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Student of the Franklin L.Burns School of Real Estate and Construction Management work each year on a home-building practicum. 

How tough is it to build a family-sized house where the owners end up paying nothing for energy whatsoever? not even for a kilowatt-hour?

Two decades ago, that sounded as farfetched as a mission to Mars; but in 2011, Oakwood Homes built not one, but two “net-zero” energy homes at Green Valley Ranch, close to the route where commuter rail trains will carry passengers to DIA starting in 2016. Oakwood crafted the homes, sold both at very reasonable prices – and now has data to prove that the electric meters in each are actually spinning backward.

In an age when big internationals wrestle with whether to go after short-term profits or to plow back revenues into R&D, Oakwood’s president Pat Hamill seems to be doing both. Seventeen years ago, Hamill (he’s a trustee of the University of Denver) pioneered a program with DU’s Burns School of Real Estate & Construction Management to create a practicum that would give students hands-on experience with residential projects – every year, one Oakwood house that would be built with students participating. About the time Denver’s real estate market went south in 2007-2009, Oakwood kicked the Residential Practicum up a notch – involving the students in actually picking the innovations that could be showcased in their project home.

That led to the net-zero homes (both sold rapidly, at prices close to the metro area’s median value single-family home). This spring, the Practicum is taking Oakwood into new territory: a smart-home design that will be one of three models for a new Park House Series at Green Valley Ranch. It will show gadgetry like a television that shows through a bathroom mirror; lighting that sets a mood for the time of evening, operable from your iPhone; and automated blinds that will open windows to allow passive solar energy in – or button them up when the sun is hiding or when the cooling system is running.