Copper-topped Success: Metal offers low-maintenance for military college roof

October 17, 2016

All photos courtesy Colbourne & Kembel

By Stephen Knapp
East of downtown Kingston, Ont., overlooking the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario, the Royal Military College (RMC) is notable for its blend of modern academic, athletic, and dormitory facilities, with century-old buildings. The school underwent restoration to preserve its historic landscapes, including the recent copper roof replacement of the Currie and Mackenzie Buildings—two of the college’s oldest and most recognizable.

The site of the college has been an active military base since 1789. The 40-ha (101-acre) peninsula also played an important role in the War of 1812. During this time, the land became the centre of British naval operations, as control of Lake Ontario would give them crucial wartime advantages in initiative, surprise, troop movement, and re-supply.

Following the war, the college was established by an Act of Parliament in 1874 to provide a complete education in all branches of military tactics, fortification, engineering, and general scientific knowledge in subjects connected with and necessary for thorough knowledge of the military profession. The college was modelled after the United States Military Academy at West Point.

Restoration work needed
In 2013, the restoration team conducted a detailed investigation of the RMC roofs and their structural detailing using a lift to get an up-close view of the structures. They found both buildings were in need of new copper roofing systems due to age, weathering, and poor original installation methods.

Erected in 1876 for the training of military and civil engineers, the Mackenzie Building—formally known as Building No. 16 and the Education Block—was RMC’s first dedicated education facility. The structure is a Classified Federal Heritage Building and is considered one of the top 10 most significant heritage buildings in Canada. It is one of the best examples of the work of Thomas Seaton Scott, who was the chief architect of public works for the government.

The structure originally had a slate roof, but a pan-shaped interlocking copper roofing system was installed in the 1960s. Though the college has changed, the building has remained an integral component of the RMC, retaining its original relationship with the open expanse of the parade ground.

Cornice and gutter detailing following the restoration project.

However, the Mackenzie Building’s prominence was nearly compromised in the early 1900s by design plans for the Currie Building. The large, impressive Gothic building was designed to be the centrepiece of the RMC’s parade square and of the entire campus. In fact, the style of the building was envisioned for all new buildings onsite. Had it been completed as predicted in RMC’s 1910 expansion plan, the building would have replaced the Mackenzie structure as the college’s main administrative and educational facility. However, the structure was never entirely completed as designed due to federal government measures following the First World War and during the 1920s. The roof of the Currie Building was originally constructed in clay tile, but was later replaced by a copper batten-seam roofing system. However, as the restoration team discovered, its improper installation caused several points of leakage throughout the roof.

Batten-seam roofing consists of copper pans running parallel to the roof slope, separated by wood battens. Properly installed battens are covered with copper caps, which are loose locked into adjacent pans. The width of these preformed or field-formed pans may vary. The original installation of the copper batten-seam roof on the Currie Building did not include proper caps. One of the most important issues in the use of copper is the ability of the various interlocked components to address expansion and contraction. Movement can occur as a result of temperature changes, or from external sources such as wind, ice, or stresses in the substrate or substructure. Since copper is most often used as an external water-shedding barrier, installations must account for this anticipated thermal movement, as well as prevent the infiltration of water.

The Currie Building (left) was originally designed to take the place of the Mackenzie Building as the College’s main administrative and educational building. However, the structure was never entirely completed due to federal government measures following the First World War.

The team selected copper for the restoration work, despite the fact it was not the original material used during either buildings’ original construction. Copper was recommended for the complete roof replacement due to its noble qualities, esthetic appearance, and its use of traditional material at the time when both structures were erected.

Although the upfront cost of the material was higher, it was deemed the best choice in the long run. Generally, any higher initial costs for copper applications typically are offset by low- to no maintenance costs over the operational life of the building. When properly designed and installed, a copper roof provides an economical, long-term solution. Its low life cycle costs are attributable to the low-maintenance, long life, and salvage value. Unlike many other metal roofing materials, copper requires no painting or finishing.

