Our residential architect Design Awards program has grown stronger in quality and quantity every year. We started out nine years ago with a respectable 300 entries, and the number has climbed steadily ever since—until this year, when it made a big leap up. We shot from 886 last year to 1,346 this go-round. I had to extend deliberations by another day for our jury to get through them all. We were swamped by the response.

What happened? I think we just saw the big plume of smoke wafting up from the housing boom. If you consider that most of the entered projects had to be under way at least two years ago—at the very top of the home buying and building frenzy—this explanation makes the most sense. I'm curious to see what our entry total will amount to in the future. How many projects from the flush years are still making it through the pipeline?

We should all savor the winners in this issue because they may represent a vanishing golden age in home design. These last six years especially have seen the perfect confluence of ample budgets and admirable boldness from clients—the prime ingredients for turning a conventional house project into something approaching a work of art. Suddenly, dream jobs were everywhere and everyone was getting them.

Many of those dream jobs passed before our judges this January. Gorgeous project here, gorgeous project there. But as with a surfeit of chocolate, the jurors began to cloy at the predictable perfection of these confections. “Very competent” was a commonly heard quip before a project flew into the discard stack. “Very slick” was another. Really, how many architects wouldn't love to have their work called “very competent and very slick” by an expert panel? Sounds like a pretty nice house!

Many very nice houses ended up on the cutting room floor, and I'd like to see quite a few of them try another run at future juries when the boom dust settles and real-world rules are back in force. Until then, we have this rare collection assembled for our pleasure. Said one of our judges, “The projects we've pushed to the top had a whole level of spirit that didn't exist in the others.”

And yes, you'll notice most of the winners are strikingly modern.

We discussed this at length during the judging. There was a consensus among jury members—several of whom design with traditional forms and materials—that the best classical work simply wasn't entered in the program. Given how strenuous the standards were for the modern work, they argued, they could apply no different scale to the considerably fewer traditional entries.

So how do we achieve a more ecumenical mix of winners for this competition? Some judges suggested we have a separate category for such projects—or an entirely separate competition. I'm reluctant. The point here is to evaluate all residential work together, side by side. And to elevate and acknowledge excellence —no matter what the style.

I was gratified to see modern projects judged extremely rigorously this year—there were no free passes simply for doing them well. I know some very good traditional projects suffered a similar fate. But looking at our list of entrants, I also know our judges were right about this: Some of the best traditional architects are not entering the program.

And if you don't enter, you can't win, can you?

Comments? E-mail: S. Claire Conroy at cconroy@hanleywood.com.