IF YOU'RE DESIGNING OR BUILDING homes with an eye to the future, start looking for a niche. Pay particular attention if your current focus is churning out vast numbers of attached townhomes on acres of former cornfields or putting up larger-than-life Tuscan wonders with Pacific views. The world of unlimited land with unlimited views is quickly shrinking, so many forward-thinking builders and architects are actively pursuing projects that revolve around an edgier set of buzzwords: Affordable. Urban Infill. Green/Energy-Efficient. Nature. Good design is a consistent theme across the board.

“You only have to look at the plethora of design and lifestyle magazines crowding the local Barnes and Noble or all the design-oriented TV programming, to acknowledge a growing interest in residential design,” says Kevin deFreitas, an architect in San Diego. “An offshoot of the ‘good-design' trend is the fact that metropolitan real estate is escalating at such a rapid pace that many more people are willing to accept less square footage for a better designed and detailed finished space.”

Affordable: One design firm in particular, David Baker + Partners, Architects in San Francisco, stands out in this growing field. The company has partnered with BRIDGE Housing Corp., based in San Francisco, to put up a distinctive group of California projects that combine good design and site sensitivity. Builder Reed Porter of Trend Homes in Chandler, Ariz., is also at the forefront of the affordable movement, as are the California architectural firms of KTGY Group and JBZ Architecture + Planning.

Urban Infill: Hot spots include San Diego, Portland, Ore.'s Pearl District, San Francisco, and Oakland, Calif., but there's plenty of urban activity in Chicago and along the East Coast, too. Various waterfront communities in the New York/ New Jersey area are especially active. There's lots of buzz about Maxwell House on the Hudson, a Toll Brothers project in Hoboken, N.J.

Green/Energy-Efficient: Evergreen, a Pardee Homes development in the Terramor community at Ladera Ranch, in California, earns high marks as a project that combines great architecture with Energy Star, LivingSmart, and zero-energy home possibilities.

Nature: The great outdoors has a place in this new order, but it's nature in its more pristine form. Think hiking trails and unspoiled canyons, not pocket parks and golf courses. One example is Credit River Territory, a 705-acre, master planned project outside Minneapolis/St. Paul, Minn., that the Laurent Development Co. calls an “eco-community.” Look for amenities that include a restored dairy barn and an old-fashioned covered bridge.

New Century Modernism Is it finally time for Modern design to take off?

Modern design and single-family–detached developments are two notions that don't often converge. But 2801 South Palm Canyon, a 16-home project in Palm Springs, Calif., is out to prove that this combo has promise. “These houses exemplify our commitment to what we're calling New Century Modernism,” says Jay M. Reynolds, principal of OJMR Architects in Los Angeles. “The design adapts the Southern California Modern style to fit the needs of an area that is becoming increasingly urban.” The project broke ground in April and is slated to be completed next spring.

Learn more about markets featured in this article: San Francisco, CA, San Diego, CA.