The overall multi-roof project encompassed many different copper roofing types, including a batten-seam assembly on the Currie Building, interlocking small pan on the Mackenzie Building, as well as standing-seam, soldered flat-seam, and barrel roofs. The heritage consultant designed a unique system of interlocking flat-seam small pans in order to improve both the esthetic and performance of the mansard roofs on the Mackenzie Building. The pans that were in place before the restoration were oddly sized and not esthetically pleasing. The newly designed and installed small pans on the mansard hips resolved in hip rolls—a reintroduced detail from the original construction. The team also replaced an unsightly roof-level stucco addition with seamed small copper pans to blend in with the historical mansard.

Upgraded dormer detailing on the Mackenzie building.

Additional restoration work on the Mackenzie Building included the replacement of all cornices, acanthus leaves, dormer cladding, and ornamentation. One of the most concerning problems was with the cornice gutters. The integration had been failing, causing decay in the roof structure and leakage into other metal and woodwork on the roof. The restoration team re-designed the gutters for proper function while allowing for thermal expansion. Further, the acanthus leaves needed to be reconstructed as they were deteriorating due to snow and rain accumulation, as well as from the nesting, munching, and burrowing from small animals. In an effort to provide the owner with a low-maintenance, but visually authentic, appearance on the extensive ornamental cornice work, the team used zinc-tin coated copper in place of painted lead or copper work. The former was also used for the individual-formed acanthus leaves.

The copper detailing on both buildings was carefully studied, replicated where appropriate, and improved at locations where issues of expansion or failure were apparent. The team expects the new copper roofing systems to last approximately 80 to 85 years. However, since the team left the new roofing system to age naturally, it will change dramatically over its lifetime. The bright copper penny appearance of the roofing systems will develop into a striking green patina over the decades.

Copper and its principal architectural alloys are relatively active metals, which tend to oxidize when left unprotected. Long-term atmospheric exposure in non-arid climates generally results in the formation of the naturally protective grey-green patina. The natural weathering of copper to the characteristic blue-green or grey-green patina is a direct consequence of the mild corrosive attack of airborne sulphur compounds. In the atmosphere, these compounds combine with water vapour to form dilute oxidizing acids, which react with copper surfaces. Since the Currie and Mackenzie Buildings are in a costal environment, these changes will likely occur in five to seven years. Copper usually weathers to a uniform russet brown within six to 12 months of initial exposure to the atmosphere, except in arid climates.

In an effort to provide the owner with a low-maintenance, yet historically authentic-looking, solution for the extensive ornamental cornice work on the Kingston projects, zinc-tin copper was utilized in place of painted lead or copper work.

Although the roofing system may need to be replaced before 100 years—this might not be the case, since many copper roofs in Canada are well over a century old—the actual metal can be used time and again. Copper is one of the most sustainable building products, as it can be reused without any loss of its original properties. It is one of the most thoroughly recycled, structural, and architectural metals. Nearly half of copper used today has been used in the past. One reason for copper’s high recyclability is its durability. Unlike other metals, it corrodes exceedingly slow in natural environments. After the protective patina forms, corrosion drops to little more than a few millionths of an inch per year.

The extensive copper restoration work and attention to detail earned the Currie and Mackenzie Buildings a 2016 North American Copper in Architecture Award (NACIA) from the Canadian Copper and Brass Association (CCBDA) and the Copper Development Association (CDA). Historically, copper has long been used because of its great natural beauty and finish, performance and durability, long service life, and recyclability. Today, it is adapted and utilized for a wide variety of contemporary and cutting-edge applications. It is these characteristics that make it attractive for new construction as well as historic restoration projects throughout North America.

In the case of the RMC project, copper’s superior performance and longevity made it the obvious choice as the replacement material. Its appearance can complement any style of building, from the traditional to the modern. When properly designed and installed, a copper roof provides an economical, long-term roofing solution.

stephen-knapp_cdaStephen Knapp is the program manager of the Sheet, Strip, and Plate Council for the Copper Development Association (CDA), and executive director of the Canadian Copper and Brass Development Association (CCBDA), the national trade association in Canada for the copper industry. Knapp is also involved with guiding the market development and promotional efforts for a wide variety of copper and copper alloys applications, such as tube and plumbing, electrical, renewable energy systems, and energy-efficiency technologies. He can be reached via e-mail at[1].


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