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Image Credit
Sunken seating in the Sanctuary project, in La Jolla, Calif., by Hill Construction Co. | Photo: Aaron Leitz Photography
This article first appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Pro Builder.

In the first chapter of her book Joyful: The Surprising Power of Ordinary Things to Create Extraordinary Happiness, designer Ingrid Fetell Lee, describes the people of Tirana, Albania, watching Edi Rama, the city’s mayor and a successful painter, cover decrepit gray buildings in red, yellow, turquoise, and violet paint. That act transformed the city, and “strange things began to happen,” Lee writes. People stopped littering. They started gathering in cafés. Shopkeepers removed metal grates from windows. All because of a little paint.

The best home builders, architects, and designers turn houses into homes by creating spaces that bring energy, positivity, or a sense of calm to their occupants. And they do it in any number of ways, using proportion, light, natural elements, sculptural details, or a dash of whimsy. Here we celebrate nine pockets of joy from the 2020 Best in American Living Awards.


Courtyard Contemplation

A sunken outdoor seating area (main image, above) offers a quiet space in contrast to the dramatic views of the Pacific that distinguish the other side of this oceanfront home. But the serene courtyard is deceptive: There’s a lot going on here (see image, below), with a mix of stone, metal, wood, glass, hard and soft surfaces, geometric shapes, and textured landscape elements all harmonizing to create both movement and tranquility.

Project: Sanctuary Location: La Jolla, Calif. Market: Custom
Builder: Hill Construction Co. Architect/Designer: Mark House
Interiors: David and Suzie Lucas Photos: Aaron Leitz Photography

BALA Sanctuary project

Sheds and Beds

Gardening offers all kinds of benefits, including reducing stress, improving heart health, and promoting healthier eating. Designers for this custom, modern farmhouse–style home made indoor-outdoor connection a priority. Raised beds and a kitchen pass-through window offer easy access to fresh flowers, herbs, and vegetables. And who said a garden shed is just for tools? This clean, simple design adds space for contemplating nature’s bounty.

Project: Farm to Table Location: Wilsonville, Ore. Market: Custom
Builder/Architect/Designer: Renaissance Homes
Photo: Diana Sell

BALA Farm to Table project

All Good Dogs Get Washed

Unless nearly 85 million American households are wrong, pets clearly bring happiness to their humans. Designs that simplify taking care of those pets also bring on good vibes. In this design, clean lines, lots of natural light, and modern hardware elevate pet-care utility to a thing of beauty. The laundry area is especially helpful in this lakeside home where entertaining and outdoor living take center stage.

Project: Lavish Lake Living Location: Austin, Texas Market: Second move-up
Architect and Builder/Designer: Sterling Custom Homes Interiors: Mary DeWalt Design Group
Photo: Applebox Imaging

BALA Lavish Lake Living project, dog wash

Water Works

Blue Mind author and marine biologist Wallace Nichols says being near water is naturally calming. Research has shown that being near, in, on, or under water can lower stress, increase our sense of well-being, and boost creativity. The design of this sophisticated, modern home’s patio perch makes the most of its proximity to water. The tempered glass railing system allows the house to take maximum advantage of Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway, while clean lines, geometric forms, and simple materials combine to create an ordered, relaxing space.

Project: 5th Avenue Enclave Location: Boca Raton, Fla. Market: Custom
Builder: National Custom Homes Architect: Affiniti Architects
Photo: Living Proof Real Estate Photography

BALA 5th Avenue Enclave project


Kids’ Hideaway

Harry Potter may never have gone off to Hogwarts had his “cupboard under the stairs” looked like this one. Children love small, cozy spaces (who hasn’t made a fort with a blanket and a couch or a table draped with a sheet?), and the often underutilized area is a great spot for kids to read, dream, play, and pretend. The pandemic saw people spending more time at home together and, just like adults, children need time away from the hubbub of the house.

Project: Greenlea Location: Holland, Mich. Market: Custom
Builder: Bouwkamp Builders Architect: Visbeen Architects Interiors: Cyndy Schurman Interiors
Photo: Ashley Avila Photography

BALA Greenlea, kids' hideaway

Nook Look

The ideas in Sarah Susanka’s 1998 bestseller The Not So Big House continue to influence our design imagination, probably because they are “just right,” as one fabled girl memorably said. Surrounded by shiplap and bathed in natural light, this sleeping loft offers a cozy, “just-right” nook that perfectly suits the charming style of this renovated lakefront cottage.

Project: The Julie Location: Pinckney, Mich. Market: Custom
Architect/Designer: TK Home Design
Photo: Michigan Real Estate Photography

BALA The Julie project, nook

Loft Escape

Sustainability, energy efficiency, and minimalism are key in the design of this Seattle modern farmhouse. They work together to create a model for healthful living that includes an open, double-height space that aids air circulation; large windows that admit plenty of natural light; and timeless materials such as metal, concrete, and sustainably harvested woods. This entertainment loft offers a space that feels both private and public.

Project: Flora Farmhouse Location: Seattle Market: Millennial
Builder: Dwell Development Architect: Alloy Design Group
Photo: Tucker English Photography

BALA Flora farmhouse project, loft

Art Elevated

Sculpture, in any form—even a staircase—can be uplifting (no pun intended). This stair’s elements of glass, metal, ledgestone, and walnut, paired with a geometric design, make a strong statement in the entry foyer of this large, mid-century modern home. The staircase also adds a touch of whimsy with its jawlike profile, which fits the home’s Lion King-inspired theme.

Project: Nyumbani Location: Orlando, Fla. Market: Luxury vacation home
Builder/Architect/Interiors: Phil Kean Design Group Landscape Architect: Mills Design Group
Photo: Uneek Image

BALA Nyumbani project, staircase

Serenity Lives Here

Guest room. Home office. Wellness and meditation space. The beauty of a flex room is that homeowners can get creative. In this single-story ranch house, natural light, appropriate décor, and a soothing color palette of earth tones create a calming, relaxing space to clear one’s mind.

Project: Avanti Model Home Location: Oakland Township, Mich. Market: Custom Builder/Architect: Frank Moceri
Photo: WayUp Media

BALA Avanti model home project, guest room