Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Soaring prices dent DU’s copper use

University of Denver Architect Mark Rodgers wants DU to continue as the “copper-top university” even though the price of the metal has gone through the roof.

In 1999, the year the Ritchie Center was completed, the cost of copper was about $1,200 per ton — making the 440 tons of copper sheeting on the building’s exterior worth about $528,000. By late last month, that same sheeting cost $7,500 per ton.

Copper is common at DU, adorning roofs, domes, bridges and downspouts. It even serves as a decorative ribbon in a parking lot. But, the familiar metal may be applied more sparingly on future projects, including Nagel Hall — the five-story, $37.5 million residence hall slated to open in the fall of 2008.

That decision will be up to University trustees, Rodgers says, who will review bids for the building after they are offered in early November. The trustees rigorously review all construction plans — from design to budgets.

“Is copper done? No. Are we being more careful with it? Yes,” says Rodgers, who will help trustees decide whether to shell out or scale back.

“Our biggest problem is getting someone to provide the copper sheet,” Rodgers says. “They don’t know what the price will be next week.”

The reason is surging worldwide demand, principally from China, the world’s largest consumer. That demand, exacerbated by labor turmoil at some large mines, is expected to outstrip production by 52,000 tons this year, according to a report by Goldman Sachs Group Inc.

Offsetting the upward pressure on prices are increased stockpiles and slowing growth in the United States, Bloomberg reported in late September. Further, prices for alternative metals such as aluminum are no solution as these have risen as well, analysts say, leaving builders little choice than to try to time the market.

Copper has a lot going for it. The metal resists corrosion and is incredibly durable. Apart from the aesthetics and consistency with other campus buildings, Rodgers says, any other type of roof would require maintenance and periodic replacement. Copper might cost maybe 10 percent more, he says, but it would yield a 15–20 percent payback in its permanence and durability.

“We’re trying to build things that last hundreds of years,” he says. “Copper lasts hundreds of years.”

Unless it disappears in the night, that is. Because copper is pricey and easily recycled, opportunists are increasingly combing unguarded buildings and demolition sites for valuable scrap.

That has occurred on the DU campus, says Campus Safety Director Don Enloe. But, he says, the material was recovered, and the copper adorning buildings in use is difficult to steal.

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