Here at ra, we look forward to our design awards competition every year, always excited about what our jury of architects will elevate to Project of the Year. More often than not, our jury falls in love with a quiet jewel box of a custom home, the product of abundant talent and a limitless budget. Not so this year. This go-round, there was an edgy impatience with the solipsism of such houses. They're beautiful, of course, and everyone admires them as artistic expressions of their owners' and architects' vision. But in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and, on the other side of the scale, another record year for housing appreciation, our judges were looking for something less romantic and more practical. They were searching for housing solutions with broader potential for application. And they found some potent ideas in the work of Torti Gallas and Dan Rockhill's Studio 804. So much so that their discovery led to our first-ever tie among three projects and two firms for Project of the Year.

Torti Gallas's project, a HOPE VI community in Philadelphia, is especially poignant to behold after the recent passing of urbanist Jane Jacobs. Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza replaces precisely the kind of high-rise, low-income housing complex Jacobs reviled. In its stead, the architects and planners laced a delicate fabric of old buildings and new, low-income housing and moderate, residential units and retail, all designed with sensitivity to the palette of the original neighborhood. The firm listened to what the residents loved about their community and how they wanted to live and then responded with empathy and ingenuity. “It's not about signature architecture,” one judge said of the project. “It's about modesty. It has a bigger responsibility than this moment in time.”

Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza is a wonderful fix for a blighted, densely urban neighborhood. But our judges also went hunting for well-designed affordable housing for small single-family lots —the central vision of the American dream. They found it in Studio 804's Modular 1 and Modular 2—two prefabricated entry-level houses designed for infill lots in Kansas City, Kan. Studio 804 is architect/ professor Dan Rockhill's innovative program at the University of Kansas School of Architecture and Urban Design. This is not the first time residential projects originating in this program have won design awards in our competition. But this is the first Project of the Year honor for Rockhill and his students. “Modular homes are a reality,” said a juror. “And these acknowledge that they can be done with care. They can be as desirable as any single-family home.”

“These are housing strategies for real people,” added another judge. “Ten years from now we're going to be in a different world. And if we don't build neighborhoods for real people, we're in trouble.” Another problem looming on the horizon—or perhaps already in our purview, according to the jury—is a shortage of the skilled labor required to build houses on site. Manufactured components promise factory tolerances and easy end-stage assembly.

So this is why we have three Projects of the Year. Maybe it's a wonder we don't have even more. “These aren't the only two solutions, but they are solutions,” said our jury. “The message is about housing for everybody. Everybody needs to be thinking about this.”

Comments? E-mail: cconroy@hanleywood.com.