By Boyce Thompson. If you haven't been to Newport, R.I., it's worth the trip. You can tour more than a dozen over-the-top mansions from what was appropriately termed The Gilded Age. The crown jewel is The Breakers, a four-story limestone palace built from 1893 to 1895 by Cornelius Vanderbilt and his family.

We held the judging for our 21st annual Builder's Choice competition in Newport this year and took the judges on a tour of The Breakers. The 70 rooms in this 250-by-150 foot mansion redound with rose and yellow alabaster, floor-to-ceiling marble, gilded bronze capitals, and red Italian cut velvet. Whole rooms were built in European shops and reassembled on site.

It was amazing to watch several jurors discover usable details during the tour. From the table in the two-story dining room, you could look through glass at a fireplace in the great hall. Built-up casings around the doors in the library opened to reveal hidden shelves. And loggias along the back of the house afforded breath-taking ocean views.

Down to earth

Ironically, when it came time to judge the entries, the judges consistently selected strong and simple architecture over showy finishes and design excesses. They praised restraint and the honest use of natural materials--wood, stone, concrete, metal--especially when combined in innovative, subtle ways. I don't think The Breakers would have won a Builder's Choice.

You can certainly see these qualities in our project of the year, an idyllic custom home in Point Arena, Calif. Designed by Obie Bowman Architects, and built by OTKM Construction, the humble exterior of this 1,400-square-foot second home belies elegant, yet down-to-earth interior spaces. Its clean design stands in sharp contrast to some of the large custom and luxury production homes entered in our contest. The strong housing market of the last several years has produced some wretched excess--homes tricked out with drywall details, lighting effects, and big useless rooms.

The current rage

A couple of years ago, we noticed a trend toward courtyard homes--a great way to achieve a private outdoor space on a small lot. Now those courtyards are getting more elaborate, with outdoor kitchens, fireplaces, and spas. So is the way they relate to the rest of the house, with loggias that look down on them, French doors that lead out to them.

Along these lines is the growing popularity of outbuildings--casitas, granny flats, and studios. (Even The Breakers had a playhouse for the kids.) This trend, which used to be confined to Southern California, seems to be spreading throughout the country. Private, self-contained spaces are a great way to deal with boomerang children, nannies, in-laws, and visitors.

Coming attractions

One final trend worth mentioning: We're starting to see more contemporary takes on traditional architecture. It looks like buyers may be growing weary of nostalgic architecture, with the possible exception of 70-room Renaissance palaces, which we'll never grow tired of touring. They still want familiar forms, but punched up with contemporary plans, materials, and colors.

I hope you draw some ideas and inspiration from the winners in our Builder's Choice competition, a very diverse lot. I suggest that you study them all, even projects that are remote from the ones you build every day. You never know where your next great idea will come from.