The most winning residential designs along the North Coast have one notable thing in common — they're strikingly unpretentious.

Unpretentious does not have to mean unattractive, a fact evident in the homes singled out for honors in the recent Design Awards by the Redwood Empire chapter of the American Institute of Architects.

Judges selected homes that were simple yet distinctive, designed to make smart use of space with precise and measured use of materials and details. They are also not lavishly large or expensive. In fact, at least two of the three top picks were built for less than $200 a square foot, half of what one might typically pay for a custom home.

"For so many years we were building these McMansions that were so big. Now a lot of people are realizing they don't need that much space," said San Francisco architect Nick Noyes, whose modern, barn-style home set onto a saddle on the southwest side of Fitch Mountain in Healdsburg received a Merit Award in the Custom Residential category.

Richard Stacy, whose Sebastopol, loft-style home designed for a couple with growing kids also recived a Merit Award, said, "You never know whether a humble character is going to resonate with anyone, but apparently it did."

Both were just one step below the top Honor Award, which, in the Custom Residential category, went to a surprising 1,1000-square-foot cabin built as a getaway home in the Hopland area for two couples.

Architects Grygoriy Ladigin, Casper Mork-Ulnes and Andreas Tingulstad of SFOSL, a firm with offices in Oslo and San Francisco, designed a vacation home that is minimalist even by Scandinavian tastes. To capture views without disturbing the shallow root structure of oak trees on the 16-acre site, the architects created a house with a series of rectangular spokes lifted up onto piers that extend out among the trees to capture views. To keep within a $200,000 budget, the unadorned interior surfaces are unfinished plywood and strand board.

The judges for this year's awards, held in October in Santa Rosa, included Michael Palladino of Richard Meier and Partners in L.A., who collaborated on distinctive projects like the Getty Center; Mary Griffin of Turnbull Griffin Haesloop Architects in San Francisco and a fellow of the America Institute of Architects; architect and judge Julie Snow of Minneapolis and Santa Rosa Mayor Ernesto Olivares.

The panel praised Noyes' Fitch Mountain home for its "simple forms, elegantly composed."

The house is comprised of several wings wrapping around a central courtyard shaded by mature Chinese Pistache trees. It evokes the idea of a village of buildings around a town square — not unlike Healdsburg below. The series of wings, connected by enclosed connectors similar to breezeways, break down the scale of the construction so that 4,000 square feet doesn't look so imposing on the land.

"The forms are very, very simple but the detailing and the craft is very exacting," said Noyes. Window trims are a slim inch and a half wide, giving a clean and crisp look that unobtrusively frames the views. Along the side of the house is a colonnade held by black steel columns, repeated in the front door and window frames.

For their Sebastopol home, Ron and Chelle McDonell sought out Richard Stacy of Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects in San Francisco. The couple, firefighters who between them have five kids, two still at home, were working within a tight budget and did much of the building work themselves with the help of friends, and acted as their own general contractor.

"For almost two years, we cut out everything else and spent basically every moment we were off of work working on the house," Chelle said.

Practically speaking, they were looking for a design that was affordable and as small as possible without feeling cramped. This was accomplished in 2,000 square feet by keeping the ground floor open, with kitchen, eating area, living area and study all in one, undivided space, according to Chelle. "It feels gracious, but it's not a large space. The open plan is great with children because we can cook, clean, work, play, etc., and still see each other and be in contact, interacting."

Stacy designed the house in a basic rectangle with minimal hallway space. The simple and cleanly designed exterior incorporated materials the McDonells enjoy such as glass, corrugated metal, stucco, fir and cement board, which require little maintenance.

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com or 521-5204.