The prevailing wisdom since the economy went sour is that new home buyers are embracing austerity and finally seeking those “not so big houses.” Yes, the average house size peaked at 2,521 square feet in 2007 and contracted over the next several years to a low of 2,392 square feet in 2010, just beyond the nadir of the crash. But guess what? Houses are getting bigger again. According to preliminary figures from the Census Bureau, completed houses in 2011 were just 40 square feet off our all-time high. Even more telling is the average for houses started in the last quarter of 2011—2,527 square feet, which surpasses the super­-sized zenith of 2007.

The census numbers combine single-family for-sale, contractor-built, and owner-built statistics, so they don’t give a precise reading on the custom market. But they do convey overall trends. I went looking for clues after I noticed something unexpected about our 2012 Custom Home Design Awards competition: The categories with the most entries were the bigger square footage ones. We drew 41 entries in our category for custom homes less than 3,000 square feet, but 100 total in the two larger categories (which represent homes 3,000 to 5,000 square feet and more than 5,000 square feet). Turns out, when people commit to designing and building a new house, they still want just as much room as ever—even in this economy.

That doesn’t mean people will froth over big, blocky McMansions again. Today’s custom client has learned the critical lesson of Sarah Susanka’s “Not So Big” movement—that simply upsizing a house isn’t satisfying. High-quality materials and deftly designed space with character make a house feel like a home. At the same time, architects have learned a few lessons about how to handle bigger houses more gracefully. Usually that means breaking down those big volumes into smaller “dependencies,” creating the appearance of a compound and offering more flexibility for future uses and zoned areas for climate control.

Having watched the evolution of this competition over 20 years, I’ve seen growing critical respect for well-done larger houses. While jewel box houses are a perennial favorite—our Custom Home of the Year is just 2,100 square feet—the bigger houses have gotten stronger over time. In fact, our More Than 5,000 Square Feet category provided the most winners of all our whole-house categories—five awards total. Bigger, better, and built to last.