Students win grand prize in the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy’s Race to Zero design competition

Besting over 50 submissions from four countries in this eight-month competition the team’s design focuses on building sciences, green energy initiatives and sustainable city development


Creating homes in the forgotten Toronto back laneways, LaneZero’s design offers stylish living driven by sustainable development.

Downtown location with loft-style, open-concept living featuring bright kitchen, second-floor balcony and free utilities for life.

This net-zero listing is a surprising addition to the laneway garages and often underutilized buildings dotting Toronto back alleys but for a city facing a housing crunch this design contest winner might be the sustainable solution needed.

Recently Jason Gray, CivE MASc student and U of T alum Kevin Wu Almanzar (CivE 1T6) teamed up with students from Ryerson to take home the grand prize in the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Race to Zero competition. Tackling green energy problems and ubiquitous building sciences challenges, the team addressed some uniquely Toronto problems plaguing our city with their market-ready design concept entitled, LaneZero.

“This is a product can be used by property owners today – a great living space with affordable construction,” said Gray. “We wanted to offer current Toronto residents a ready-to-use product for a home both exciting to live in and one that makes great financial sense.”

Focusing on existing neighbourhood infrastructure, LaneZero creates new single-family dwellings in currently landlocked communities. Using the laneways of Christie Pits as inspiration, the team set out to identify a net-zero energy solution for the neighbourhood.

Prospective sites are small and forced the team to revaluate traditional green building solutions. In typical low-energy homes, the outside walls can be very thick, sometimes up to three times larger than conventional building walls. The LaneZero design balanced the home’s footprint with wall thickness for optimal living through energy modelling and parametric analysis.

“Our design serves to activate the laneways of Toronto and foster a community in spaces historically underused,” said Gray. “The laneway concept gives home owners the opportunity to build income properties on their existing lots and provides housing alternatives in the Toronto market. For those that don’t want to go the condo route – this is a great housing option.”

The iterative design process allowed comparisons and quick changes maximizing the team’s effort to obtain their final net-zero energy target.  Using modelling software to determine an optimal design, the team considered the quantity of daylight penetration year-round, environmental impact and overall building costs.

Gray and Almanzar spearheaded the envelope system design to minimize heat loss, protect the structure from damage, and help ensure year-round comfort. They worked alongside the architecture, mechanical, and indoor environmental quality teams to ensure comprehensive and fully integrated systems.

LaneZero’s winning architectural rendering of their market-ready Toronto laneway design.

One creative and interesting consideration the team addressed was the limited roof space on laneway homes for solar panels. They employed passive solar and mechanical design concepts to take advantage of free energy and technological enhancements.

“For example, LaneZero leveraged the low-angle sun in the winter time with large south facing windows to maximize free heat gains while offsetting the heating demand. Appropriate shading for the summertime limited the amount of direct solar radiation entering the building and lowered the cooling demand,” explained Jason. “On the mechanical side, using an innovative heat pump design, the heating, cooling, and domestic hot water were all provided in a highly energy efficient manner. Other methods, such as a large amount of insulation for the envelope assemblies, continuous thermal layers, and energy efficient appliance selection contributed to achieving the net-zero goal for the project.”

The design lauded for its architectural design, comprehensive building science analysis, and a unique vision for the future of sustainable cities won in the Attached Housing category and the grand prize across all categories. The team is looking for future expansions and investigating potential opportunities for project applications.

Rachel Wallace