Written by PJ Wade

With “zero” the goal for the Race to Zero, you may be surprised to learn how much value lies in the idea-rich contest submissions for those focused on their own real estate.

The Race to Zero, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), is an inspiring competition and a dramatic challenge. On both counts, this annual competition creates a treasure-trove of freely-available information for efficiency-conscious homeowners and those who want to buy or cost-effectively build a new energy-efficient “zero” home.

  • This inspiring competition engaged 33 teams of undergraduates, graduate students, and university faculty from 27 Universities in the United States and Canada. Each team conceived a new or retrofit Zero Energy Ready Home (ZERH) which was “cost-effective and consistent with mainstream builder construction practices.”
  • The dramatic challenge faced by competitors was to design, analyze, and document a ZERH – a high-performance home that is so energy efficient, its renewable energy system can offset all or most of its annual energy consumption, hence the “zero.” Student teams were challenged with a specific design problem – either to redesign an existing floor plan to ZERH standards or to create a new high-performance house design that satisfies ZERH requirements.

This competition, originally known as the Challenge Home Student Design Competition, is part of DOE’s Building America and Zero Energy Ready Home programs.

The 2015 Grand Winner is Opti-MN Impact House, University of Minnesota.In its detailed competition submission, accessible below, you’ll discover the students’ combined passion for sustainable housing in the team’s creative flair and analytic strengths as they design a market-ready infill home ideal for Minnesota’s climate. Construction diagrams, design explanations, detailed financial analysis (page 26), and construction plans take you inside a cleverly-conceived, practical-to-build, 1696-square-foot family home.

  • Team Submissions for the Grand Winner Opti-MN, and the four Grand Winner Finalists – Appalachian State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Pennsylvania College of Technology, and University of Illinois at Urbana – are available in very readable PDF format. Here you’ll discover a wealth of ideas for new and retrofit ZERHs to apply to your sustainable housing project. Learn why it is reasonable and rewarding for you to expect more in home design.
  • Explore the team slide presentations from the 10 other Category Winners and their wide variety of projects.


ZERH design does not stop at energy efficiency and savings. These homes are comfortable, cosy, well-lit, healthy environments. ZERH requirements leave room for design which offers visually-pleasing spaces along with technological innovation. Expect research and development programs and initiatives to continue to drive innovation and improvement in home technologies from LED lighting and solar water heaters to every aspect of construction and interior design.

Want to locate experienced ZERH builders in your state?

Use the DOE Zero Energy Ready Home Partner Locator to find local builders who are DOE ZERH partners.

Before starting a renovation project, buying a new home, engaging a building contractor, or taking a major real estate step, invest time exploring the fleshed-out submissions and some of the stimulating slide presentations. These insider views of new homes, substantial renovations, and infill projects including multi-unit buildings provide a unique opportunity to see your home with a fresh, forward-thinking perspective.

Congratulations to all the competitors in the Race to Zero! Best of luck in your housing careers. We need you.

The passion for sustainable housing is infectious. The more you learn about what can be achieved – from energy independence and environmental protection to savvy real estate purchasing and long-term security—and how those who live in ZERHs and other sustainable housing benefit, the more involved you’ll become. If not for yourself, perhaps for your children…or theirs.


FYI: The 2015 Housing Innovation Awards Ceremony recognizing professional ZERH builders will be held on October 6, 2015, at the EEBA Excellence in Building Conference & Expo in Denver, Colorado.