Copper is everywhere. But look around and you’ll be hard pressed to find it.
It hides in our pockets as pennies, in our walls as wiring, and in our bodies as an essential element (in trace amounts.)
As pervasive as copper is, it’s seldom thought of as a building material. It doesn’t have to be that way, say its proponents.
Functionality is the biggest driver in copper use. The metal is an excellent conductor of heat and electricity. That’s why your home uses copper in its wiring and you probably have copper-bottomed pans — even if it’s hidden by steel. Copper piping is often used in plumbing.
Add in copper’s alloys — bronze and brass — and copper’s reach becomes even wider.
“Even though we don’t see it, it’s in there doing its job,” said Larry Peters of the Copper Development Association.
It’s folks like Peters who would like to see homeowners use copper in a more visible way. Copper’s changing look makes it an intriguing building material, he said. Part of that is the metal’s ability to change color over time.
“It doesn’t rust. It weathers brown and then if the chemicals in the atmosphere (are correct), it turns green,” Peters said.
Outdoors, copper will always go from its bright pink luster to brown but it doesn’t always turn green. Certain chemicals, like sulfur spewed from volcanoes, along with moisture, need to be present for the green patina to develop.
In the Northwest, that process can take decades.
“In the Pacific Northwest, where you get a lot of rain, even with the volcanoes, you have very clean air blowing in from the ocean,” Peters said.
Copper has been used for centuries for roofing and gutters. More recently, it’s been showing up as cladding. The metal’s slowly changing look appeals to designers and builders, Peters said.
“With a lot of building materials, you love the look on Day One, and then it gets worse over time. You have to repaint the house or whatever. With copper, you’re aiming for the way it looks as it ages,” he said.
Peters sometimes fields requests from homeowners who want to install copper on newly built homes. They often get thwarted by their homeowners’ associations, which don’t understand copper’s aging process.
“They will try to disallow copper, saying it’s going to be shiny and too much bling. I have to explain to them, (the shine is) going to last about four months. It fact, it’s pretty futile to try to keep it shiny.”
Aside from its appearance, copper’s durability and its malleability make it a favorite building material, Peters said.
“Properly designed and installed, copper can outlast the building,” Peters said. Maintenance needs to occur but usually only at 100-year intervals.
Many famous landmarks use copper in their design. Imagine you wore a pink gown that slowly turned brown and then green. While holding a torch.
But the Statue of Liberty is not the only icon sheathed in copper.
Copper domes top the capitol buildings of states from California to Maine. Closer to home, British Columbia’s grand legislative building in Victoria sports a dome, dozens of cupolas and ridge caps and other elements — all in copper.
One famous dome that isn’t copper — the U.S. Capitol — is nevertheless surrounded by it. Practically the entire building has a copper roof.
Though copper’s cost hasn’t risen much in the last couple of years, it still isn’t cheap. And that’s why neighborhoods go dark occasionally when metal thieves rip out miles of copper wiring. The thieves are not selling the wire as new. They sell it to metal recyclers. Which brings to light another of copper’s attributes.
“Copper is infinitely recyclable without degradation of the material. It retains its value more than any other engineering metal. If you’re using it, you’re leaving an environmental legacy. It will be recycled,” Peters said.
Most private individuals can’t afford the cost of a copper roof. But copper can add architectural accents to a home, including bay windows, chimney caps, gutters, counter back splashes and rain chains.
Copper is such a coveted material that manufacturers offer copper-colored paint designed to mimic copper. But real copper shows variation in weathering. Copper colored paint won’t.
Today, Peters said, copper roofing is primarily used by homeowners who like the look and on legacy buildings like government buildings and churches.
“What church wants to think it’s going away in 20 years?” he said.