Epcon Experts Series With Mats Ahlstrom on Residential Design

Mats Ahlstrom, director of design at Epcon Franchising, discusses working for Epcon as an employee and a client, managing our portfolio of home designs, design trends and more in this episode of the Epcon Experts Podcast.

“I would advise people to focus on trends that have a real basis in how people actually live.

Host: Today we have Mats Ahlstrom, Director of Design for Epcon Communities. Mats, how are you today?

Mats Ahlstrom, Director of Design at Epcon Franchising: I’m doing great. Thank you for having me.

Host: Good. Looking forward to talking about all that we have going on for product development and all the home designs that we have that have proven popular, but we’re going to make them even better. Anxious to get going on that. Let’s jump right in.

You joined the team with Epcon Franchising almost a year ago now. Prior to that, you’ve known and hopefully loved Epcon for many years, because we were a client of yours at your last company.

Can you share a little bit about what the two different roles have been like, working with Epcon as a client and then working with Epcon as an in‑house employee running a design team?

Mats: Sure. Having Epcon as a client was a great experience for me. First and foremost, I learned about how important good designs are for a home builder, and also how much work goes into getting that right.

When I first began working with Epcon, I was employed by a very experienced architect. He taught me the ins and outs of residential architecture. With Epcon as a client, I was so lucky because I got to work on everything from plan and elevation designs to managing master sets and prototype drawings that would be used all over the country.

One interesting challenge was understanding how base plan designs interact with other structural and design options. Of course, all production home builders go through this and have to deal with it. The fun thing for an architect like me is to figure out how all those puzzle pieces fit together.

Then seeing that when it’s done right it creates this integrated whole design. That was a cool thing to work on with Epcon. Another fascinating aspect of working with Epcon was to be able to create this diverse product portfolio while at the same time keeping things relatively simple to build and manage, which any production home builder needs.

For instance, if you walk down a street in an Epcon community and, certainly I feel this way, I don’t know about others, you will see that no neighboring homes look the same. Yet, there’s this special sense that these can only be Epcon designs.

That’s the care and continuity that a respected brand like Epcon has taken so long to build. As a consultant, I was very happy to have played a part in that. If you look at my current role as Director of Design, the biggest thing is that it’s given me a much better insight on everything that goes on behind the scenes to create such a great product.

Because it’s all about the home buyer. Everything we do here is geared toward the home buyers and their experience. It’s all about putting the customer first.

Providing that special experience for the end user while maintaining the quality reputation, what I’m noticing first‑hand now is how hard people work within this company to make that happen.

I didn’t realize that before. I also didn’t realize that there’s such a well‑developed support structure and process for each Franchise Builder, and how much goes into that. That’s been pretty eye‑opening for me.

Host: It’s truly given you the ability to see the full picture of the impact of your home designs and the work that you do to see how the customers interact with that, or hear more directly from the field, instead of just getting limited communication, hearing from a client on really big, hot button issues. You get to see all of it and what the customers think about it.

Mats: That’s exactly right.

Host: What made you want to make that jump from an external design firm to working for a home builder?

Mats: Two words, the product and the people.

It’s as simple as that. Over the years working with Epcon, I’ve had the privilege to get to understand and appreciate that the Epcon name and the Epcon brand stands for a quality product, and we never compromise on that mission.

I also noticed that within Epcon the people working here tended to stay with the company for a long time. That speaks to that positive culture, that ownership and management have created here.

In one word, I think it comes down to respect. Respect for people, of course, but also respecting what goes into the process of maintaining and building upon that stellar reputation. That was the kind of company that I wanted to work for.

Host: When you talk about people, first, love that answer, you’ve talked about the people and Epcon that you’re working with, both in the home building company and the franchising team.

Talk a little bit about interactions you’ve had people‑wise with Franchise Builders and maybe employees of franchises. Has that been a positive development over the last year for you as well?

Mats: Very much. I worked with Epcon Franchise Builders through my previous design firm. I never had anything but a positive experience. I learned so much from them. It’s a two‑way street. They listen to us because we’ve done this for a long time. We know what works and what doesn’t.

If they’re good listeners, they will understand that they’ll follow the process, and they will reach out to us when they need help, but on the other hand, we learn constantly from them. They’re in all different markets all over the country with different kinds of customers. We always take their needs into account to continuously better our product.

Host: I think that interaction that you currently have and will continue to have with them is going to be essential for us as our portfolio evolves over time to get their feedback, what’s working. Some of them have great ideas. One that comes to mind, in Cincinnati, a franchise of ours that has a great design eye. A lot of good ideas can come from him.

When we boil your role down to its most basic level, you’re responsible for managing that portfolio of home designs and making sure it’s the best for the niche that we’re serving in the market.

