Pulte Experiment Aims to See What Buyers Want

September 29, 2013

Pulte experimentRecently, Pulte Homes built a ghost subdivision in a Chicago suburb. No, that’s not quite right: The builder actually constructed it within a cavernous suburban warehouse.

And it’s not really a subdivision, of course. It’s … well, it’s hard to describe exactly what it is. Or was.

Basically, it was the latest incarnation of the company’s ongoing experiment: walking focus groups of consumers through full-size prototypes of floor plans of homes that Pulte intends to build, and asking for reactions before the first shovelful of earth has been dug. The consumers’ input enables the builder to tout the homes as “Life Tested.”

So on this September day, in an 88,000-square-foot warehouse in suburban Franklin Park, nine Chicago-area homeowners were life-testing “houses” framed in lumber and covered with sheets of Tyvek house wrap to simulate walls.

Pulte brought in a team of carpenters to do the framing for 11 houses and the fixtures within, such as kitchen islands and bathroom sinks, which were covered in corrugated paper and marked — in case you weren’t sure what you were looking at — “island,” “sink,” etc.

On the floor, tape indicated where the stairs would be — there weren’t any there because “upstairs” was right next to “downstairs” on the warehouse floor — and 22 “floors” in all (for the 11 two-story floor plans), the stark white structures spreading through the building as far as the eye could see.

“Beds” were also outlined in tape, as were spots for nightstands, sofas and other furnishings to help the consumers get a grip on what, exactly, they were looking at and to get a sense of how furniture might fit into each room plan.

Armed with clipboards and printouts of the floor plans, the eight women and one man in this morning’s focus group listened raptly as Pulte product research manager Mike Dawkins explained how to get their bearings inside the first of two plans.

“I always find where the kitchen island is in order to orient myself,” he explained, as they gravitated toward the lumber and corrugated-board structure that looked more like a huge dollhouse prop than a real food preparation center.

He then directed them to spend the next 15 minutes strolling through that first floor, taking notes and circling features on the paper floor plans they liked and crossing out the things they didn’t.

Total silence ensued — they weren’t supposed to speak to one another, so as not to influence opinions — as they wandered from room to room. Then they moved “upstairs” (that is, next door) to do the same thing.

The process was repeated identically in another “house,” and then Dawkins gathered them to do what focus groups traditionally do — explain their reactions to what they had seen.

“Let’s build a balance sheet of the assets and liabilities of the first house, as they relate to family life,” he said. “To start, let’s take a walk through the things we liked about it.”

They were a mostly positive group.

“I liked the open floor plan,” volunteered Natalie Pawlowski, of the Norwood Park neighborhood of Chicago. “Your kids could be watching TV (in the designated gathering area, also known as a family room) while you cooked” in the kitchen, a few feet away.

The group, one of 24 that would tour the Life Tested “village” in the span of a week, also reacted warmly to the expansive owner’s “retreat” that adjoined the bedroom, the spacious laundry room and an optional covered porch.

The home’s planning center — it’s a space near the kitchen with built-in desk, cabinets and “computer” that’s intended for multitasking families who find themselves simultaneously updating school schedules, doing homework, preparing dinner, etc. — got uniformly pleasant reactions too.

“That planning center is brilliant,” said Peggy Prendergast, of Park Ridge, who did allow that in this particular plan, the planning center had been walled off from the kitchen/gathering room area more than she liked.

It wasn’t all applause from the group members, some of whom had built their current houses or had been through major remodeling projects. The thumbs-up for the owner’s retreat didn’t hold for the secondary bedrooms, which struck many in the group as cramped.

And the open-to-above two-story space that has been something of a fixture in suburban subdivisions for the past decade: not much love there, either.

“I think it’s an enormous waste of space,” said Carrie Pedote, of Elmhurst. “I’d like to see the bedrooms bigger instead.”

In all, Pulte spent about $150,000 for the project, a figure that includes labor and materials, rental of the warehouse and other expenses, according to Pulte spokeswoman Valerie Dolenga.

The company regards it as money well spent because it helps avoid the big-ticket loss of building a real model home that consumers turn up their noses at, she said.

Pulte will tweak or perhaps even eliminate features based on what the focus groups said. Or it might create features from the feedback, she said. The planning center grew directly from what the company heard at similar ghost subdivisions in the past two years in North Carolina, Texas, Michigan and Florida, according to Dolenga.

Ditto for a “drop zone” area — for car keys, charging phones, dumping backpacks and the rest of life’s stuff — between the entry from the garage and the rest of the house, she said. It came from an oft-voiced consumer desire to keep clutter from finding a home on the kitchen counter, Dolenga said.

The prototypes by now have been dismantled and removed from the warehouse. Pulte will review the hundreds of consumer comments and use them in designing model homes to be constructed next spring, she said. Then, consumers will stroll through again and offer their thoughts, she said.

“It’s always interesting to see what they love and what they don’t,” Dolenga said. “Everybody has an opinion about a floor plan.”

This story was originally published in the Chicago Tribune on September 27, 2013.

About The Author

Read All Stories By Chicago Tribune