Last fall, when the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission launched an art project that asked people to rethink the traditional four walls of a house, Barb Bancroft and her children started pondering their idea of home.

By the time the Hyattsville family members finished, they had submitted six designs of colorful houses based on baskets, Tinkertoys and a hanging lamp.

Their designs were selected from those submitted following a nationwide call for entries by the county's Department of Parks and Recreation, which is part of the commission. The Bancrofts, including Kaylyn, 13, and Kyle, 15, then turned their sketches into models that are now part of "Raise the Roof," an exhibit of 29 works at Fort Washington's Harmony Hall.

The varied and creative home-related indoor and outdoor pieces will travel through the county until mid-January. The exhibit will move to the University of Maryland's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation in College Park in October; to the Montpelier Arts Center in Laurel in November; and to the Huntington Community Center in Bowie in December and January. Through Jan. 20, there will be activities, workshops and historic county home tours in connection with the show.

The concept of a project based on house design and thinking about homes in terms of how they relate to quality of life took shape when commission members were brainstorming about creating a countywide art project.

"Birds I View," the 2003 county project that placed outdoor sculptures around the county, was "an overall success. It raised tourism throughout the county, so we thought it was time for another public art project," said Valerie Watson, visual arts specialist for the commission's Arts and Cultural Heritage Division. "We thought about a birdhouse and went from there to a house. It made sense because housing is something that is part of our mission right now, in the sense of development," she said, citing efforts in the Gateway Arts District to establish more affordable, well-designed housing and studio options for artists and their families along the Route 1 corridor just north of the District.

When the exhibit closes, the models will be auctioned as a benefit for an affordable housing program for artists managed by the Housing Initiative Partnership, which is involved in the project, and the commission's youth art programs.

"This was all about pushing public expectation beyond the standard box, and the realization that design affects our quality of life," Watson said. "You don't have to accept the ordinary -- with good design your life can be enhanced. People looked into creative ways to improve residences, from the most practical to the totally creative. We left open the idea that it could be a fantasy, a total dream house," she said.

The flexibility in what the judges asked for was exciting for entrants.

Bancroft, an art teacher who has participated in other public art projects, including "Birds I View," said, "I loved the fact that this was such a free-form call. Even the folks around the exhibit had no idea what would come in the door.

"There was a lot more freedom and a lot more responsibility. My kids and I had a lot of fun thinking about space and the ideas of house and the feeling of home," she said.

Among the winning entries -- judged by Garth Rockcastle, dean of the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at the University of Maryland, and Jay Endelman, builder and member of the Housing Initiative Partnership's board of directors -- are a colorful house made out of a bed; a house constructed by attaching small, hanging ornaments to a tree branch; and another that explores the idea of place through phrases such as "paradise loathe," "paradise splendid" and "joy envy" written on a tentlike hanging of floral lace fabric. There are also houses designed by teams of students from Hunters Woods Elementary School for the Arts and Sciences in Reston that are thematically based on such objects as a doghouse, mailbox and telephone.

Besides the Bancrofts, other county artists created winning designs, including Glenn Dale puppeteer Jason Cox, Mitchellville graphic designer Lisa M. Green and College Park artist Ed Bisese.

"I was surprised by the range of people who were interested in answering our call. I was also surprised by the range of expertise," Watson said. "Entrants ranged from the New York architects to adventurous artists who had never done any public art before, including children," she said. "They were very artful, and the concepts were playful and so original."

"Raise the Roof" is at Harmony Hall Regional Center, 10701 Livingston Rd., Fort Washington, through Sept. 24. Admission is free. Activities associated with the traveling exhibition run through Jan. 20 and are listed at 301-454-1450.

Lisa M. Green of Mitchellville created the Art on All Sides house, above left. Kyle Bancroft's Throw-Away House, center, was inspired by the homes he helped build in Mexico, and his Take-Out House by paper carryout containers. Jason Cox, a puppeteer from Glenn Dale, designed Baba Yaga's House, named for a witch in Russian folklore whose house would run about on chicken legs.