Designed by women

Calgary builder listens to women, earning design honours and sales. Ottawa builders are also paying attention

By Jennifer Campbell and Sheila Brady, The Ottawa Citizen, February 14, 2009

Five years ago, a 31-year-old Calgary housing executive sat up straighter and listened carefully as a marketing consultant told him he was missing a gold mine by not tapping into the buying power of women.

“Within the first five minutes, I knew I wanted her to come and speak to our sales team,” says Shane Wenzel, senior vice-president of sales and marketing for Shane Homes, a family-owned company in Calgary.

“We had very valuable lessons to learn and to apply to our business philosophy,” says the executive who had gender-retailing consultant Joanne Thomas Yaccato at his offices within 30 days, helping staff figure out what its female customers wanted.

Her research told them that more single women than single men buy homes (Ottawa realtors are anecdotally reporting the same thing). Women also tend to spend more time in the home so they have a stronger sense of how they’d like it to look and function.

After a day with Thomas Yaccato, Shane Homes spent eight months meeting with 10 women who had recently bought new homes. The builder incorporated their wish lists into two models, the Yaccato 1 and Yaccato 2; the second house won provincial design honours and five years later, is still part of the builder’s lineup of homes.

The builder also adopted key suggestions, including bigger windows, more storage, convenient computer areas off the family room and upgrade ensuite bathrooms, in many of its other homes.

“We learned a lot,” says Wenzel, who wishes he would have had Thomas Yaccato’s advice when designing his own Calgary home.

“I now know that women control 80 per cent of all the buying decisions and while, I held the chequebook, I had no say.

“Then again, I only cared about the garage and having enough storage, and making sure there was a big-screen television in the family room,” says the 36-year-old builder.

“My wife, Lana, wanted to make sure there was at least some storage around television so it wouldn’t look like a big black box.”

The first Yacatto house ran into money problems when it was introduced four years ago, admits Wenzel. The 1,700-square-foot home with no garage was about $30,000 too expensive for the market, he says. “The women had expensive tastes, but good ideas.”

The Yaccato 2, a 2,300-square-foot home with a double garage and a price tag of $580,000, which is slightly above the average Calgary price of $520,000 for a similar house, is a steady performer, says Wenzel.

The two Yaccato homes include such understated but oh-so-valuable gems as a large mudroom and adjoining pantry with a motion-sensored light that comes on when the door is opened.

There are cubbyholes and hooks for everything in the mudroom. The kitchen has a tilt-out drawer for SOS pads in front of the dead space that the sink basin takes up. It has extra cupboards and deep pot drawers, an awning over the window so it can be left open even in the rain, and a built-in desk where children can do their homework.

There’s a countertop across the front-loading washer and dryer for more work space. With the exception of the master, the bedrooms on the second floor are equal in size so there are no sibling spats.

The homes went on to win design awards, and the 10 women who helped design it are now on a permanent advisory board.

“Nine times out of 10, marketing to women turns into a press release. They didn’t do that. They actually went out and asked women what they wanted and then they built the sucker,” Thomas Yaccato says. “And they built it well.”

She laughs when she thinks about how Shane Homes has practically ruined her own home for her. “I’d love to get my hands on the absolute maniac who designed my house. We have two stepstools in the kitchen — that’s how high everything is.”

It seems Ottawa builders are learning the same lessons.

“The primary focus for women is the spacious kitchen,” says Margaret Gallo, owner of Sienna Homes. “They like light and openness and the open concept, with the kitchen, and great room and the dinette.”

They’ve also learned a Thomas Yaccato-inspired trick for the ensuite bathroom: Make it into a spa. It’s the one place women can go to relax. Use glass for the shower stall and as many windows as possible. “Women like natural finishes — they go for the Zen thing. A lot of our ladies are looking for luxury faucets,” says Gallo.

Her female customers are also big on the spacious mudroom and they like full closets near the entrances.

Carmen Fleguel, president of Holitzner Homes, sums it up quickly: “What women are looking for is organization and convenience.”

To that end, they include many cupboards and shelving in closets in their designs. In the bathrooms, their vanities have doors and drawers where makeup and jewelry can be easily organized.

In closets, they include two-tier shelving and they often offer two walk-in closets in the master bedroom. In the ensuite, there are deep roman bathtubs and moulded shower surrounds for easy cleaning.

Holitzner also gives four colours of paint for interiors, and five different types of doors — from traditional to modern — giving buyers more ways to express themselves.

Asked how they know what women want, Fleguel says it was simple: “You have two women (she and her sister, Heidi Laurysen) running a business.”

Thomas Yaccato would likely approve.

Visit, hit value-added programs and then market research to find out more about the Yaccato homes.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen

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