The surge in copper prices in recent years has led to a wave of metal theft worldwide which show no signs of abating. But while the red metal’s durability makes it a popular material in construction, its sheen also makes it a hit amongst architects and may continue to rise in demand amongst designers.
By Shihoko Goto — Exclusive to Copper Investing News
The surge in copper prices over the years has led to a steep increase in theft of the red metal worldwide as cables, gutters, coils, and pipes have been ripped off buildings to be sold on the black market. But while thieves are interested in nothing more than financial gain, architects are showing an interest in copper, not just for practical purposes, but for its aesthetic allure as well.
Copper’s durability and malleability have made it a popular choice for use in roofing, nailing, and waterproof seams. While its initial cost is more expensive than that of other materials, copper usually does not need to be replaced during the life of a building. As such, copper works out to be the most cost-effective material on a lifecycle-cost basis.
“We have seen continued demand for copper architectural products and applications during the past few years despite economic challenges,” said Stephen Knapp, Executive Director of the Canadian Copper & Brass Development Association. “We see many more types and configurations of copper cladding being used (traditional roofing seaming adopted for walls, paneling systems, etc.) as well as copper being used for a wider variety of commercial and residential projects as well as continued growth in the traditional restoration and institution sectors.”
The problem is that copper’s price has reached close to $4.00 a pound from around 60 cents in 2002. Moreover, much of it is found in unsecured areas and is easily identifiable by its distinct color. This has made the metal a target for thieves looking to make a quick buck. According to the US Department of Energy, copper theft is costing the country about $1 billion in damages each year as vandals strip construction sites, vacant buildings, foreclosed properties, electrical substations, and communications towers for the metal.
“When the number of metal theft claims per month and monthly average copper prices are compared, the number of claims filed is found to have a statistically significant correlation with the price of copper,” stated the National Insurance Crime Bureau in its latest report on metal theft in the US.
Indeed, the Federal Bureau of Investigationreported as far back as 2008 that “copper thieves are threatening US critical infrastructure” and present “a risk to both public safety and national security.”
As a result, a number of advocacy groups, including the Coalition Against Copper Theft, have sprouted up to lobby for legislative action to crack down on the crime.
Copper’s sheen is not, however, limited to practical purposes. While glass and stainless steel are often the materials of choice for modern architects, the red metal is becoming increasingly popular for showcasing good design. In fact, the Copper Development Association holds an annual competition to select projects across North America that have made the best use of the metal. In 2011, there were about 50 entries from the US and Canada, of which twelve were selected as winners. For instance, the façade of the Apollo Development Corporation Riverpoint Center, located in Phoenix, Arizona and designed by SmithGroupJJR and Carpenter Sellers Del Gatto, uses copper panels that glow from the metal’s red sheen. The designers “used materials that were durable, low maintenance, sustainable and from the region. Copper, being a native material to Arizona, was a driving factor in its use. Its natural look and patina work beautifully with its surrounding desert landscape. The copper is also a very striking material that enhances the iconic quality of the building resulting in a strong identity,” according to the Copper Development Association.
Sculptures on and around buildings can also showcase copper’s durability and luster. While Bilbao’s Guggenheim Museum is no doubt architect Frank Gehry’s most famous design in Spain, his enormous copper fish sculpture atop the Vila Olimpica in Barcelona highlights the use of the material both practically and artistically.
Meanwhile, the European Copper Institute, together with Italy’s Istituto Italiano del Rame, is once again calling for submissions to its annual Copper and the Home awards, which are designed to inspire copper’s “aesthetic and technical credentials.”
“Copper – man’s oldest metal – is a staple of cutting-edge design, opening new avenues of design opportunity (for example with the exploration of its natural ability to eliminate germs, viruses and fungi) and improving our relationship with nature and its resources,” the European group said.
Certainly, avenues for the creative and practical use of copper are likely to continue rising. Amid a global shortage of new copper mines, demand should drive junior miners to continue seeking out more opportunities.
Securities Disclosure: I, Shihoko Goto, hold no direct investment interest in any company mentioned in this article.