Energy efficiency, water savings, and health issues are the three green hot buttons that most consumers respond to, a panel of industry experts told attendees during the Greenbuild International Conference & Expo in Chicago. But officials of Pulte Group, American Standard, and USA Today also said that buyers not only desire well-performing sustainable products and homes that meet these needs, they must be attractive too.

“Some deep green builders get so wrapped up in the envelope that they forget about the aesthetics,” Wendy Koch, who writes the GreenHouse blog for USA Today, said during a presentation to several hundred home building professionals.

Don Devine, CEO of American Standard Brands, said that only about 15% of consumers are green advocates, adding “for the 85% who are not compelled by the green movement, they are not willing to compromise on style and function.”

Across all income groups, energy efficiency is the top priority, said Deborah Meyer, senior vice president of the Pulte Group, which markets Centex entry-level, Pulte move-up, and Del Webb active-adult homes. In a survey Pulte conducted of 5,000 new-home buyers, 48% said they would spend $2,000 to $6,000 to lower their monthly utility bills by $30.

Meyer said consumers don’t respond well to complicated messages and literature about green features and benefits, so she advised devising a simple home energy rating scale that shows how much they can save. “Focus on how much it costs to operate the home,” the chief marketing officer explained.

Likewise, Koch recommended that pros use the KISS (keep it simple, stupid) approach when explaining a home’s green attributes to clients.

The majority of consumers believe green products cost more, Devine noted, adding that all but the greenest of green consumers are “a show-me challenge.” Nevertheless, the American Standard executive said the way to create demand for green products is through education of the builder and homeowner. For example, “Water-saving products often will pay for themselves in one year,” he said.

At the end of the session, one Virginia-based custom home builder said many of her well-to-do clients install geothermal systems, water-conserving fixtures and fittings, and other green products--but then insist on stone from France. Koch said it’s the pro’s job to show customers that there are “real cool” green products closer to home.

“We don’t need to be importing these products,” she concluded.

Jean Dimeo is Chief Editor, Online, for EcoHome.