S. Claire Conroy, editor
Eli Kaplan S. Claire Conroy, editor

When most people outside of the profession think about residential architects, they conjure up images of beautiful, expensive custom homes. And truth be told, that’s also what many nonresidential architects think our readers spend all day long designing. The conventional wisdom wiseacres really should peruse our annual design award winners for evidence to the contrary. Yes, high-end custom work is a compelling part of what many residential firms do, but it’s just one of the many design problems they are qualified and eager to solve. Given that, it’s no shock that this year’s Project of the Year is an affordable housing project. And it’s not just affordable to those slightly below middle class, but to those on the bottom rung of the economic ladder and in need of full social services.

Bud Clark Commons is a big, complex project with lots of stakeholders to please. If that weren’t complicated enough, the developer, Home Forward, wanted the building to attain LEED Platinum. The design by Holst Architecture accomplished all of this while creating a building so beautiful it completely removes any stigma of “subsidized housing”—for the occupants, the neighborhood, and the city. The building, dedicated to serving the homeless population of Portland, Ore., is so well done that it stands up to the finest in market-rate work. That is what the best architects bring to virtually any design and construction problem—the ability to make a project transcend its program and budget to become better than the sum of its parts.

This power to transform the mundane into the near miraculous isn’t just for larger projects. Take a look at this year’s Outbuilding category, and you’ll find two garden sheds that will knock your Wellies off. The first, Garden Gateway by John Grable Architects, is a triumph of lowly industrial materials which, as an added bonus, creates a shady little respite from the Texas heat for the family dog. The second, by Hufft Projects, is a moodier piece combining an oak-planked rainscreen shell and polycarbonate-clad end walls. Aglow at night, The Shed evokes a New-Age chapel steeped in mysticism and mystery. A third building, the Newton House pool pavilion by NADAAA, is a precious jewel box referencing the gardens and modern addition to an existing neo-Georgian house. It could have been simple, but it’s simply beautiful.

Similarly, Fougeron Architecture’s Flip House takes the typical redo of an urban townhouse and reinvents the paradigm. The firm blew out the back of the house, “flipped” the floor plan of social and private spaces (to the rear and front, respectively), and ultimately blows our minds with the coup de grace: a dazzling, faceted fenestrated wall.

Olson Kundig reimagines what a live/work space can be and, more particularly, how a front door should serve these dual purposes in Studio Sitges. This project won a detail award last year, which made it eligible for review again in the whole house categories where it zoomed up to a Grand award. So, repeat entrants take heart!

There is much innovation and sheer chutzpah to admire in the pages ahead, whether affordable or high end, large or small. It’s all problem-solving by design.