Photos: Jim Bartsch

When early settlers headed out in the direction of California and the Pacific Northwest in the 1800s, they were lured by the promise of wide open spaces, abundant natural resources, and the chance to earn a fine fortune.

Let’s just say the real estate market has changed a little since then. Today, resources have dwindled, land parcels have shrunk to postage-stamp size, prices are in free fall in the wake of the housing bubble, and the Golden State’s economy is more constrained than at any other time in history.

But the dream is still alive. And, as this year’s Gold Nugget Awards so beautifully illustrate, there are lots of pioneering builders, developers, and architects out there who are conquering this wild new frontier with great innovation. Infill development is commonplace, jewel-box homes are in vogue, affordable housing has never looked so luxurious, and energy efficiency is the order of the day. These are among the takeaways of 2009 from the annual PCBC-sponsored competition run by Peter M. Mayer Productions, which celebrates outstanding design in the 14 Western states and international markets.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the West? Its spectacular views—which more than a few of this year’s winners, from urban high-rises to secluded custom homes, were careful to preserve. There is still gold in them thar hills. And you can savor its glow when the sun sets.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: Santa Barbara, CA, Los Angeles, CA.