A group of electric utility companies in Massachusetts will soon announce the winners of a unique energy efficiency competition. The program pitted five home builders against each other to design and build super energy-efficient single-family homes that achieve zero or near-zero energy performance. The Zero Energy Challenge was developed as a pilot program that could potentially be implemented as an incentive-based, utility-managed initiative. Utility providers NSTAR, National Grid, Unitil Corp., and Western Mass Electric Co.—all members of the Massachusetts New Homes With Energy Star Program—sought out local Energy Star builders to promote the use of advanced energy efficiency technologies and engage the state's builders in employing advanced building techniques.

The winners will be announced on June 29.

"These homes will serve as laboratories to help identify innovative and cost-effective building technologies and practices that can be used by all building professionals interested in constructing homes that have close to zero energy use," Zero Energy Challenge manager David Ruggiero said in a statement about the upcoming award announcement.

A mix of income-eligible, affordable, and market-rate projects were selected. They include a 2,080-square-foot affordable home by Lawrence, Mass.-based nonprofit Bread & Roses Housing; a 2,960-square-foot private residence by Mark Sevier, P.E., a green building consultant with The Green Roundtable of Boston; a 1,252-square-foot affordable residence by Transformations Inc. in Townsend, Mass.; a 1,392-square-foot affordable residence by Turners Falls, Mass.-based Rural Development; and an 1,152-square-foot private residence by Florence, Mass., builder Bick Corsa Carpentry. Each home employs best-practices HVAC installations; uses advanced and replicable building techniques; and incorporates renewable energy technologies such as photovoltaics and solar thermal collectors.

The five homes were recently completed and their performance verified by Home Energy Rating System (HERS) raters. Three will be chosen to receive cash awards totaling $50,000. The first-prize winner will receive $25,000; the second- and third-prize winners will receive $15,000 and $10,000, respectively.

Project details—including specifications, designed performance goals, and HERS verifications—can be found on the challenge website, www.zechallenge.com.

In March 2009, Greenfield, Mass.-based Northeast Sustainable Energy Association (NESEA) announced the results of a similar regional competition. (Read the CUSTOM HOME story here.) Also in March, the Connecticut Energy Efficiency Fund and the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund announced a Zero Energy Challenge for residential designers and builders in the state of Connecticut inspired by the Massachusetts pilot program. Homes in Connecticut's Zero Energy Challenge also will compete to achieve the lowest overall energy use and three winners will be selected to receive a total of $30,000 in cash awards. Winners will be announced December 8, 2010.