Big Builder Test Drives Home Design Plans

September 18, 2013

PulteGroup, one of the nation’s largest builders, is using a market research idea often seen in the auto industry to test out housing floor plans. 

PulteGroup is using warehouses to house full-scale frames of home prototypes. For example, a warehouse near Chicago’s O’Hare Airport houses 11 main floors and second floors, including cardboard kitchens and floors taped to indicate furniture and fireplaces. Focus groups then will scan every square inch of the prototypes, getting a sense of spacing and documenting their likes and dislikes. 

Deborah Wahl, chief marketing officer for PulteGroup who spent 20 years marketing cars, says it’s a way to test out several home designs all at once. As she notes, "I remember watching one of our chief engineers at Toyota  who spent a whole year watching how people interact and use their product, their vehicle, and we decided that would be the best thing to do here — have people run through homes, see what they need, how they would interact where they would go, and then as a team we started working on how can we actually do this in the home building.”

Builders are facing soaring land costs and limited labor and supplies. Pulte raised home prices 9 percent in the second quarter compared to a year ago. The rise in prices came as the company faced a 12 percent drop in new orders. 

Previously, Pulte would test out housing designs by building an actual prototype of one home in a market. But by using the warehouses, they are able to build the frames of several homes to gain more customer feedback and save costs from building an actual home that no one may not even want. The idea behind the focus groups is to gain enough insight into customers’ design tastes before they build the actual home. 

Sasha Zingerman, a home owner in Chicago, recently took part in one of Pulte’s focus groups, walking through the row of homes to note her likes and dislikes. "It's much easier than looking at a blueprint, where you keep turning it around trying to understand which way the door swings,” says Zingerman. "It's much more comprehendible, and you can physically picture yourself in that space. You could see how you would orient yourself there."

Pulte officials say they get at least five new design ideas from each of their focus group events, which are held across the country. The latest trends they are hearing from customers: Home automation, including the ability to run every system in the home with a smartphone; larger mud rooms and larger kids’ bathrooms; and getting rid of dining rooms. 

Source: “Buy your next house from a warehouse,” CNBC (Sept. 12, 2013)

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