2019 Home of the Year: Beacon Plan 1, Beaumont, Calif.
Chris Mayer 2019 Home of the Year: Beacon Plan 1, Beaumont, Calif.

Every picture tells a story. A picture's worth a thousand words.

Both statements may ring true. Neither does justice to the stories behind 58 images here. Their job as photos is clear though: to etch a mental visualization of a design, a project, a plan that stood dramatically apart from the pack in form, function, clarity, flow, and harmony. This adds up to a rare, iconic power to make a place better, no mean feat these days. This is the Gold Nugget, the closest thing real estate and construction comes to the entertainment industry's annual Academy Awards.

And, the good news is, it's open-source learning for us all, everywhere, at every budget level, and in every jurisdiction.

When architecture, engineering, construction, investment, and planning come together, each at the top of their game, this is what happens. That's the case for each of the 2019 Gold Nugget Award grand winners we honored to wrap up proceedings at PCBC this past Friday night, May 31, at San Francisco's Moscone Center.

Gold Nugget Grand Awards, and so many of the merit award honorees as well--although they show up in nearly 60 different entry categories and classifications and building typologies--share three common-denominator characteristics. I had an opportunity to explore with three fellow Gold Nugget Award jurors--Helen Foster, founder of Foster Strategy, Valerio Muraro, director of design for Ashton Woods, and Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki, founder and principal at TST Ink--"Great Projects for the Ages," and they each recognized these dominant thematic patterns among the crop of more than 600 project entries for this year's awards.

One trait that jumps out right away as you pry into the back-story for each of the Gold Nugget projects is this. Everyone of them finds a way to beat heavy odds that they'll never make it from the initial concept to the real world. Skepticism, cynicism, cost, local push-back, a financial partner who loses patience, a client who gets cold feet, permit and approval delays, natural hazards, public opposition, engineering issues, creative differences, clashing egos, etc., etc., ... there are countless ways each of these winning projects navigate its own vast, treacherous sea of "no" in order to see the light of day.

Secondly, each outstanding initiative belongs. The design, the function, the purpose, and the intent match up in each of these instances with the dirt, the setting, the air, the other natural features, the community, the zeitgeist, the soul of the place. Most often, making a place better means leaving much of it as is as much as it means changing part of it, and invariably, it means making that specific piece of dirt more of what it can be than it was in its prior state.

Third, the factors that account for this unusual ability to resist rejection, overcome obstacle after obstacle, quell fears, address all challenges, nurture innovation, engender support, unify disparate interests, and bend all the barriers--budgetary, local policy, engineering, etc.--make up a triad of real estate and construction's most essential and empowering ingredients. These three-interwoven helices of DNA must accompany any bold, fresh, good idea in this day and age where input costs and political will seem to conspire relentlessly against it from the get-go.

  • A fanatic focus on learning from the ideation through completion process
  • An epic instinct to collaborate, be a team player, and be inclusive, and
  • Unswayable conviction, the blend of vision, strength of will, and passion

You tend to hear principal business, creative, development, and engineering stakeholders talk of dark and doubtful moments in almost every single journey of Gold Nugget Award winning projects, from their "on the boards" idea state to their ground-breaking, to their ribbon-cutting moments. These three factors, noted above, come almost inevitably into play, as both a true-north for the team of varied domain experts, and as powerful persuaders to keep a project moving in the right direction despite opposing or gravity-bound economic, political, community, structural, and climatic forces.

Input costs and indirects related to local regulation and code aren't going away, and if anything forward-looking real estate developers, investors, architects, and buiders--and their partners--have to anticipate intensifying pressure rather than easing.

That's why these Gold Nugget projects, and their stories make a meaningful difference. When we talk about a fanatic focus on learning, it means learning bidirectionally. What builders and developers and their partners are best at--like most humans--is learning vertically, as artisanal practices, practical knowledge, and received wisdom gets passed down from expert to novice, from generation to generation, from business cycle to business cycle. What they're not so good at--but need to excel in--is learning horizontally, from players outside the "domain" of construction and real estate development, where retail, and entertainment, and transportation, and hospitality, and technology players have elevated both expectations of a great customer experience and the platforms, products, and services to over-deliver on them. This type of learning is what it takes to solve today's and tomorrow's array of challenges.

Why that horizontal learning element matters is simple and profound. Almost nothing is not changing. To change the double-negative, that means virtually everything is in flux--households and their choices, business conditions and the availability of essential resources, technology and its impact on human experience (and the inverse), and the explosion of living unit and community types we're seeing in response to all of the above.

Here, Helen Foster looks through one of our lenses at some of the seismic household pattern shifts that are literally redefining what a family is and resetting what that family needs from their home--what job a home and a community perform for that family.

Here as well, Foster gives examples of the outpouring of new structure typologies growing out of these massive household pattern shifts in an economy that's simultaneously in the process of discovering what work means today, how that's changing, and where it occurs.

"We're seeing the emergence of hybrid places, ones that blur the lines that traditionally separated work, play, eat, rest and relax, live, sanctuary, and connection," says Foster. Many of our Gold Nugget honorees deal with this mash-up in stunning, elegant, and classic ways.

In this frame, Teri Slavik-Tsuyuki explores "the job" of placemaking and making buildings better, and where developers, builders, architects, investors, and their partners play a role in how successfully their projects do that job.

"They hit the jackpot, so to speak, when the projects blend bold, fresh innovation, stay financially viable, offer an opportunity to scale up, and represent sustaining value in real time and across the passage of time," says Slavik-Tsuyuki. "When they hit this jackpot, they truly become what every project team wants to accomplish, a source of passion."

Eight architectural trends, reflecting deep consumer motivations, desires, and needs for simplicity in an ever-more-complex world, and connectedness to nature and other human beings, show up again and again in the great projects. Here, Ashton Woods design director Muraro matches some of those design features with the human factor motivation driving them.

"The projects we jurors love the most obsess with customers' point of view and find solutions that meet their needs," says Muraro. "They also extend and elevate the local vibe, with a strong connection to the place, celebrating nature, and bringing high aspirational elements to an attainable level. Also, we love projects that raise the fun factor to an art and science."

All in, the Gold Nugget Award Grand and Merit winners represent an entire educational and training journey, each case reflecting the best of the very best in what it takes to make buildings more valuable and make places better.

Underlying, the how, the what, the where, the when, and the who of each of these projects--because they are invariably ambitious, radical in their way, and full of possible ways to say "no" to them--there needs to be a clear, canny, and compelling answer to the question "why."

If you can answer these five questions, you'll have a very strong reason "why" to move forward with your next hard project.