ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT THINGS FOR BUILDERS to do is to get out of the office, to get out of town even, and see what the other guy is building. New-home design may not be changing as fast as women's fashion, but you are leaving money on the table if you build the same models over and over again.

A reader survey we recently completed found that 84 percent of builders build a different home every year. An overwhelming majority of respondents, 88 percent, say customers are “more or much more” design-conscious than they were five years ago. And most builders now believe that the added cost of fine design pays for itself in higher margins and faster absorption. (We'll have more on the results of that survey in next month's issue.)

The downside of all this attention to design is that it's getting harder and harder to stand out in the marketplace. That's why we have been running the Builder's Choice design competition for 24 years. Mere good design and fast sales don't ensure a project of winning one of these awards. Only the truly inspired make the cut.

Being discriminating means we can identify genuine cutting-edge design trends, which invariably wind up shaping production housing down the road. For instance, this year we noticed a lot more dark wood on the floors of kitchens and darker hues used throughout the house. Greater attention is being paid to four-sided architecture through the use of windows, varied roof treatments, trellises, balconies, and other touches. And recent infatuation with Old World details—aged brick, delicate ironwork, dramatic wood trusses, pre-cast window accents, and decorative tile—seems to be deepening.

Some other emerging trends:

Affordable Rules: Over and over, affordable projects surpassed market-rate entries for inventive architecture and site-sensitive design, especially in urban areas. We found exterior elevations marked by bold colors and a mix of materials, with interiors almost always clean and crisp.

Light My Fire: The great outdoors isn't complete without a fireplace these days—especially if you live in Southern California or Arizona. They're almost standard in high-end Tuscan and Andalusian wonders. Even attached projects have begun to include an outdoor fireplace or two as a standard feature.

Urban Renewal: With cities making a big comeback, gritty infill sites have become prime real estate, especially for builders who have developed a niche with edgy, urban projects. Site challenges often produce some of the most interesting and innovative new housing design.

Porch Proud: Porches, front and back, are getting the full indoor treatment these days, with suites of furniture and decorative accessories that would rival any interior. East and West look for flooring material—flagstone, brick, and tile—that makes the transition from inside to out with nary a break.

New Traditionals: We're seeing some wonderful fresh takes on traditional styles. Variations on a Midwestern cottage and a St. Augustine, Fla.–style single-family house look remarkably modern today, especially when compared with all those Spanish- and Italian-style stucco palaces out West.

Out and About: Builders aren't wasting an inch of valuable land these days, so lots are increasingly filled with all sorts of outbuildings. Look for granny flats, casitas, and separate studios on high-end projects. Families want getaway rooms for themselves, for visitors, and for an aging parent or boomerang child.

Boyce Thompson, Editorial Director