Mark Robert Halper

Welcome to our 13th annual residential architect Design Awards coverage. When we launched this program in 2000, the housing market was just starting to percolate with activity. We had 300 entries that first year, and 24 winners. Mark McInturff, FAIA, of McInturff Architects won Project of the Year for a frugal little cabin designed for an art history professor. The cladding—asphalt shingles and corrugated metal—caught everyone’s eye back then. Simple, modern, and inexpensive, the 1,700-square-foot house cost just $80 per square foot to build. Imagine, a high-design house even a teacher could afford. Thirteen years later, while mired in a national economic slump, our design awards program drew a surprisingly hefty 800 entries. Our judges winnowed them down to just 36 lucky winners. And guess what won this year’s Project of the Year? A high-design, low-budget building by Jonathan Segal, FAIA. It cost him just $105 a foot to build. And yes, he used asphalt shingles as siding—to great effect.

How did 13 years pass with such little bump in building costs? Segal is his own secret weapon. He was architect, general contractor, developer, land planner, landscape designer, and interior designer on the small, multifamily project.

Both projects serve as prime examples of how ingenious architects can be if the budget won’t budge and they’re creatively invested in the project.

During the boom times, we had our share of design award winners with $1,000 a square foot and up budgets. And I recall many an architect saying they really couldn’t do anything nice for under $500 per square foot.

We are all coming to our senses again. Houses don’t have to cost the earth. Architects can work within budgets and, with some leeway from their clients, weave a little magic into mundane, affordable materials.

I have no doubt the lavish-living 1 percenters will return to the marketplace. In fact, you’ll see some of those houses among this year’s winners. Architects will always find these jewel box houses exciting and challenging. But the 99 percent are still waiting for their firmness, commodity, and delight. It can be done. It should be done. Let’s get it done.