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Metal in building - a brief guide

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Copper has two main uses in a building - in the electrical wiring and systems, and in roofing and cladding.

Copper for Roofing

It is a traditional material for roofing, as it is easy to work, very long wearing and durable (for many centuries), and is very attractive. It is quite expensive and so was used on churches and mosques (paid for by the populace). It has become fashionable over the last 20 years and now is occasionally used in modern 'signature' buildings.

It is a very bendy and flexible material, making it easy to work by a skilled craftsman or woman. It also does not need any finishing or painting. It can be soldered (low temperature heat sealing) to make waterproof seals (in this sense it has something in common with lead).

Most building copper comes from recycled sources, usually in electronics or electrical trade, in fact it is often 75% recycled, which means it can score towards and green certification such as LEED in the US or Ecohomes (BREEAM) in the UK. It can also be completely recycled (95%) at the end of the building's life.

Copper for Cladding

Similar comments to those for roofing. Cladding is increasingly seen as a way to make a building stand out. It is also a way of retro-fitting a building to update the energy specification and appearance.

Copper for lightning conductors

Lightning conductors use copper as well as other metals. We will do another page on this when we get around to it.

Copper roof strips prevent moss, lichen and algae growth. They are used as flashings under roofs and between walls. blend in with the building and look good too.


Copper (and other metals mentioned here) is an expensive and easily 'fenced' material as so much of the market is in recycling. Thieves often specialise in copper roofs, electrical cables and lightning conductors (which is very dangerous as they are there for an essential purpose).


Lead is another very old traditional material. It is used extensively for roofing, either the whole roof, or more usually for the guttering and sealing and waterproofing, as it is flexible, non corrosive and easy to cut to fit. Very thin sheets are available these days.

Lead in roofing

Lead flashing - is a lead strip between a roof and a wall, or gutters and wall and roof

Lead valleys - are used in the trough between two roofs that abut. Also used for soffits and other places where small seals are needed.

Lead ridges - is for the top of a roof where the two faces abut at the ridge or gable.

Lead is also used for detailed metalwork such as awnings, parapets, turrets and other craft applications.

Sound proofing

Lead is also used for sound proofing as it is very dense (heavy) and soft, so dulling and absorbing sound waves. Suitable for the heaviest of heavy metal bands...

Radiation shielding

It is also used to block radiation, in many specialist areas like X-Ray radiography, nuclear industry, aerospace etc. Industrial and medical applications often use a laminate of lead and other materials like plastics.


Very common metal in modern buildings. Aluminium is used for window frames, door frames, cladding, and roofing. Almost all awning and canopies are made of aluminium. It is light, easily recycled, non corrosive, and easy to work. It paints well and often units like window frames and door frames are in a customer selected color, supplied ready to fit.

It is often used in an alloy with other metals (although not in building jobs).

Aluminium screen enclosures, aluminium venetian blinds, and many other interior uses of aluminum make this a popular building material.

Alloys with copper, zinc, manganese, silicon, and magnesium are created and egistered for standard properties. Few are used in building work. Some trade names are Alclad (sheets used in the aircraft industry), Birmabright (car industry) etc.

Anodised aluminium

This is aluminium or aluminium alloy with a surface layer created by an electrolytic process (hence anode). This adds a patina and makes it tougher and less prone to corrosion, and other desirable characteristics such as improved lubrication, surface hardness, and also makes it ready for dyes. Aluminium alloy has a higher melting point than straight aluminium so care has to be taken with the brittleness of anodised layers, which can cause cracks.

Powder coated aluminium

Another finish for aluminium, this is a dry powder system that in effect toasts the thermoplastic or thermoset polymer material onto the surface. The material is added electrostatically then heat-treated to set and form a skin or surface layer.

Powder coating is used for white goods, consumer electronics and also buildings parts such as window frames, door frames, awnings, canopies etc.

Problems with aluminium

It has no definite fatigue limit, which means it can eventually fatigue even under small stresses.

It is not good for strength, or heat resistance as it has a low melting point.

