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Cladding With Copper

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The versatility, appearance, and durability of copper cladding have increased demand for the material both as an exterior covering and building trim.


Mark Kenville


Long life and low maintenance are the driving forces behind any commercial building exterior treatment. Of the many available options, metal has emerged as the cladding of choice in many parts of the country. In New England, there has been a notable trend by designers and builders to use copper cladding for new construction and renovations. The metal has become particularly popular in school designs.

“Our firm uses a lot of metal cladding in our educational designs,” said Pip Lewis, AIA, a senior associate at HMFH Architects Inc., Cambridge, MA. “More often than not, we use copper panels over other manufactured metals. We like using copper because of its longevity, as well as its appealing look. I like to add copper for some punch to a design, even if it’s only in a canopy over an entryway. Copper adds a tactile depth of texture and conveys a great sense of quality as you’re entering the building.”v

The entrance to the Visual and Performing Arts Center at Beaver Country Day School uses copper cladding to visually connect the new building with the old classroom building. Brick further enhances the architectural integration.

Additionally, Lewis noted that copper is a slightly less expensive than brick and does not require any maintenance. “Copper lasts for years. Although the patinas will change slightly, it doesn’t need repainting like other metals,” Lewis said

Similarly, Dan Flanagan, division manager for institutional work at Erland Construction, Burlington, MA, commented that, in his experience, metal has become more popular in school building projects. “We’ve been involved in the construction of several educational buildings where metal cladding has been used prominently. Metals are more flexible in design and aren’t as costly as brick,” he said. He added that his company had completed a number of school projects recently that incorporated copper in a variety of design elements.

This movement toward use of copper on building exteriors is driven by its durability and attractiveness. It is a highly malleable metal that is easily fabricated, will not rust or corrode, and never needs painting. Because of its environmentally friendly qualities, copper is being incorporated into many university projects to generate LEED credits and certification.”

An example of this trend can be seen at the Beaver Country Day School, Chestnut Hill, MA, where copper cladding was instrumental in integrating the modern design of a new visual and performing arts center with the architecture of 80-yr.-old New England brick structures.

Beaver Country Day School was incorporated in 1920 by a group of Boston-area parents who wished to have a “progressive” school where students were taught through creativity and play, as well as hard work. Today, the school is a private, independent, co-educational, college-preparatory institution with 410 students in grades 6 through 12. In 1999, the school initiated a master plan to meet its growing academic program and an anticipated increase in enrollment, while maintaining its standard of educational excellence. HMFH Architects was hired in early 2002 to plan and design an expansion and renovation of the existing 17-acre wooded campus to address program needs in performing and visual arts and athletics.

One of the priority projects was to address the need for a substantial amount of additional space for visual and performing arts. Although renovating and expanding underused existing space was initially considered, the decision was made to construct a new facility and connect it to the existing main classroom building.

For Lewis, being charged with designing the school’s new Visual and Performing Arts Center involved incorporating a state-of-the-art facility with the existing buildings of the school’s campus-some of which dated back to the 1920s. It was a project full of endless creative possibilities.

“Officials at the school did not place any restrictions on the facility design,” Lewis said. “There were no preconceived thoughts on how it should look.” Yet, Lewis recognized that the building was part of a long-established New England educational environment and needed to harmonize with the surroundings. While several designs were proposed, a brick structure with exterior copper cladding and accents helped bridge the gap between the contemporary building and the school’s more traditional structures.

The plan called for the 30,000-sq.-ft. addition to house a highly flexible “black box” theatre with seating for 125 people, as well as associated theatrical preparation areas, including dressing rooms, a scene shop, a costume workroom, a green room, and a control room for lights and sound. Additionally, several resource rooms were required to accommodate choral music, drama, dance, instrumental music, printmaking, photography, drawing, and computer graphics. “We wanted the new three-story addition-though large and prominent-to feel like an incremental outgrowth,” Lewis recalled.

“To preserve the character of the campus, it was easy for us to get to the idea of using masonry because of existing buildings. But we wanted to play the masonry off other things and design the building in a way that suggested what is going on inside,” Lewis said.

Alloy-coated copper was included as a prominent design element to add the appearance of light weight and to blend the old with the new. An eye-catching, two-story wall, clad with a battened grid of 3-ft 40-in.-square copper panels, sub-divided with flat-seam panels to work with commonly available copper sheet sizes, spans the space between the old and new buildings. It features a 9-ft.-dia. circular window and a bank of 18-in.-sq. windows that bring light into the facility’s lobby.

The classroom space reflects the traditional architectural style, recalling the 1920s building to which the center is connected. The brick of this section matches the brick and details of the older building, and the windows are related in style. The black box theater is turned at an angle and highlighted with a bas relief brick diamond shape pattern. It has a more modern look to express that something more creative is going on in the space.

To offset the heavy masonry’s sturdy appearance, Lewis selected a gray-toned copper. “I like working with copper, and love the softness of this particular copper’s color. It blended well with the heavily textured bricks,” he said.

FreedomGray, manufactured by Revere Copper Products, Inc., Rome, NY, was the copper specified for the project. It is a pure standard-sheet copper, coated on both sides with a rugged tin/zinc alloy, and is lead-free for use in all environments.

“This copper is full of small variations in color, which is good,” Lewis noted. “The panels have a hand-formed feel and workmanship that give the building a very tactile look. The copper panels, and the battens that join the seams together, create a striking hand-wrought wall system that worked well with the arts-and-crafts style of the older school building.”

The $7-million building project took 14-months to complete. Erland Construction was the general contractor.

Dan James, the on-site project superintendent, recalled that the metal installation had its challenges and required a collaborative effort between the architect and the installers. “The building exterior called for two extensive brick patterns, as well as the copper cladding. Certainly there are challenges whenever you are joining together dissimilar materials,” James said. “But everyone worked well together to fine-tune the details and devise the right technique to address water tightness and aesthetics.”

Copper-cladding installation entailed a variety of techniques, using standing seams, flat seams, and battens. According to James, the panels and the battens were pre-fabricated by the metal sub-contractor. “The copper was field-measured and shop fabricated, which made for a cleaner job and tighter-looking corners,” he said.

The combination of copper cladding and brick created the no-maintenance exterior that is a priority in buildings of this type, while providing a modern look that integrates well with the 80-yr.-old buildings that make up the rest of the campus. As the copper cladding ages, the patina it develops will further enhance the look and integration that was an essential component of this project.

Mark Kenville is an author, public relations professional, and former writer with the Associated Press. He has written articles for design, build, and home-decorating publications.