Mats: Most of our home designs are built around a pretty simple‑to‑understand concept. We build detached courtyard homes with a focus on first‑floor living. That pretty much encompasses what we’re trying to do.

Our plans vary from, I think, about 1,400 square feet to up to almost 4,000 square feet now. Most of these units have two separate bedroom suites on the first floor. Then there’s an open concept for living, kitchen and dining areas, and they’re all facing the courtyard.

The courtyards are very important to us because they accomplish so many things. Firstly, they are generally private, which allows our buyers to take full advantage of that indoor‑outdoor connection in a natural and secluded way.

Secondly, the large amount of glass openings toward the courtyard spaces create these bright and airy interiors with very attractive views. We have side‑facing courtyards and we have rear‑facing courtyards. That is depending on what suits the site and the home buyer.

Of course, the courtyards themselves can also be configured in various ways to suit each homeowner’s needs. On the inside, we also have the ability to personalize the home for our home buyers through what we call design options.

They can be structural add‑on spaces like a four seasons room, maybe a flex room, a second‑floor bonus room, it could be a matter of choosing fixtures and material finishes or even paint to personalize that home to be special for that one home buyer.

When we look at the whole gamut of what we offer, the courtyard homes, the detached courtyard homes, that’s our bread and butter. In addition to this, we also have some townhomes.

Host: I think that you described it very well.

One thing that I always enjoy doing when I’m walking through one of our homes with somebody that’s never seen it before, whether it’s a prospective franchise, or maybe even a prospective customer that might come in when I’m in there, I like to ask them, “Guess the square footage of this house now that you’ve walked through it.”

They always shoot much higher than it is, what the actual number is. That speaks to how open the designs are and also the way that all that natural light and those windows and doors that you talked about, from the courtyard, blur that line between the interior and the exterior.

Even though on average, the homes we sell are around 2,000 square feet, but like you said, they can go much larger than that. They still live a lot larger than that. That’s, in my opinion, the way that people view it. It’s a testament to how well it’s been designed with your involvement over so many years.

I guess moving back more into the interior of the home design, what are some of the non‑negotiables that you keep in mind when you’re working on the function and the layout of these unit types?

Mats: That is a great question. For me, I think a home has to function properly without a lot of wasted space or gimmicky solutions. At the same time, there’s a minimum amount of space needed for each function that absolutely has to be accounted for.

That’s something that you learn over time as a designer and architect by trial and error. The other thing that sometimes gets neglected is that each room and each function has to be able to be furnished by a wide variety of people with different tastes. That’s very different, being a production builder than being a custom builder.

You’d be surprised to see how many designers don’t always take that into account. It’s either too generic, so you don’t really know what a space is going to be used for, or it’s too specific that you can only furnish it in one very, very specific way. As a designer for a production builder, that’s something that I pay close attention to.

Also, no matter what the program calls for, whether it’s the interior or the exterior, spaces need to be well‑proportioned and well‑lit to create a pleasing overall aesthetic. Ultimately, it’s my goal as an architect to make sure that the home buyer is happy in their home.

For me, that means that all spaces need to be treated with care and with importance because that shows that we as a company feel that the everyday lives of our home buyers really matter. I take great pride in that as an architect.

Host: I always hate seeing something labeled as a flex space on a set of plans. To me, that just screams, “We ended up with this leftover space and didn’t know what to call it. We’re just going to call it flex.”

Mats: That’s right. With that said, if you do it right, and maybe the flex part of that equation is two or at the most three different kinds of functions. That can work. Let’s say you have a flex space that can be used as maybe a den.

Then, when you have guests over, it can be converted into a bedroom. You have a fold‑out couch or something like that, that works. That’s flexible use of that space. When you’re trying to say that a space is a living room, and it’s a bedroom, and it’s storage, and it’s starting to get too much and nothing works well.

Host: Yes. On our plans, we do have some that are either a den or a bedroom. Though they look different in either scenario based on what the customer chooses to personalize and bedroom will obviously have a closet, den might have some more windows.

Yes. That is a flex space. It’s not an empty room or a leftover space in a hallway that we’re labeling that way for somebody to throw something into.

Mats: That’s right.

Host: How would you advise builders to avoid their home design portfolio falling out of date? What are some ways or some techniques and best practices that they should always be doing to make sure that what they’re offering is timely and resonating with the marketplace?

Mats: This is on the minds of every single builder in the country. The first thing you have to accept is that you can’t please everyone or keep up on every single trend that comes up.

In regards to trends, I would advise people to focus on trends that have a real basis in how people actually live, rather than the fashionable dos and don’ts from magazines or home shows on TV, because they change constantly. One day, this is in, and then the next day, that’s out.

How do you keep up with that as a builder? The lead times you have in building, and managing production schedules is longer than the trend sometimes. You have to be a little careful about the trends and look more at how people live.

