Denise Dersin

Editor in Chief
Anje Jager/ Denise Dersin Editor in Chief

Most people make the mistake of thinking design is what [something] looks like. People think it’s this veneer—that the designers are handed this box and told, ‘Make it look good!’ That’s not what we think design is. It’s not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” So said Steve Jobs in a 2003 story in The New York Times. Jobs was describing the creation of the iPod, but his comments could just as easily have been about designing a home. More than just how it looks, great home design is about functionality and usability. It should make life at home easier and more pleasant from the time you get up in the morning to the time you lay your head on your pillow at night. For example, how far is the kitchen from where you bring your groceries into the house? Do you have to carry clothes three flights down to do laundry and three flights up to put them away? Can you grab a towel from the linen closet when you’re soaking wet without walking down the hall? Can one person unload the dishwasher while another is preparing and cooking dinner without getting in each other’s way? Are there places for you to stash and charge all of the electronic devices we carry around with us all the time now?

These and a thousand other activities make up the fabric of daily life at home. And whether the layout of a home drives its inhabitants to distraction or serves to ease their way through the everyday tasks they need to accomplish can make all the difference in the world as to how they feel about your product.

At Builder, we think a lot about home design throughout the year but never more so than around this time as we put together our annual Builder’s Choice award story. The process begins as we watch our judges, a group of architects and builders, both custom and production, many of them with previous award-winning projects of their own, pore over the nearly 400 entries we receive. Winnowing the projects down to a small group of contenders is difficult; it usually takes all of the first day. The next day is devoted to making the final choices.

The projects left on the table from that first day possess all of the basic necessities for being of award-winning caliber: They are models of proportion, in harmony with their surroundings, well constructed, display an honest use of materials, and show evidence of original thinking in their design. They also are endowed with some intangibles—a perception of beauty, serenity, elegance, or whatever word you might use to describe what attracts your eye to one design over another. So what tips the scales and sets the winners apart from the rest of the finalists?

It’s the details that really matter. The judges get down to cases and point out what works and what doesn’t. They discuss, and sometimes argue, the finer points of almost everything. Since every project is different in so many ways, many of these discussions revolve around context. For example, one judge may veto a custom home entry that failed to take full advantage of a stunning view. Another may deep six an infill project that is interesting in and of itself and meets the criteria for neighborhood density and purpose, but jangles when compared with the rest of the streetscape. On the plus side, a design that might seem too industrial for family living may be deemed absolutely perfect for student housing.

Which takes us back to Jobs, whose products are studied by practically every branch of design disciplines today. He once said the first and most important question he asked before beginning the design of any new product was, “What’s the user experience?” Once that is determined, he continued, “the pieces just come together.”

As I hope the pieces of this year’s Builder’s Choice story come together for you and perhaps provide some new ideas for your homes.

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