Vacation homes are hot. Thanks to increasing buyer confidence and a loosening of credit restrictions, the category saw its biggest increase last year in over a decade, catapulting to an estimated 1.13 million sales, up 57% from 2013, according to the National Association of Realtors (NAR).

Lawrence Yun, NAR chief economist, says the astonishing growth nearly doubled combined total sales of the previous two years. "Last year's impressive increase also reflects long-term growth in the numbers of baby boomers moving closer to retirement and buying second homes to convert into their primary home in a few years," he says.

Popular styles of vacation homes run the gamut from snowbird condos on the beach to sprawling lakeside getaways for an extended family. The winners of this year's Gold Nugget Awards, sponsored by PCBC and BUILDER, show off the best in this burgeoning category: Five of the top single-family honorees are vacation retreats.

These homes demonstrate the latest design trends in the vacation market. Second-home buyers often will give up square footage in the bedrooms for more open living areas, says Sean Richardson, principal of design and planning at Jeffrey DeMure Architects in Granite Bay, Calif., who notes that "vacation homes function more like hotels. They are designed around relaxation and entertaining."

When on vacation, nobody wants to deal with home repairs, so low-maintenance products also are key, says John E. Sather, senior partner at Swaback Partners Architecture in Scottsdale, Ariz. "Several of our clients are willing to pay more to get more durable materials up front rather than find they have major maintenance bills down the line," he says.

But undoubtedly the most important consideration for high-impact second homes is a connection to the outdoors, according to Salt Lake City architect John Shirley. "The house's design must accentuate the connection to the exterior environment, maximizing views and opening interior to exterior space," he says.

Gold Nugget Award Winners: Vacation Homes

Schumacher Residence + Stein Eriksen Residences + MountainRetreat + Lake Tahoe Getaway + Andalusia at Coral Mountain +