Team Opti-MN Bridges Disciplines to Win DOE Race to Zero

Even without solar panels, zero energy-ready homes cut electricity bills while improving their occupants’ health and safety. But designing such a high-performance house requires skills and knowledge outside architecture. Each year, the US Department of Energy invites collegiate teams to submit zero energy-ready designs to the Race to Zero Competition.

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Opti-MN, the University of Minnesota’s interdisciplinary team, was named the 2015 Grand Winner, beating 33 teams from 27 universities with their design Impact House! Sustainable design graduate student Laurel Johnston (Architecture) thinks their victory stems from designing an affordable home for potential low-income buyers in a real community: North Minneapolis. “We had to be smart where we spent our limited budget,” Johnston explained. “The most challenging part of the project was keeping it affordable and knowing where to invest the money and where to hold back. We wanted to show high performing affordable homes can still be beautiful.”

The team collaborated with Urban Homeworks to design a market-ready affordable home that could be purchased by low-income North Minneapolis residents through the Green Homes North program. “We met with Urban Homeworks’ project managers several times throughout the semester to discuss our project and receive feedback in its market appropriateness. They helped immensely by letting us have access to their bank knowledge and construction experience,” said Johnston.

Although it was a design competition, Johnston was was the only College of Design student on the team.
Opti-MN’s faculty advisor Pat Huelman (Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering) explained that while building science students understand building systems and technologies, “it’s essential that it’s a collaborative effort. Design skills are necessary to put together an attractive, functional, and practical plan.” Students studying business and construction management rounded out the team.

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The Impact House demonstrates the breadth of Opti-MN’s expertise, with features ranging from Energy Star-certified appliances and low-VOC paints to native vegetation and rain barrels. Huelman explained that student interest in sustainability is increasing across many University programs. “Most students understand that sustainability has to include energy efficiency, building durability, and indoor air quality. ‘Green building’ was more about the materials, sustainability is more holistic. It integrates both architecture and building science.”


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