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Green Homes Growing Red Hot

The home building industry is struggling, but one sector is booming: green homes.

The number of homes winning the government's Energy Star designation since the program began in 1995 has crossed the 1 million mark. Despite an overall housing slump, 75,000 have been added so far this year for a total of 1,024,200.

Last year, Energy Star homes accounted for nearly 17% of all single-family homes built, up from 12% in 2007.

The Energy Star label means a house is at least 20% more energy-efficient than other new homes.

"They are better homes," with more efficient windows, lighting, appliances, insulation, heating and cooling, says Maria Vargas of the Environmental Protection Agency's Energy Star program.

Private programs that certify homes as environmentally friendly also report growth, despite a 30% plunge in new homes started or completed in the year ending in October, the last month for which Census data are available.

"There's an awakening going on," says Nate Kredich of the U.S. Green Building Council, a non-profit group whose rating criteria are stricter than Energy Star. Kredich says its number of certified homes, which increased from 1,151 last year to 3,050 so far this year, is a small but growing share of all new homes.

"The interest in green building is driven by consumers. More people are doing it to save money on their heating bills," says Kevin Morrow of the National Association of Home Builders, whose green certifications jumped from 99 homes last year to at least 564 this year.

Existing homes are going green, too: 68% of people surveyed by USA TODAY took steps this year to make their homes more energy-efficient. Of those who did, 71% said it was "mostly to save money" and 26% "mostly to save the environment."

The poll of 1,017 adults, taken Nov. 20-22, has a margin of error of +/-4 percentage points.

Green features that sell best are those that pay for themselves quickest as consumers focus on price, says Kermit Baker, chief economist of the American Institute of Architects. Baker expects energy costs to help fuel green home building.

"Consumer acceptance has been outstanding," says Walter Cuculic of Pulte Homes, which has built 120,000 Energy Star homes. He says people are starting to look at "the miles per gallon for their home."

In Las Vegas, Pulte is building 185 homes that each will have solar-paneled roofs and certification by the U.S. Green Building Council.

Curtis Jones, who bought one in May, says other similar homes cost less, but he expects to save money long-term on lower utility bills.

Jones, 55, a literacy educator, says he feels good about helping the environment.

"I'm not a purist," he says, "but I think we all need to do our part."

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