A team of University of Minnesota students took top honors in a national competition that challenges them to design a high-performance house that uses little or no energy.

The school's "Team OptiMN" beat 33 teams from 27 universities in the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Race to Zero Student Design Competition in late April at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo.

"This is a pretty big deal, the DOE requirements are rigorous and the competition is pretty stiff," said Pat Huelman, associate extension professor at the University of Minnesota.

The students were told to design a house that is so energy-efficient it can offset all or most of its annual energy consumption using renewable energy sources. The goal is to reduce electricity consumption and improve the comfort, health, safety and durability of the house.

The students had to comply with the DOE's Zero Energy Ready Home program criteria and apply "best practices" from its Building America program, which has a mandate that requires the features to be cost-effective and easy to implement.

"It is a much more holistic approach," Huelman said.

The team's three-bedroom house was designed for a site on Fremont Avenue in north Minneapolis and has a full range of features that go beyond energy efficiency, including moisture management, creating long-term durability and improving the indoor air quality of the house.

The DOE competition is intended to inspire the next-generation of architects, engineers and construction managers to use the latest building science innovations in new and existing buildings, and to promote university building science programs.

Team OptiMN included 14 students from various U programs, including residential building sciences, construction management and a graduate program in sustainable design.

Team OptiMN's entry is sited to take advantage of passive solar gain, but it also has a Minnesota-made photovoltaic solar system on the roof.

Their design also takes into account the impact of the project on the environment, including minimizing on-site construction waste, and it has a flexible floor plan that is intended to extend the life span of the house by making it functional for a variety of families.

Their plan was evaluated by a variety of experts, including national homebuilders, building scientists, materials experts and research scientists. Eighteen awards were given in five categories.

Tom Schirber, a fellow at the Cold Climate Housing Center, said the team's winning design will be built this summer by Urban Homeworks, a nonprofit organization that has a construction training program, as part of the Minneapolis Green Homes North initiative.

Already, a house designed by a local architecture firm that's similar to the OptiMN home is being built by Urban Homeworks on Bryant Avenue in north Minneapolis. That house meets the DOE's Zero Energy Ready Home requirements, which requires that it can quickly and inexpensively become a net-zero home by adding an onsite renewable system like the rooftop PV panels that were part of the winning design.