could fill a void, even if it’s just a twist on what we’re already doing,” Selva says. Case in point is Shea’s four-year-old energy-efficient Spaces series geared to 25- to 40-year-old buyers. Designed by Colorado-based architect Michael Woodley with contemporary clean lines and a minimalist aesthetic, it was created in the middle of the home building slump. “Bert and Howard and I sat around the table and said ‘We’ve got to do something, are we going to just sit here and say how bad everything is or figure out a way to inspire people?’” Woodley recalls.

When many builders were trying to stay afloat with tried-and-true traditional designs, Selva and his team took a chance with the forward-looking product that included Euro-style kitchens, flat-screen TVs instead of fireplaces, pendant lighting, and floating cabinets in the master bathrooms. It also featured tankless water heaters, solar daylighting tubes, and plug-in outlets in garages for recharging electric or hybrid cars.

From day one, Spaces’ cool factor appealed to consumers looking for something different but affordable, although a few had the oppposite reaction, and Selva is OK with that: “It says you’re pushing the envelope when you get a reaction like that.”

Always Innovating
Shea’s commitment to well-designed homes sets the bar for others in the industry, says Scott Stowell, CEO of Standard Pacific Homes, who has worked with Selva on several Southern California master planned communities including the 800-acre Blackstone development in Brea, Calif. He credits much of the Shea’s success to Selva’s willingness to push the envelope.

“His leadership has infused energy into Shea’s home designs, bringing a contemporary approach that has propelled their brand over the past few years, a time when the industry needed something unique and fresh,” he says.

The builder recently launched its newest design-driven product, Shea3D, which allows customers to choose from a variety of interchangeable floor plans. Buyers can reconfigure the core living space to suit multiple lifestyles centered on kitchen-centric design, spaces for entertaining, and indoor/outdoor living. Shea3D homes are available in Washington and Arizona and will roll out in Denver, San Diego, and Palm Springs, Calif., in the next few months.

But just as important as the company’s commitment to cutting-edge design is its dedication to old-fashioned customer service, Selva says. Shea has twice been named to J.D. Power’s prestigious Customer Service Champion list, along with other top-rated brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Ritz-Carlton. “It’s a competitive business and where we really differentiate ourselves is on design, quality, and the customer experience,” he says. “Customers pay a premium to live in superiorly designed homes.”

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