When Lisa Foley, an art teacher at Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston, asked her students to design the perfect house last school year, she was amazed by the ideas they came up with. They imagined homes shaped like a tape dispenser, a stapler and even a dog.

But it ends up Foley wasn't the only one impressed by the whimsical designs.

The students recently brought home $2,500 for their school after two of their creations -- the round house and the mailbox house -- beat out the work of professional architects and artists and were awarded prizes by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission as part of its Raise the Roof contest, which asked students and professionals to "rethink the traditional four walls we call home."

Foley said the cash will be used to fund art programs at the school and purchase supplies.

"They really held their own," Foley said. "We can keep building, and more good things will happen."

The students began their work as amateur house designers when Hunters Woods launched the Architecture in the Schools program, sponsored by the Washington Architectural Foundation, and local architect Don Pruett agreed to help. In one of his first assignments in the after-school program, Pruett had the children draw the ugliest house they could imagine.

"The hard part was getting them to not look at a house as a house," Pruett said. "But once they thought about it, they got the picture that they could make anything into a house. They aren't going to look at a house as just a building anymore."

In the spring, Foley and her fellow art teachers heard about the Raise the Roof contest and decided to enter the students' designs. Seven of the ideas were selected for a traveling exhibit, and the school received a $5,600 honorarium -- $800 for each winning idea -- to transform the visions into models.

For days, the students stayed after school, using balsa, plastic foam and metal to turn their ideas into three-dimensional creations. The round house, which looks like a silver-colored tube and includes an indoor swimming pool and movie theater, was awarded a prize for best "adaptive re-use of materials." The mailbox house won an honorable mention.

The traveling exhibit, including all seven of the children's designs, is on display through Sept. 24 at the Harmony Hall Regional Center in Fort Washington. It then will move to the University of Maryland School of Architecture before making two other stops.

Eventually the models will be auctioned off to benefit a project to build affordable housing for artists in Prince George's County.

The people's choice award remains up for grabs. Votes can be cast at www.pgraisetheroof.com.

-- Maria Glod

The unusual designs created by Hunters Woods Elementary School students include a house shaped like a dog, worked on by Michael Wu and Ellen Snider. Two designs won cash prizes.