Click here to see all of the 2008 Builder's Choice Award winners.

How do you define "good design" at a time when the housing industry is hurting and builders are more focused (and appropriately so) on survival than they are on the ­nuances of, say, proper site orientation, ­massing, and architectural detailing?

That is what is perhaps most astounding about this year's Builder's Choice winners: the climate in which they prevailed—a maelstrom of turbulent market forces conspiring to push design to the back burner. Collectively, these top projects offer proof that design done right becomes a strategic point of leverage, not a frivolous pursuit reserved for boom times.

The serious problems of our time warrant serious reinvention, and this year's winners do not disappoint. Antidotes to rising fuel costs, for example, take on myriad forms: ­infill mixed-use neighborhoods that allow residents to trade their cars for public transit; adaptive reuse of vintage buildings otherwise destined for the landfill; custom homes built with locally available materials, thus reducing the miles needed to transport goods to the jobsite; houses with built-in renewable energy systems; and affordable pocket communities whose proximity to jobs means ­homeowners are not forced to "drive to qualify" to far-flung exurbs that leave their bank accounts exhausted by commuting costs.

That said, the lone residence judges selected as Home of the Year may come as a surprise. It's not small, affordable, green, or urban. But it is a serene and beautiful place that honors its natural surroundings. Beauty is the one necessary ingredient in good ­design—like flour is to bread—that never waivers, regardless of business conditions or world affairs. Even when all else seems to be crumbling, beauty sustains us.

South River Residence

2008 Builder's Choice Awards Home of the Year

Inspiration for this riverside retreat began with a dog-eared photo of an old shucker’s shanty—a simple structure typical of the watermen’s homes and boat sheds that populated the Chesapeake, Md., tidewater region in the 19th century. “It’s your basic Monopoly [board game] house with board-and-batten siding and a gabled roof,” says architect Wayne Good. The contemporary residence that now graces this waterfront lot is an ­evolution of that aesthetic.

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Don’t miss BUILDER Online’s exclusive slideshows of additional photos, floor plans, site plans, and section diagrams of the best designed projects of 2008, all available on the Builder's Choice archive page.