In these tough economic times, few Americans are going to spend an extra dime on Mother Nature, no matter how much they hear about dwindling resources or a warming planet. It’s hunker-down time, a new era of living simply and conserving what’s left of our life savings. The good news is, this doesn’t mean green building is becoming less relevant. As most green pros know, building sustainably isn’t just about being eco-friendly; done right, it saves energy costs, lasts longer, is healthier, and requires less maintenance. All of these attributes mean long-term savings for the homeowner. And right now “savings” is the word of the hour.

Trouble is, many buyers don’t know this. They’ve heard that green can be more expensive or they think it’s just about conservation. What they need to hear is: This house will save you money. And that means pros need to tweak marketing messages to clearly educate homeowners on what a sustainable home means and what the direct payback can be if properly operated and maintained.

There are a number of ways to get the message out. One thing is for sure: Clarity is key. If I were buying a green home right now, I would want to see, specifically, how each element of the house was going to benefit me and my family. How much money can the appliances and low-flow fixtures potentially save me? What exactly will an HRV do for my indoor air quality over the long term? How will the window flashing you’re installing reduce my maintenance costs down the road?

Don’t assume they know anything about green (or that what they have learned is correct). Use clear language in marketing materials and on your Web site. Include a glossary of terms. Consider a chart that describes the unique elements and directly compares their savings versus similar products and designs. Point out subtle design elements that add up to decreased costs. Provide calculations of what such features can mean for resale values. No matter which route you go, it’s essential to be specific. The more they learn about the features and benefits, the greater chance details such as bath fans and passive solar will become just as important to them as granite countertops. 

One idea I’m a fan of are nutrition-like labels for homes. I first saw this concept in use last year hanging off of some of the products in the University of Maryland’s Solar Decathlon house. Architect Michelle Kaufmann touts the buyer-friendly benefits of a universal home labeling program in a recent white paper. “Highlighting the intrinsic link between a house’s environmental footprint and the cost of ownership would do more than almost anything else to propagate greener homes,” she writes. Nutrition labels on food tell consumers exactly what’s in the product they’re about to buy, with the goal being we will eat smarter because we have more information at our fingertips. The same can be assumed for homes labeled based on a set of performance criteria and testing. Imagine two seemingly identical houses, each bearing a label listing the energy savings. Which would we be more apt to buy?

If you’re not ready to start labeling your homes, or until a universally accepted method is enacted, at least find a way to spell out the specifics. One builder we profiled simply tacks the energy bills of his model home to the wall. Others use comparative charts on their Web sites to explain the features and what they mean. Some guarantee energy costs and pay the difference if they’re exceeded. No matter which way you opt to go, the goal is to get homeowners thinking of green beyond eco-friendly. How will your home change their lives? What will it mean for their wallets? The numbers don’t lie.

Katy Tomasulo is Deputy Editor for EcoHome.