Most prodigal sons or daughters have to have been born in a place to return to it in triumph. But when the annual Turner Prize exhibition opens to the public at Glasgow's Tramway on Thursday, it's easy to see why there's still a feeling that the British art world's most venerated award is back where it belongs. After all, barely a year passes without a Glasgow-based or Glasgow-trained artist featuring on the nomination list, and in the last 20 years Glasgow School of Art (GSA) alone has provided five winners.

"Some people do talk about it as if it's coming home," says Tramway director Sarah Munro. "It's being held in a place that is very much recognised for its contemporary visual art among the artistic community. But I think on top of that it also gives an opportunity to celebrate that work and bring it to the attention of the wider public."

Ironically, this is a fallow year for GSA and Scottish artists in general, though as Munro observes that's probably a good thing. The pressure on an artist to win on their home turf would be immense. Instead, it's Glasgow itself which is honoured: this is the first time the Turner Prize exhibition has come to Scotland and only the fourth time it has moved outside its traditional home, London's Tate Gallery.

In an near-echo of the famous all-female shortlist of 1997, three of this year's four nominated artists are women, and one of them has made the list for a piece commissioned by Glasgow's Common Guild and performed in the city in May this year.

She is Canadian artist Janice Kerbel and the work is DOUG, a sequence of nine songs about various catastrophic events, written for six voices. It may sound austere and serious but there's a playful side to Kerbel too: among her previous works is Bank Job, a fantastical series of plans, schematics and instructions for a heist which were made after she inveigled her way into private bank Coutts & Co by posing as an architecture student.

The other two women are Bonnie Camplin and German-born Nicole Wermers. Camplin works across a variety of different media, from drawing to film to music. "But really she's interested in where we develop our knowledge," says Munro. "She wasn't shortlisted for a big, long-running solo exhibition but for a project called The Military Industrial Complex that took place over a weekend in London, where she was looking at how we define what is normality and reality and how we define our dominant worldviews."

Wermers, whose installation featuring fur coats sewn on to vintage chairs by modernist designer Marcel Breuer has already given the headline writers a field day, works at the junction between design and consumer culture. Pleasingly for the traditionalists (and the writers of Turner Prize-knocking headlines) she could be described as a sculptor. Almost, anyway.

Munro is keeping tight-lipped about what form the final exhibition will take. The nominated works by Wermers and Camplin can be recreated fairly easily, but Kerbel's piece can't. "That's one of the works that we're reconfiguring," she says,"because obviously DOUG was a very short and specific one-off performance." Watch this space, then – or listen to it.

It doesn't happen every year, but from time to time the Turner Prize judges throw out a curveball in their nominations list. It gave us Grayson Perry in 2003 ("It's about time a transvestite potter won the Turner Prize" was his now legendary quip when he actually won the prize) and Duncan of Jordanstone-trained Scot Susan Philipsz in 2010. She won for an envelope-pushing piece which, like Janice Kerbel's, was entirely sound-based. Meanwhile in 2012 Spartacus Chetwynd, now resident in Glasgow, became the first performance artist to be nominated.

So as year has followed year, the Turner Prize judges have continued to redefine what (and who) is appropriate to be considered for a visual art prize whose first two winners – Malcolm Morley and Howard Hodgkin – were both painters and which only strayed into seriously chewy conceptual art with Martin Creed's win in 2001.

This year's joker in the pack, and the fourth name on the Turner Prize shortlist, is Assemble, not a single person but a sprawling, multi-discipline co-operative.

Most of Assemble's members are still in their twenties, many of them are architects (though none has actually qualified) and among their "artworks" are a semi-derelict street in Liverpool, a cinema built in a disused petrol station, a theatre sited under a flyover, a workshop offering free access to tools, furniture for a public park and a climbing wall in Swansea which doubles as a mural of a mountain. They were nominated for two projects, the Liverpool scheme (it's called Granby Four Streets and it's in Toxteth) and the Baltic Street adventure playground in Dalmarnock in the east end of Glasgow.

"We came together initially as a group of friends who wanted to do practical projects in the world," explains Fran Edgerley, Assemble's appointed spokesperson. "We were incredibly naive. Nobody really knew what they were doing, though most of the group had a background in architecture. Others, myself included, didn't have that background but I had experience in construction work... Initially it was just about doing it for fun during holidays, at weekends and in the evenings."

Assemble started out with 20 members, then dropped to 18, and Edgerley reckons there's now "14 or 15". It's quite fluid, in other words. Or "flexible", as she puts it. "And the lack of hierarchy is absolutely critical. It's kind of an ineffecient working practice, but the quality of the work comes from that inefficiency in terms of having multiple minds looking at problems."

Their first project came about when one member – or one mind, if you prefer – took an interest in a disused petrol station in Clerkenwell in London. Everyone else chipped in some money, various licences were sought, and so was born the Cineroleum. Scaffolding boards were used for the flip-up seats, a foyer was constructed from old school dinner tables and an enclosing curtain made using three kilometres of roofing membrane into which seams were hand-sewn. Much of the material was found, scavenged or donated. There was even a popcorn machine.

That, then, is the Assemble ethos in a nutshell. A formative experience for Edgerley was time she spent at the Rural Studio in Alabama, a project run under the auspices of Auburn University's School of Architecture and its pioneering founder, Samuel Mockbee.

The recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "genuis grant" in 2000, the year before he died of leukemia, Mockbee sent his students to rural West Alabama to actually build buildings, often with their bare hands and always with social responsibility and good design uppermost in their minds. It's not hard to join the dots between that pioneering concept and the sort of work for which Assemble have made the Turner Prize shortlist.

That said, the group members were taken aback when they found out they'd been nominated.

"It was really overwhelming," says Edgerley. "We didn't even have an inkling that it would even be possible that we could be considered for that kind of thing. We had no idea that we were even being visited with that in mind."

Prior to the Turner Prize shortlist being make public, many in the group also had misgivings about their presence on it.

"We all felt tentative and uncertain about whether it was appropriate or not and what it meant," says Edgerley. "But when it became public, it didn't matter because it just gave so many people we've worked with so much happiness."

'Stakeholders' is one of those horrible jargon words beloved of bureaucrats but it's a good way to describe the many hundreds of people who have worked with Assemble as volunteers and the thousands of others have enjoyed the fruits of their labours. Each of those people will feel some degree of ownership where Assemble are concerned, so the punk architects would certainly be popular winners.

And as the Turner Prize "comes home" to Glasgow – a city which prides itself on a strong communitarian ethos – they would be oddly appropriate ones too, especially given the "exhibition" they're planning for the Tramway. Still under wraps, Edgerley will say Assemble are using the opportunity to kickstart a new social enterprise business project relating to the two nominated areas, Liverpool and Glasgow. So Turner Prize judges, over to you.

The Turner Prize exhibition opens at Tramway 2, Glasgow on Thursday and runs until January 17. The winner is announced on December 7