Balmain House 2, Carterwilliamson Architects. Click for more photos

Grand Designs

Balmain House 2, Carterwilliamson Architects. Photo: Brett Boardman

The houses top architects are building in Sydney now have walls gouged out of rock, kitchen benches big enough to sacrifice an ox, polished concrete floors and an ancient frangipani - usually transplanted by mobile crane - to frame the harbour view.

Our situation is less glamorous by the time we come to pick the winner of the 2012 Wilkinson Award ''for excellence in residential buildings''. The four-member jury is eating in a Kings Cross lane and not making much headway. The jury chair, Camilla Block, remarks wryly: ''Our indecision is final.''

Do we factor in degree of difficulty? Are we agnostic about big budgets? 

Prize time is here again in the architecture world. The Wilkinson will be given at a big bash in Sydney on Thursday along with the Sulman for public architecture and the Greenway for heritage. Careers hang on this. ''Our purpose is to capture current thinking,'' Block tells her jury on day one. ''We favour ambition.''

Sitting in the dark that day, watching slides, I start to favour somewhere someone might curl up with a book. We reach house 13 on the list of contenders before we see a bookcase. It turns out there are more books than it seems in these houses, hidden behind river red gum sliding doors. Books are so messy.

Architects spruik in their own tongue. ''A little bit out there in terms of its street presentation'' means ugly. ''The house becomes a minor player in the experience of the site'' means it's a dog but the garden is fabulous. ''Very simple'' needs to be watched: it can mean immense.

The look of houses has changed since I was last the layman on this jury a decade ago. Back when the institute was still the Royal Australian Institute of Architects - they dropped the Queen in 2008 - there was corrugated iron everywhere. Not now. Houses were all about verandahs and sheds. Today's signature look is a stack of boxes.

But the slides are still the same. Architects are curiously reluctant to show people in their houses. Dogs and cats are photographed prowling and lounging about. But not people. Nor do these slides hint at wear and tear: everything is brand new. And it seems half were taken at dusk. It's a most forgiving time of day.

In our week on the road, we see millions spent with flair and millions squandered. We find ourselves in exhilarating houses built on tight budgets. We see an awful lot of Aboriginal art, some of it good. More often than we care to count we are inspecting the expensive new rear of an inner-city cottage.

''Fixing the back of the house is the common cold of architecture,'' observes Block. I'm taking notes as she scatters these remarks. Block on furniture: ''Architecture is not shopping.'' Block on landscaping: ''It looks like nature, but it's cold, hard cash.''

Her firm has won the Wilkinson twice. Jury member Stephanie Little's firm recently won the national Robin Boyd Award for a house on Sydney's northern beaches. Little laughs: ''We could have done the Freshwater house 20 times since.''

More than ever, these awards matter. Savvy clients are finding the architect they want by scanning the prize lists on the institute's website. The men and women waiting politely for us outside the houses they have built in half a dozen Sydney suburbs know the jury's verdict means business.

Fumbling with unfamiliar remote controls, the architects show us through their clients' houses. Many have the same story to tell: they demolished the house on the site but kept the pool; carved into the rock; found a way of inserting a three-car/four-car/five-car garage; gave the happy neighbours a better view than ever; and laid out beds of ''edible plants''.

Some look shifty, a little downcast, when asked how this or that got through council. It's a question of keen concern to the architects on the panel. They're picking up tips where they can. One architect boasts he got his plans through in a fortnight: ''We gave them a hipped roof.''

Strange similarities begin to emerge. Every house has Miele appliances, if not in the kitchen, then in the laundry. Outdoor showers are de rigueur. One house has two and an outdoor bath. All but a couple of houses have stack-away sliding doors. Photovoltaic cells on the roof are all but compulsory. Every front door turns on a pivot, not a hinge.

Noting my fascination, Little advises me on recent trends. TV rooms have morphed into home theatres. Pools aren't lap pools any more. Twin kitchens are on the rise: a working one out the back and something visible and chic for dishing up. We don't see a single house with a stand-alone, shut-the-door kitchen.

Chooks are back. ''Did you see my chickens?'' an owner asks as we leave her multimillion-dollar concrete palace with views of the sea. ''Aren't they gorgeous?''

We talk South Africa as we drive around. Block and the fourth member of the jury, Harry Margalit, of the University of NSW, were once South African. It seems a hard country for their profession: a Johannesburg architect was shot recently by an unhappy client. Block deals with all the difficult dogs we meet on our rounds. She remarks: ''Have you noticed they all speak Afrikaans?''

Margalit raises the awful irony of fibro. ''It was absolutely stable. It didn't absorb water. Apart from the fact that it killed people, fibro was a very good material.''

The weather was perfect every day. We wondered if, in all fairness, we shouldn't look at these houses again in the rain. Each was as neat as a pin. Shouldn't we make surprise flying visits to see how they cope with ordinary chaos? Parents on the jury weren't fooled by artful arrangements of children's toys.

Many of these houses are the holiday bolt-holes of Australians abroad. They are sending a chunk of their fortunes home from Hong Kong, Singapore and London. Meanwhile, the place is used by their extended families back here. They're built to take everyone at Christmas.

As we roam the houses, we say nothing much to each other. We loiter in the ones we love and make small talk with owners and architects. In the houses we don't like, we talk a lot about the furniture and the view. We keep bumping into each other near the front door, anxious to get away. One architect runs down the street calling out to us: ''You haven't seen the other bathroom!''

There were the cool architects, the ones of few words. There were the ones who never stopped talking. There were those who let us roam and those who hovered. Most were far too discreet about their clients. We were not hungry for gossip, of course. Just context.

The car was our jury room. In a strange way, the houses we liked most provoked the least conversation until the end, until the going got really hard. These debates are the same whatever the prize. It doesn't matter what it's about - writing, or music or architecture - the question is always: what are we rewarding here?

Is the Wilkinson about assured achievement or flawed originality? Do we factor in degree of difficulty? Are we agnostic about big budgets? Have the old-timers had enough prizes? Do we take this opportunity to make a statement?

In the Kings Cross alley, we unpick the agreement we've worked at by email. Face to face, we find it no easier to make up our minds. We had hoped to share the prize but find we can't. We have to pick a winner. When words fail her, Block starts drawing diagrams.

She is good. She makes us own the process. We go back and forth for days. Then in a way that can't really be explained, the result is inevitable. All settled. We meet next on the night of the awards knowing the profession will then be judging us.