One of my favorite projects as a builder was a home I designed and built for a dear couple in their 80s who lived in Long Island but wanted a home in Vermont to be near family there. I’ll call them the “Ps.”

Mr. P was way into the nuts and bolts of construction materials and technology, fixated on the utility room, and demanded smart-home-wired control panels and gadgets that he would never figure out how to use. I had to keep an eye on my tools whenever he showed up.

Mrs. P was all about the interior finishes: the colors, the carpets, the cabinets, the countertops—wood, tile, and hardware—and would tinker with the interior design for the rest of her life. We kept a full supply of change orders around for her.

But as focused as they were on these details, the Ps became lost every time we faced larger design issues—things like floor plan layout, dimensions and proportions, and architectural style, context, and consistency. Even the most explicit drawings, plans, and elevations didn’t seem to help. And so, when I needed input—or at least their approval—on design decisions and details, it was a challenge to pose the questions, propose the options, and present the design implications in understandable terms.

Mr. P’s eyes would glaze over—always a bad sign when it came to our design discussions. He’d rather focus on where his work bench was going to go in the garage than be bothered by overhang dimensions, trim details, and the like.

Mrs. P wasn’t in much better shape at these moments, but somehow, even though she didn’t quite grasp the nuances, she was inspired by the challenges and found faith in the process. And so every time she sensed Mr. P drifting away from reality, she’d dig in her heels, approve our recommendations, and then turn to him and—in a thick New York accent—emphatically say, “Joey ... it’s the architecture!” Simple as that.

This must have played out at least 30 times—all with the same result. I loved her for trusting the design process. I loved him for trusting her. And ultimately, I loved them both for trusting me, which inspired my deepest loyalty, greatest focus, and my best work.

But for every design decision I had the pleasure of guiding them though, there were dozens of other decisions I had already made about their home that were implicit, underlying performance features built into every Grafton Builders’ home. Because over years of intense pursuit, we had worked out our best-practice specs and detailing to assure the comfort, efficiency, and durability of every home we built. And that’s what freed me up so that I could focus—with the Ps—on the architecture.

In many ways I feel that the industry has reached a similar stage, entering a new era in sustainable design where we’re moving past the gadgets and gizmos, standardizing basic building science and high-performance practices, and freeing ourselves to listen to the architecture.

The fact that architecture is reemerging as the driving force in sustainable design is evident in the 17 winners of this year’s EcoHome Design Awards presented on page 25. And because we require eligible entries to have received third-party certification within a recognized voluntary rating system, the judges were free to focus on the design elements, assured that the performance features were implicit for each project.

Certainly there are different levels of effort and resulting performance that can be achieved, influenced by budget, market, and location. But the award-winning projects selected by this year’s jury represent this trend. When you build performance into every project, you’re free to remind yourself, in the words of dear Mrs. P—“It’s the architecture!”