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Consumers Demand Green Homes--Not Just for Tree Huggers

Rob Moody didn't set out to be a builder. After graduating from college with a biology major, he began work as an environmental-science teacher in Asheville, N.C. On weekends, though, he spent long hours fixing up the classic shingle-style home his family had owned for nearly a century. Then, after seven years in cinder-block classrooms, he decided to make a change. "My love for old houses fell together with my love for the environment," says Moody, 34, who launched The EcoBuilders to construct environmentally friendly houses. Today Moody's foremen drive pickup trucks that run on used grease from fast-food fryers. And whether he's building new homes or renovating old ones, he insulates them to the hilt, uses sustainable materials and recycles so much debris that he requires only the smallest Dumpsters. Clients love the approach. "We doubled production last year, and we'll probably double again this year," Moody says.

The predominant color in the building industry right now is red, not green. America's housing markets remain in free fall, as the foreclosure crisis continues and more homeowners discover their mortgage debt exceeds the value of their house. Last year the average home builder laid off a quarter of its employees; this year the industry estimates it will sell just 632,000 new homes, its lowest total since 1992. But amid this gloom, there's buzz about consumers' shifting demand toward "green homes"-and how builders with this expertise remain busy despite the bust. In a 2007 survey by the National Association of Home Builders, home buyers said they'd be willing to spend an additional $8,964 on a home if it could cut their utility bills. Throughout the industry, there's a sense that consumers have finally reached a tipping point. "It's taken almost as a fait accompli, that green building is where the market is headed," says Michelle Moore, senior vice president at the U.S. Green Building Council.

For all the professed consumer interest, though, the average home buyer knows little about green building. That's partly because it's a broad concept with several components. The most obvious attribute is energy efficiency. For some buyers, that means investing big money in fancy geothermal or solar technologies-but more often it simply means being diligent about using good insulation, efficient appliances, superior windows and designing the house to take advantage of the sun. Green houses also conserve water, often by using specialized plumbing fixtures. For some builders, going green also means limiting waste, sometimes by using "panelized," factory-built walls or recycling wood from older homes. Inside, green homes often feature sustainable materials, like countertops made from recycled glass.

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