How do you describe the value architects bring to residential design? I've been working this question since I began editing this magazine seven years ago. And I know many architects struggle with this, too. The challenges about your worth come from all over—from potential clients, from other sources of design services, from the general public. What can you possibly offer that merits the cost and time you add to a building? There are many long answers to this question. But a short answer sticks in my mind lately: authenticity.

From the style of the house, to the products used to make it, to the spirit in which it was conceived, authenticity sets the architect-designed house apart from the others. Even when there's a sense of humor to the design, there's always sincerity in its execution, right down to the materials and products that give it shape.

During this housing boom, my inner-ring suburban neighborhood has sprouted several new infill spec houses. They're all designed by the builder or adapted from an existing plan to fit the lot and appeal to prospective buyers' “hot buttons.” Setting aside my quibbles with their design, what strikes me most powerfully is how plastic they are. Every material is a counterfeit for the real thing. Except for the kitchen counters and appliances (aforementioned hot buttons)—those must be granite and stainless steel, respectively. These are not cheap houses. They sell for close to $1 million apiece. But their contrast to the less expensive, older, better-built houses in the neighborhood is glaring.

It makes me wonder if the surprisingly strong appeal of loft apartments lies, in part, in their use of some authentic materials. Concrete or wood floors, brick walls, stone counters, stainless steel appliances, commercial steel windows, exposed and honest structure. Those recognizable, straightforward materials have allowed developers to claim a huge price premium over conventional multifamily design.

It appears the taste for slick and unnaturally perfect may be dwindling. Indeed, we're seeing signs everywhere of this social shift. Reality doesn't bite, after all; it rules. The buying public is primed and ready to face reality—on television, in books, on the Internet, in the bruised organic fruit we buy at the supermarket. And we're merciless if we feel we've been tricked, led astray, or lied to. We're nobody's fool.

We're searching for the truth and the value in everything these days. The word “natural” is one of the bestselling labels a marketer can slap on anything. Like the word “custom” in the housing market, it's certainly being abused and misused. But why not use these words and their proper meanings appropriately? Natural, real, authentic. This may be your best opportunity to differentiate yourselves from the pretenders in home design.

Architects are uniquely qualified to understand the intrinsic value in the products they spec and in the design decisions they implement. They are taught the reason and substance behind every surface detail we see. It's this depth of understanding that often escapes those spec builders in my neighborhood. They rely on the symbols and gestures, without considering the meaning behind them. The value of architects is that they understand what's truly invaluable.

Comments? Call: 202.736. 3312; write: S. Claire Conroy, residential architect, One Thomas Circle, N.W., Suite 600, Washington, D.C. 20005; or e-mail: cconroy@hanleywood.com.