Last year, Hammer & Hand, a “science, service and craft”-oriented contracting firm with offices in both Portland and in Seattle’s deep-green Bullitt Center, launched the inaugural perFORM Building Design Competition in which architecture students were challenged to design a single-family home for the latter city that was “resourceful, replicable and beautiful” while also achieving passive house-like energy performance levels.

Setting out to dispel the myth that “green buildings are ugly and beautiful buildings burn energy,” Hammer & Hand’s decision to revolve the competition around uber-efficient passive house design made sense given that the lauded firm’s co-founder, Sam Hagerman, served as the first president of the American arm of the Passive House Alliance. It also didn’t hurt that Seattle was in the midst of somewhat of a passive house-mini-frenzy at the time.

For the 2015 perFORM Building Design Competition, Hammer & Hand have opted to switch things up, moving the action from the Emerald City to a specific build site bounded by bustling Burnside Street on the edge of Northeast Portland while also challenging participants to design a mixed-use, multifamily building (commercial/retail space on the ground floor topped with apartments) in lieu of a single-family home.

Most notably, this year’s perFORM competition invited student architects and interns to “explore the nexus between high performance building and high design” through net-zero energy building: a close — and decidedly more active — cousin of the German-borne passive house movement in which rooftop solar panels and other renewable energy systems are thrown into the high-efficiency fray, enabling structures to generate more energy than they consume. While the locale, typology and requirements were different from the previous year's competition, contest judges were once again on the lookout for resourcefulness, replicability and aesthetic beauty.

One entrant from University of Cincinnati architecture students Jon Lund, Narek Mirzaei and Luis Sabater Musa managed to impress the judges on all fronts. The thoughtful mid-rise design, dubbed 3 Green Bars Building, beat out over 50 other entrants (double the number of last year’s competition) to win competition’s top prize of $3,000.

3 Green Bars, winner of Hammer & Hand's 2015 perFORM student design competitionRendering: Jon Lund, Narek Mirzaei, Luis Sabater Musa

Two runners-up, a team from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and a single-student entry from California State Polytechnic University Pomona, were also announced at a ceremony hosted by Hammer & Hand in Portland last week.

And as it turns out, simplicity and restraint, not architectural razzle-dazzle, is what managed to woo the competition judges in the end.

Notes Gladys Ly-Au Young, principal at Seattle firm Sundberg Kennedy Ly-Au Young Architects, of the wood-clad 3 Green Bars Building: “This team took the time to really understand the biggest sources of energy consumption in buildings of this scale and then focused on reducing those loads with passive and creative programmatic solutions first, before adding big solar arrays to the roof. They did all this while also respecting the site and using simple, elegant proportions on the buildings.”

Composed of 47 housing units split roughly between two-bedroom apartments and studios, the five-story cross-laminated timber structure is described in the jury’s notes as being “an example where simple actually works.”

In addition to addressing efficiency-boosting passive strategies before focusing on the rooftop hardware that, in this case, is split evenly between solar thermal and photovoltaic arrays, the trio from the University of Cincinnati looked toward communal living, specifically Danish cohousing, to further drive down energy usage.

To achieve this, the team centered the highly insulated building’s design around a shared rooftop garden and two spacious “commons” in which residents, specifically those living in the building’s studio units, are encouraged to share kitchen, dining and laundry facilities.

3 Green Bars, winner of Hammer & Hand's 2015 perFORM student design competitionRendering: Jon Lund, Narek Mirzaei, Luis Sabater Musa

That said, the mingling-centric communal set-up of 3 Green Bars Building, one meant to promote “neighborliness and social interaction among the building residents,” may not appeal to everyone, particularly introverted types looking for something a touch less dorm-y. It’s understandable. However, sharing a meal — and a washer/dryer — with the neighbors is a key factor in lowering the building’s overall energy consumption. The team anticipates that shared appliances in lieu of individual ones in each of the studio units lowers the building’s energy use by 30 percent.

And while the University of Cincinnati team along with the runners-up in the 2015 perFORM Building Design Competition are certainly deserving of high-fives all around, congratulations are also in order to Hammer & Hand itself.

Last week, the firm, founded in 1995 as a remodeler of historic Portland residential properties, was awarded as one of four recipients of the U.S. Department of Energy’s 2015 Housing Innovation Awards for the Pumpkin Ridge Passive House in North Plains, Oregon.

Says Bryan Farris, owner of the Scott|Edwards Architecture-designed Pumpkin Ridge Passive House: “When you put a little more thought and a little more attention into the engineering of the house, you have a house that’s really comfortable, that you really enjoy, that you can stay in for the rest of your life and that you don’t want to leave. I don’t know that I can say that for any other houses that I’ve lived in.”

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.