Showing Its Metal

The copper on one of DU's fabulous new buildings already looks lousy -- but it's supposed to.

Shortly after the debut last September of the Daniel L. Ritchie Center for Sports & Wellness, an enormous, $70 million complex on the University of Denver campus best known for its gleaming copper exterior, Mark Rodgers, DU's chief architect, got a call from the building's namesake, chancellor Daniel Ritchie. As Rodgers remembers it, Ritchie told him that there was a piece of copper siding missing from Gates Fieldhouse, one of the center's major features.

When Ritchie talks, people at DU listen -- as well they should. After all, this multimillionaire investor and former CEO for Westinghouse Broadcasting, who's been DU's chancellor since 1989, is overseeing one of the most successful fundraising campaigns in recent educational history: a five-year mission to raise $200 million for capital improvements that has far exceeded its goal months before its December 31 deadline.

So Rodgers called Rudy Tezak, president of Denver's Concord Metal Incorporated, which had been in charge of installing the 880,000 pounds of architectural copper used at the Ritchie Center. But when Tezak investigated, he discovered that the allegedly absent slab of siding was actually still there. It just looked like it was gone because it had turned black -- the last piece used, it had been at the bottom of a pile, where it was exposed to damp grass and groundwater -- while those around it remained as bright and shiny as a new penny.

The first action Rodgers might have been expected to take upon receiving this news would have been to instruct crews to put up a new piece of siding, but he didn't. Instead, he called Ritchie to tell him what had happened -- and to remind him that occurrences just like it would continue to happen for years to come.

The explanation for this phenomenon can be found in the properties of copper itself. The material is more expensive to install initially, running a dollar or two more per square foot to use for roofing than other common metal. However, it's much more durable. "Copper won't rust, and you don't have to repaint it, which reduces maintenance and upkeep costs dramatically," Rodgers says. "And if it's installed correctly, it should last not for tens or twenties of years, but for hundreds of years."

In addition, copper is quite striking visually, especially at first. When the Ritchie Center opened its doors, the building was positively blinding when the sun hit it. Warren Smith, DU's director of news and public affairs, jokes that "you could probably see it from outer space."

But there's a rub. The appearance of copper changes as it goes through its oxidation process, turning from brown to black or green over the course of years or decades depending upon the environmental conditions where it's located. Moreover, these changes don't take place uniformly; the intermediate stages could almost be described as -- gasp -- ugly, and the littlest things can get them started.

"Copper is a soft metal, so you can see dents, and you can actually see the fingerprints of the people who installed it in some places because the oil from their fingers has an impact on oxidation," Rodgers says. "There was also a tree we moved by the Ritchie Center that we put an irrigation mister on, because we wanted to make sure it got enough water, since copper is so reflective. But the mist was blown against the copper by the wind, and now there are places where certain panels are streaked purple because of it."

None of these effects has cooled Rodgers on copper. Far from it: He sees the metal's mutability as one of its biggest charms. "Copper is such an honest material," he says. "It will show its aging process, and if we've done our job right as architects, you can actually enjoy that part of it."

Smith adds that copper, along with Hansen sandstone, Indiana limestone and red brick, will be the unifying elements for all of the edifices planned for DU, some of which have already been completed (F.W. Olin Hall, the Daniels College of Business), some either in progress or on the drawing board (a performing arts center, a new residence hall).

At the same time, DU has taken plenty of ribbing for its copper-philic tendencies, even from within its own ranks: The school's newspaper, The Clarion, reported in its April Fool's Day edition that negotiations were underway with Duracell to rename it Coppertop University. But Rodgers takes such wisecracks in stride, even as he advises observers to embrace the imperfections of copper rather than criticizing them.

"Most architects use materials that look worse over time, but we're using materials that should look better over time," he says. "It'll just take a few years."

 
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