Alloys have to be carefully selected and tested by specialists.

It is a very green material as it can be recycled easily. This is true of most metal used in buildings.


Cat on a hot tin roof... whatever that means. Often tin means iron, as in corrugated iron.

Tin tabernacles are churches made from corrugated iron, often from kits. These are cheap and cheerful, and could be easily decorated, painted etc. Not used much these days.

Tin is not a suitable building material as it is weak and also expensive.Tin is used a bit in prefabricated buildings (prefabs).

Tin buildings also sometimes refers to biscuit or cake tins that have been modeled and painted to look like small buildings.


Brass is a copper-zinc alloy, there are many different alloys with a wide range of properties.

In building, brass is used for decorative high quality door furniture and ironmongery (yes the name is general, and in the old days all door furniture was black - Tudor style) and window fittings, hinges, doorknobs, locks, bolts, edging etc.

Brass shines up well and is hard wearing. It has a brassy appearance, a yellow or reddish metallic colour with a dull sheen. The range of alloys and so different properties such as colour is wide.


Nickel-silver is a brass alloy with 10-20% nickel, which gives it a more silver appearance. Nickel-silver is only used for decoration in buildings, and is more used in jewelery, models, musical instruments etc.


Bronze is an alloy of copper and tin, sometimes with other elements like phosphorus, manganese etc. It is had and brittle and is used for door furniture, ironmongery, decorative metals.

Also used for bronze statues, statuary and decorative designs which are a significant part of some buildings and locations.

Bronze resists corrosion very well especially in maritime sea environment, so it is used a lot by pirates, and other ship building folk, and for fittings on coastal buildings.

Remember the Bronze Age? No, I don't either. It came before the Iron Age...

Gold leaf and Silver leaf

Other less common leaf materials are aluminium leaf and palladium leaf.

The work of applying gold leaf (or any leaf metal) is known as gilding and can be used on ceilings, walls, decorative objects such as statuary, ornamentation, and decoration such as architraves, as well as the exterior of a building (or parts of a building!).

Amazingly one gramme of gold can be beaten into a one square metre sheet.

22 carat gold is the most commonly used for gilding.

Traditional water gilding is done by hand, and is still in demand for restoration of old buildings and the occasional mansion.

White gold is also used, this has a 50% gold content.

Other uses of metal - in brief

Powder coated steel

Grills, decorative security grills. This is a type of high strength paint coating.


Steel buildings are covered in our Steel buildings > and Steel building advice > pages.

For door and window ironmongery - locks, latches, bolts etc. - for strength against physical attack, and reliability.

Rolled steel

This is a high temperature variety used for columns and supports. Hence RSJs - rolled steel joists.

Corrugated galvanised iron

Or just corrugated iron (or CGI) is actually a mild steel or ferrous alloy that has been formed into corrugations to provide a strength in one direction (perpendicular to the bends), while remaining flexible in the direction of the bends. This makes it a useful material for roofs and walls, where it can be flexed around corners or curves.

Galvanised iron (zinc coated) can withstand corrosion for a while, but it prone to rusting, especially in marine areas, or where there is a lot of rain, especially if acidic.

Wrought iron corrugated galvanised iron CGI was the original type, but this hasn't been used since the 19th century, but the old name has stuck. Iron versions are no longer available. Ferrous (iron) alloys are used but even stainless steel is used. Aluminium, zinc and other materials like plastic, fibreglass, and even recycled wood and paper corrugated boards are available.

Painting is a good idea and helps the corrugated iron last much longer.

Corrugated galvanised iron is a low cost building material and still useful in the tropics. It is part of the vernacular architecture, particularly in places like Australia.

Cast iron

Used for decorative metalwork - rust treated with iron oxide paint.

Remember the Iron Age?


Titanium is not only for the aerospace industry - the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao used it for cladding, and it is seen as a modern material as it is very high performance, strong, non corrosive (even when next to other metals and materials) and has very good temperature stability. It is also very fashionable as unusual. Titanium can also be used for roofing, decoration, soffits etc.