Style and Substance: Raising the Bar

This year's Design Challenge winners really raised the bar.

September 01, 2008

In my opinion, the real star of the 2006 film “The Lake House” wasn't Keanu Reeves or Sandra Bullock, but the house itself: a wonderful glass-and-steel structure that rose out of the water on stilts.

It so happens that the 2008 Custom Builder Design Challenge is about a lake house, albeit a landlocked one surrounded by trees. I couldn't help noticing that many of the entries were modern designs with clean lines and expanses of glass framing idyllic lake views and sunsets. It's an architectural style that conveys elegance without detracting from a site's natural beauty.

But that's not to say other styles can't work just as well in a lakeside setting. The Design Challenge winners are mixed: two modern houses; a traditional home with a shingle-and-stone façade; and an eclectic, cabin-like design. Moreover, they satisfy the most important mandates of the program by making the most of a relatively small footprint and leaving as much of the site undisturbed as possible. (Read about the winning designs on pages 24 to 34.)

Last year — the first year of the Challenge — I was impressed by the effort and attention to detail in many of the entries. This year, I was astounded by the work that went into them. One designer submitted schematic drawings, photos of steel-frame buildings under construction and dozens of 3-D renderings along with the standard plans and elevations. Others waxed poetic in their entry statements, creating identities for the fictional clients and names for the houses such as Harmony, Meerhuis (Dutch for “lake house”), Novus Satus (New Beginning), The Aviary and Domo Vitae (House of Life).

I'm encouraged by entries of this caliber, because it means we're on the way to achieving our goals for the challenge. We want to inspire designers of all backgrounds and experience levels to go above and beyond the program requirements, have fun with the concept and make it come alive. It's as much a challenge for us as it is for them. Each year, we try to up the ante, making the program achievable but not too easy, tricky but not impossible.

An important part of that process is having the program fine-tuned by a professional designer. This year, the talented Mario Aiello of Dahlin Group Architecture Planning in Pleasanton, Calif., acted as consultant. Mario designed the Rivera Stone House, which was named Home of the Year in the 2006 Best in American Living Awards.

I've already started thinking about the 2009 Design Challenge. One possibility is a townhome or condominium where interior space is customized to the needs of the individual client. I also like the idea of doing a small detached house. If you have any suggestions, please e-mail me at

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