Photographer: Sharon Risedorph A feature of a number of winning entries in the 2008 Custom Home Design Awards was an inviting and well-integrated outdoor space that enhances the home's livability. The competition's judges noted how the best houses fit their site by reaching out to the landscape and creating strong indoor/outdoor ties. Below are three examples from winning projects that successfully link architecture to nature through an appealing outdoor program.

Holding Court This Palo Alto, Calif., house sits on a corner lot bordered by two busy streets, so carving out welcoming outdoor areas was a challenge. Architect Steven Ehrlich designed a pinwheel-shaped floor plan, which generates four outdoor courts shielded by the walls of the house. The layout (along with disappearing glass walls) sets up numerous indoor/outdoor spaces. The pool deck, for example, steps up to the family room via a covered stone terrace, while the lawn slopes into the music room. Dinner parties flow outside thanks to a dining room terrace with a walking garden beyond. “Outdoor spaces have more relevance when they are in close contact and dialogue with indoor spaces,” says Ehrlich.

To further protect outdoor areas, plants create a living buffer from street noise and neighbors. Landscape architect Willet Moss explains that using a mixed palette of plants adds depth and gives the illusion of the space continuing. Different plantings also lend each outdoor space a distinct character.

Builder: Ryan Associates, San Francisco; Architect: Steven Ehrlich Architects, Culver City, Calif.; Landscape architect: Conger Moss Guillard Landscape Architecture, San Francisco; Photographer: Sharon Risedorph.

Lap of Luxury Mixing fire and water creates drama in just about any setting. Add to that a grade drop of more than 20 feet and this elevated lap pool/fire pit steals the scene. The empty-nester homeowners wanted the pool to be heated for daily exercise, so architect Robert M. Gurney added the fire pit to heat the deck as well. “We gave them this other element to warm the adjacent seating area and let them use it long into the fall,” he explains.

Photographer: Maxwell MacKenzie Four concrete fin walls linked by precast-concrete planks support the wood deck and 8-foot-by-40-foot pool. Gurney designed a covered balcony along the entire length of the home's second floor to increase outdoor living options and shade the home's window wall. Frameless glass panels serve as safety railings without impeding wooded vistas.

Builder: Bloom Builders, Bethesda; Architect: Robert M. Gurney, FAIA, Architect, Alexandria, Va.; Photographer: Maxwell MacKenzie.

Fit to a T This rolling, .25-acre site in suburban Maryland backs up to public parkland. Architect Greg Wiedemann made the most of that opportunity by designing a T-shaped house that blocks an imposing neighbor and the street and cordons off a secluded outdoor space bordered by woods. The yard features a pool with a deck and an outdoor shower enclosed in the same mahogany siding as the house. For added privacy, a zinc-clad balcony projects from the master suite to roof the shower. Bluestone pavers surround the pool and continue into the house and through the foyer to become a front terrace that steps down the yard to meet the street.

Builder: GN Contracting, Arlington, Va.; Architect: Wiedemann Architects, Bethesda, Md.; Photographer: Anice Hoachlander.

Photographer: Anice Hoachlander