Every year after the judges for the annual Best in American Living Awards (BALA) complete their work, they outline what they see as the latest trends in residential design.
BALA recognizes the best that builders have to offer -- in all types of houses, from single-family to mixed use, multifamily to remodels -- and in all price points, from the most expensive custom homes to far more reasonable condominiums and apartments, in all parts of the country.
It's a tough contest to win. But the builders, architects and previous winners who make up the jury of their peers have a reasonably easy time reaching a consensus. After all, the best work always rises to the top.
Competitions like this are important because production builders are mostly followers who tend to imitate the industry's few true leaders. So today's standout design trends are often incorporated into the mainstream. Not immediately perhaps, but certainly by the time old models are tossed aside and new ones are introduced.
"The BALA winners always redefine excellence in the homebuilding business," said Victor Mirontschuk, the New York architect who chaired the latest contest.
In that regard, housing is a lot like high fashion, in that what the judges liked this fall is likely to be what homebuyers see next spring.
So, without further ado, here are the latest trends -- some new and others timeless.
-- Kitchen features. This room tops buyers' priority lists, year-in and year-out. Last year, mega-islands were popular, offering areas not just to prep a meal but also to socialize at a bar-top setting. This year, as in previous years, Carrara marble countertops, cooking hearths and intricate light fixtures were prevalent.
White on white also is big. "We're back to white everything," said one judge. Flooring, backsplashes, counters and appliances are lightening up, and layering white on white is a new approach. So are shiny-surfaced appliances, backsplashes, countertops and glass walls.
-- Specialty lighting. Lighting offers a great opportunity to add texture and color to any room. Natural lighting is paramount, but on top of that, specialty fixtures help set the mood. They can also add drama, highlighting design aspects such as a tray ceiling, and are often works of art in their own right.
Lighting is also being paired with wood ceiling details to further enhance the room's design and create a feeling of warmth.
"It used be an afterthought," said one judge. "But people need more lighting, a lot more of it. And it is being used more creatively."
-- Bathrooms. Baths this year are becoming more compact while maintaining an open feel. To do so, the best designs are eliminating walls, adding transparent glass enclosures and reducing the amount of unused floor space between fixtures.
At the same time, dual master baths seem to be the rage, even in smaller spaces. They are glamorous yet entirely functional, clean and simple. Often, they have a shared shower.
-- Bold exteriors. Bold colors can now be found outside, further enhancing curb appeal. Other features, such as a mix of cladding materials, doors, windows, porches, shutters or trim, add an extra layer of drama.
Color, finish, fixtures and lighting are also being used to give houses a more modern flair while still maintaining their historic integrity.
-- High-quality detailing. Regardless of a home's size, owners expect detail that speaks to the home's architecture. But these elements must be of appropriate scale and in relative proportion to the overall design. Otherwise, they detract rather than add.
-- Ceilings. With material and design choices, ceiling treatments can change a room's feel. Color, for example, can add warmth or excitement, while tray ceilings, barrel vaults and coffers add depth and texture.
When there are fewer walls, ceiling treatments are a good way to define living spaces.
-- Outside in. In a trend no longer limited to warmer climates, lines between the interior and exterior are even more blurred. Movable glass walls, gourmet outdoor kitchens and interior courtyards all add more everyday living space.
-- Courtyards. Here, the proper scale is key. But for single-family houses, they provide privacy and, when shifted to side yards, add to living space. In multifamily properties, interior courtyards are used to showcase such amenities as pools and firepits.
-- Multitasking. Not so much this year, but in previous contests, flexible floor space with multiple master suites -- one on the first floor, or as an apartment or cottage on the property -- were popular. Universal design elements that make life easier for live-in grandparents, or for the owners as they age, were also popular.
"We saw those everywhere," said one judge.
As in previous events, specialty rooms were part of many winning entries. Even in the most modest houses, there was some sort of outdoor fire feature so the patio could be used year-round in most places.