If you don’t have the resources or the know‑how to come up with your own design strategy, I would advise home builders to utilize the work that has already been done by others. Why not become a Franchise Builder? It’s a much easier way that will ensure that your designs are going to stay on track and on‑trend. That’s my final tip.

Host: Certainly, a valid point, with the amount of money and time that we invest every year in the plan collection, in terms of research and development and modifications to make sure it’s always up to code. Certainly, good advice for any builder.

Mats: The work is already done.

Host: As you mentioned a little bit ago, you, at your last company, in particular, worked with several of our Franchise Builders modifying the plans to meet their markets or specific zoning requirements, things like that. I think you have some good insights into what a great Epcon Franchise Builder looks like from those interactions.

In your opinion, what are some of the more important traits for somebody that’s considering joining Epcon?

Mats: Having some experience as a builder is a big plus, starting as a Franchise Builder. The biggest thing is just to be a good listener. The Epcon Franchising team already knows what works and what doesn’t. They can help at every step of the way.

In my experience, and I’ve worked with many Franchise Builders over the years, the ones who end up having difficulties are the ones trying to reinvent the wheel.

With that said, like I said earlier, listening goes both ways.

Host: It takes at least some level of humility on the part of any builder to join a franchise program like Epcon. Just recognition that they don’t have all the answers, that there’s other people that have done certain aspects of home building longer.

It’s very wise and worth the time to stick to what that process is, listen to the consulting advice of people that have been in the system for many years, and as you said, stop trying to reinvent the wheel because we’ve got this wheel pretty well figured out.

Mats: That’s right.

Host: Now, a little bit ago, you referred to us as a production builder, which I agree that we are. Though I always am quick to point out to others that I interact with, we’re not the typical top 10 production builder. We’re not trying to be all things to all people.

The term “production builder” can have a negative connotation, especially with custom builders that are very proud of what they do, and for good reason.

Thinking of how we build in a production style and how a custom builder builds in his or her own style, why do you think custom builders should look at doing something like what Epcon does when it comes to design of their portfolio, options and personalization that they offer to their clients?

Mats: Like you said, let me preface this by saying that the world of custom home building is very different from production home building, especially in terms of land development. With all that said, there are definitely things that overlap.

I think that production home builders have a very good grasp of what consumers want and how to provide that at a reasonable cost. Custom homes are becoming so expensive now that production home builders are starting to make some inroads into that market as well, not just in the area of affordable homes, but at the higher end as well.

It’s pretty simple. We can do that at a better price and with a much more easily managed process for the home buyer. Also, with the availability nowadays of really good designs for production home builders and personalized design options, it makes the difference between custom homes and production homes almost indistinguishable.

If I was a custom home builder, I’d probably take a pretty close look at what a production builder like Epcon is doing for sure.

Host: Sure. Your comments on price point remind me of a conversation I had a few years ago with one of our builders in Iowa, where he felt like as a custom builder doing about 10 homes a year, the pricing, it just escalated to the point where he felt like the market was very, very thin for him to do any kind of incremental business in that style of home building.

Yes, he was going to continue to build custom homes, but adopt what we do as a way to lower price point, simplify and get buyers under contract faster once everything’s programmed out.

With that in mind, just having pre‑selected home designs, pre‑selected options, can you talk a little bit about what I’ve heard you describe as “choice overload syndrome”? That would be very, I think, interesting to custom builders to hear about in particular because they often give buyers the entire catalog of things to choose from when it comes to each component of the house.

Mats: Choice overload is when a person struggles mentally with being faced with too many options. There’s been some research done on this. This is a real thing.

Basically, for home builders, it means that providing too many options for your customers can lead to indecision, or even worse, regret. It has this freezing effect where the person avoids making a choice at all.

I think as a home builder, you have to tread very carefully when it comes to providing too many design choices. Choice overload is something that we need to pay close attention to.

Host: That reminds me of a division manager I had once at a prior company. He would always say, “A confused mind doesn’t buy.” That was his message to us to simplify our options in each community, simplify the number of home designs we are offering.

Otherwise, if there’s 12 different possible types of flooring width, somebody can’t make a decision on that because they’re just so afraid of making the wrong decision.

Mats: Yep. That’s very well said.

Host: We talked a little bit about your interactions, both here and at your last company with Franchise Builders in our system. As we’re coming to a close on our time, I just wanted to ask you, what advice would you have for somebody that’s either considering joining Epcon or has just joined Epcon and starting to begin their first project.

What advice would you give them, especially more from a design standpoint, picking which home designs they’re offering, and how to merchandise them?

Mats: I’m going to keep this pretty short. You have to target your market, you have to know your home buyers and then you just need to trust the Epcon Franchising process. It works. It really does.

Host: Love it when you can keep it simple like that, boil it down to an easy‑to‑follow playbook. Thank you for your time, Mats.