A team of distinguished architects have been in York judging entries for this year's York Design Awards. STEPHEN LEWIS joined them on a tour of inspection.

IN A converted Methodist chapel in South Bank Avenue, owner Ben Shaw is demonstrating his wine rack.

There is a neat circle in the polished wooden floor. "What's that?" asks one of the York Design Awards judges. Ben is more than happy to demonstrate.

He presses a button on the wall – and gradually his wine rack rises out of the floor, looking for all the world like the central console in Dr Who's Tardis.

It's a prototype, Ben explains. And does it keep the wine at the right temperature? asks head judge Julian Bicknell. Of course it does – about 15 degrees, says Ben. The bottles, as promised, are pleasantly cool to the touch.

It is day two of the four judges' visit to York, to inspect for themselves all the entries in this years York Design Awards.

The previous day, they have already visited more than10 projects - ranging from the Orb and the new stone carving of St Peter at York Minster to the Minster piazza, Bootham School's new arts centre and a medieval timbered building on Micklegate which has been altered internally to create a comfortable, spacious flat.

Today, the four – head judge Julian Bicknell, of London-based Julian Bicknell & Associates; David Heath, former chief conservation architect at English Heritage; Stefanie Stead of Pearce Bottomley Architects, who is chair of the Construction Industry Council Yorkshire and Humber; and architect and academic Dr Hentie Louw, of Newcastle University – have a further 11 projects to visit.

At each, eager architects, developers, or simply owners such as Ben, are keen to bend their ears about what makes their own project so special.

It's makes for an exhausting process. But moments like this, watching Ben's wine rack rise out of the floor, provide a wonderful tonic.

Today's site visits began at the Star Inn the City, Andrew Pern's stunning new restaurant overlooking the River Ouse from the corner of Museum Gardens. The old engine house at Lendal Tower – which used to house the pumping engine for the city waterworks – has been converted into a spacious bar and restaurant, with a new extension running into the gardens themselves.

The project has created a new entrance into the gardens from the Esplanade, points out architect Matt Parkins. And one of the things he loves most about the new extension is that is is glass-fronted all around – so it faces out both into the Museum Gardens themselves and across a terrace to the River Ouse.

The judges aren't about to give anything away yet. "But it is quite refreshing to see something so bold and contemporary in such a public space," says Stefanie Stead, as we prepare to move on.

Next stop is the old Purey Cust hospital, overlooking York Minster right in the heart of the city. It has been converted into an exclusive gated community of substantial town houses.

The cars parked on the gravelled driveways attest that these properties aren't cheap. But the conversion has led to benefits for the people of York, points out developer Mike Green.

An ugly collection of added-on structures – lift shafts, an operating theatre – at the back of the old hospital, which were visible from the city walls, have been removed. "It was just horrible, blighted," Mr Green says. "The view from the city walls is fantastic now."

After a brief pause for coffee, it is a minibus ride out to Companthorpe, where an extension to Grade II listed St Giles Church has provided more room for catering and functions. Then it is on to look at an extension to Knavesmire Primary School, before the judges call in at Ben Shaw's converted chapel.

Along the way, I get a chance to ask them what it is they are looking out for; what makes for good design, and how important is it that it respect's York's history and heritage?

There is an incredibly rich history inYork - and new design must respect that, Julian Bicknell says. But design also has to reflect the present.

"Nobody designs in the past," he says. "They design in the present. So you shouldn't just emulate the styles of the past."

David Heath agrees. Modern buildings should be respectful to their environment, he says: but they should reflect their time, just as buildings from previous eras did. "Buildings have to change, adapt. They have to earn their living. In a city like York, the question you ask is: what does it add to York?"

The urban context in which a building is set is hugely important, adds Hentie Louw. That's why these site visits are so important. "You can only judge as you go around."

One thing Stefanie Stead loves about York is the 'layering' of the city – the buildings of different periods and different styles that come together to tell the city's story. New buildings and new designs should be a part that story, she says.

But they are also there to be used. A huge part of what makes good design is about how good the buildings are to use or live in.

In a school or an office, good design can make a huge difference to how we feel and perform, she says. It is not just about throwing money at something - good design needn't be expensive. "But is the space big enough? Can you hang your curtains, or fit your wardrobes?"

So is the wine rack in Ben Shaw's converted chapel an example of good design?

That's for the judges to decide, and they're not saying - not yet, anyway. But as an interested, impartial but distinctly amateur onlooker, I was blown away...

* The winners of the 2014 York Design Awards will be announced on Monday, June 23. There will be winners in a number of categories, including best new build (residential and non-residential), best restoration, best internal refurbishment, best 'public realm' project and best landscaping.

As usual, readers of The Press will also be invited to vote for their favourite in The Press People's Award category.

Voting for The Press People's Award will open in early June, when we will list all the entries, and set up a voting system. Watch this space.