Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy

How New Building Scientists are Made

August 31, 2017

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Where do future architects, engineers, and construction managers learn how to apply cutting-edge design principles before college graduation?

The U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Race to Zero Student Design Competition.

This competition asks students to apply the latest building science innovations in designs for real-world projects, including new and existing Zero Energy Ready Homes and Zero Energy Buildings

2017 U.S. Department of Energy Race to Zero Student Design Competition
Watch: Race to Zero inspires future architects, engineers, construction managers, and entrepreneurs to start careers in clean energy and generate creative solutions to real-world problems.

Race to Zero Student Design Competition

Students and institutes joining this annual competition provide critical leadership in bringing building science to the building industry. Participants are provided the skills and experience needed to fully integrate building science into high-performance, ultra-efficient buildings that are cost-effective and meet the design constraints of the mainstream building industry.

Race to Zero is actually an umbrella of design competitions addressing the specific needs of different housing types. This includes suburban single-family, urban single-family, attached, and small multi-family housing. Next year’s competition will also include commercial buildings starting with a new competition to design a 300-600 student elementary school.

Designing Super-Efficient Buildings

Throughout the school year, students work together to design, evaluate, and model their designs into a final project. This process isn’t done in a vacuum; participants are asked to engage with professionals across the industry (e.g., builders, architects, city officials, contractors, developers, energy auditors, engineers, tradespeople, manufacturers, and community leaders) to help inform their decision-making processes and final projects. 

Students walk across the NREL Campus during Race to Zero competition.
Students walk through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory campus - the site of the Race to Zero Student Design Competition.
Photo by NREL

Once the teams finalize their designs, they present them at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. Final designs must adhere to the relevant Zero Energy Ready Home and Zero Energy Building criteria, present clear project plans, and demonstrate overall competency in applying best practices from DOE’s Building America program for residential construction and DOE’s Advanced Energy Design Guides for zero energy buildings. Students then present to a panel of jurors, drawn from leading industry members, building science innovators, and national laboratory research scientists, who evaluate the final projects across 10 parameters, including:

  • Architectural Design
  • Interior Design, Lighting, Plug Loads, and Appliances
  • Energy Analysis
  • Constructability
  • Financial Analysis
  • Envelope Performance and Durability
  • Indoor Air Quality and Ventilation
  • Mechanical, Electrical, and Plumbing Systems Design
  • Innovation
  • Presentation and Documentation Quality.

This year’s competition featured 39 teams from 33 universities from four countries. There’s still time to get involved in next year’s competition.