Earlier this week, the American Institute of Architects (AIA) unveiled its top 10 jury-selected picks for the 2015 Housing Awards, the highly anticipated annual award program that, via stunning architectural photography, really excels at prompting folks to take one glance around their own homes and declare what a dump!

Representing beautiful, innovative, inspirational and, yes, envy-inducing residential architecture — the crème de la crème of housing design — across three (normally four; no winners in the Production Housing category this year) categories, there are a couple of noticeable themes running through this year’s picks: a deep connection — and respect for — to the natural environment and the vital bond between architecture and aging. From a four-season retreat in Washington’s Methow Valley designed by past AIA Housing Award winner Olson Kundig Architects to a 56-unit affordable housing complex geared toward LGBT seniors in the heart of Philadelphia’s vibrant “Gayborhood,” there’s no shortage of bucolic landscapes and retiree-friendly layouts this year.

Two winning designs — there are 10 in total — that touch down beautifully on both themes: Connecticut’s Bridge House (Joeb Moore & Partners) and Old Briar (University of Tennessee, Knoxville College of Architecture and Design; Applied Research) in rural southwestern Tennessee.

The decidedly more dramatic of the two, Bridge House sports a landscape-spanning form influenced in part by a covered bridge found in nearby Kent Falls State Park. Situated on a gently sloping ridge overlooking western Connecticut's most fun-to-pronouce body of water, the Housatonic River, this Lychfield County retreat was commissioned by a newly retired couple looking to build a home that would allow them to enjoy nature-centric solitude and also “start a new adventure.”

Photo: David Sundberg, Esto Photographics

Bridge House, South Kent, Conn.

Photo: David Sundberg, Esto Photographics

Bridge House, South Kent, Conn.

Photo: David Sundberg, Esto Photographics

Writes the AIA: "The primary architectural goal of Bridge House's design team was to maintain his sense of connection to the natural rhythms and peace of the site. The home opens itself to the landscape and becomes a backdrop for the movement of wind through the meadow, shifting clouds, and changing light. The environment created by Bridge House blurs the boundaries between interior and exterior space and is as indebted to the site as to the building itself."

Elaborates the architectural team:

Translating and mirroring the slow geological flow of bedrock and the more active flows and streams of water above, we invented a strategy where the building becomes a bridge, springing out of the sloping topography. As the house takes on form and volume it turns and spans across the landscape, which rolls directly under it and down the hillside. This “living/dining bridge” is anchored into the hillside by two opposing concrete foundation/buttress/chimney structures with dual hearths.

While the whole “elderly” aspect isn’t directly called out in any of the home’s design features, Bridge House is obviously a place in which to slow down and savor the quiet moments while still maintaining a level of activity and engagement with the natural world. And if anything, it’s the type of home where its enjoying-their-golden-years inhabitants don’t have to fret too much about outrageous energy bills or frequent repairs as Bridge House incorporates numerous passive design strategies and was built with durable materials meant to last for the long haul.

Described by award jurors as being “convincingly regional and modern all at once,” “a labor of love” and “a delightful surprise,” Old Briar, a gorgeous – and slightly more modest at under 4,000-square-feet — Tennessee retreat hidden away on a farm in sleepy Lauderdale County more directly addresses multi-generational living and aging-in-place than Bridge House.

Old Briar, Halls, Tenn.

Photo: Jeffrey Jacobs

Old Briar, a home in Halls, Tenn.

Photo: Jeffrey Jacobs

Photo: Jeffrey Jacobs

The AIA describes the home as being “being an anchor for their [the client’s] family, both present and generations yet to come.”

On the interior, flush thresholds, clearances, and other age-in-place accommodations are integral, though resolved so as not to be obvious. Primary interior spaces (entry, living, and bedroom) are paired with transitional exterior spaces (entry alcove, covered terrace, and east porch) that allow occupants to enjoy outdoor living, even if they are not able to negotiate the more natural agrarian grounds.

Owned by a couple looking to share their “agricultural heritage and values of stewardship with their children and grandchildren,” Old Briar isn’t easy to classify as an escape or a new start: the timber abode represents somewhat of a homecoming, a kind of housing-centric book-ending for its owners who grew up in Lauderdale County, fled for the big city (Chicago, in this case) and decided to return (at least part time, anyway) for their retirement. And the name “Old Briar” itself has deep family meaning: it was the name of the client’s grandfather’s pick-up truck, a name that has been passed down through subsequent generations of the original vehicle and now symbolizes the home.

Designed as a passive house, the down-home but high-efficiency project includes a solar array, geothermal heating and a tightly insulated building envelope.

More on all 10 winners of the 2015 AIA Housing Awards can be found here. And stayed tuned as next week, the AIA will be announcing, in celebration of Earth Day, its Committee on the Environment (COTE) Top Ten Projects.

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Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

AIA Housing Awards honors two gorgeous homes to grow old in
In rural stretches of Connecticut and Tennessee, two nature-surrounded retreats built for retirees.