The term custom home conjures up a certain image in the minds of many consumers—a large home, for starters. They may envision a palatial exterior, soaring interior spaces, exquisite finishes, every amenity, fabulous kitchens and baths, to-die-for outdoor entertainment areas. But mostly they think ... large. And they're not far off. Many custom homes are huge. A 40,000-square-foot custom compound is not unheard of these days. Even the more reasonable homes of this type with less than half the square footage are incredibly imposing. As I drove around a magnificent custom community in the suburbs of Washington recently, I couldn't help but wonder what these homes might be used for some day in the distant future. And then it hit me—fraternity houses! Eight bedrooms—all big enough to share, nine full baths and four half baths, gathering rooms, industrial-size kitchens, indoor pools and sports courts—they'd be perfect! All that's missing is, well, the college.

But in reality, a custom home can be any size, any shape, and for almost any pocketbook. Pure and simple, it is a home designed for a specific buyer and for a specific site. Some of the best custom homes are built for folks with little money and on sites with big problems. In fact, architects say that they feel they do their best work when presented with a whole litany of limiting factors. It gets their creative juices flowing and forces them to do more with less, to come up with ever more imaginative and innovative solutions for cost constraints, odd-shaped lots, and community restrictions.

The homes we showcase in this month's custom collection (see “Little Houses That Could,” page 102) each had some major challenges to overcome: merging a contemporary design into a traditional community; building a relatively affordable home in “the country's most expensive zip code”; and coming up with an idea for a stunning home on a lot with large topographical challenges, for would-be homeowners with a small budget. I think you'll find the solutions the various teams came up with inspiring.

Though each challenge was very different, a key concept that each of the solutions demonstrates is flexibility: flexibility in siting, design, materials and how they are used, and construction techniques. Being flexible is an absolute necessity when dealing with a tough problem. Not coincidentally, flexibility is the hallmark of another group of builders also featured this month: the winners of our annual America's Best Builders award. There were few problems facing builders that were tougher than the sales environment of 2006, yet each of our four winning companies managed to have a profitable year and, at the same time, position itself for greater gains in the year to come.

Charlottesville, Va.–based Gaffney Homes, for example, is nimble enough to diversify its products (and price points) to suit the buying climate. Gaffney built homes ranging from $300,000 to $2.3 million, while striving to be considered a “high-end builder” no matter the price. The Green Co., of Newton Centre, Mass., seeks to continually improve its product within the confines of its empty-nester niche, so it added clustered attached homes to its portfolio and focused on green-built certification. Touchstone Homes, in Suwanee, Ga., dealt with the changing market by right-sizing its homes, scaling down the square footage, and cutting construction schedules and costs. And Ideal Homes, Oklahoma City's largest builder and a leader in energy-efficient homes, began its first master planned community, where it will be able to offer an array of different products to its first-time and move-up buyers.

The ability to assess a problem, come up with a creative solution to it, and act on it quickly and decisively is essential to success in this business whether you are designing a single home or building more than 500 homes a year. And now, especially now, is not the time to hunker down and do things the same old way you always have. What changes should you be making?

Denise Dersin, Editor


Learn more about markets featured in this article: Charlottesville, VA.