Building Green: How Copper Can LEED the Way

How Do You Measure a Green Building?

The U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™ is the most recognized U.S. rating scheme for the design, construction and operation of high performance green buildings. LEED does not cover all sustainable, high performance building practices, but, as it is continually raising the bar for what it takes to achieve a rating, it will grow to recognize more such practices.

Copper's Role in Green, High-performance Buildings

Penn State building

The copper cladding demonstrates attainment of both materials performance and aesthetic objectives at the Penn State University’s SALA Building.

Photo: WTW Architects

A "noble" metal, one that resists corrosion and oxidation, copper has also been used for centuries as an aesthetically pleasing building material. Today, because of its superior thermal and electrical conductivity, its ability to enhance many building technologies and its large contribution to a building’s overall environmental performance, copper's role extends well beyond those historical uses and is now more important that ever.

Copper and its many alloys, such as the brasses and bronzes, offer visually stunning qualities along with unique physical and mechanical properties. This ensures that designers and building owners not only achieve their visual aspirations and performance specifications, but also are able to meet their environmental and cost-performance goals as well.

Copper's Applications in Green Buildings

Many copper-containing building products have high recycled content—often exceeding 80%. Pehaps more importantly, these products are durable, have long life spans, are low maintenance—requiring little repair or replacement—and are readily reusable or recyclable.

Building applications for the copper metals range from the building envelope to the equipment within the building. Copper is used in traditional roof and wall cladding, flashing, gutters and downspouts, as well as sunshades and passive solar walls.

Copper is the standard for environmentally sound wiring and plumbing, as well as for a wide array of products, such as bathroom, lighting and ornamental fixtures. Copper components ensure optimum performance from the newest technologies, including high-efficiency HVAC motors, lighting and electrical systems as well as the latest generation of photovoltaic cells.

Materials and Resources

Lasting a century or more, copper roofs and cladding do not have to be replaced. Over the building’s life, this longevity eliminates the need to use new roofing material and prevents the waste generated from other old, worn roofing material. Any higher initial costs for such copper applications typically are offset by low to no maintenance costs over the operational life of the building. Across its life cycle—from extraction to recycling—copper has a minimal impact on energy consumption and natural resources, while its use has an immensely positive impact on energy efficiency, indoor air quality and life-cycle costs.

Copper’s benefits do not end once construction is completed. In fact, a major benefit of copper's use, total recyclability, is realized during demolition. And, nearly all of the copper ever mined is still in use today. It is one of the most easily recycled metals available, and, except for that used in high-performance wiring applications, copper maintains its performance attributes through the recycling process—it is not downcycled into lower value products. Further, recycled components can be sourced locally in many parts of North America.

Energy and Atmosphere

Copper's high conductivity points to its use in high-efficiency motors and cutting-edge occupant monitoring systems, for high-efficiency heat transfer in solar water heaters, in passive solar walls, and in renewable energy technologies employing wind turbines, solar panels and solar water heaters. Althought copper is not chosen in these instances for its direct environmental performance, it enables these technologies to contribute to efficient buildings, allowing them to reduce their impact on the environment and lower their operating costs.

Indoor Environment Quality

Copper applications do not emit pollutants into the indoor environment. Although this attribute is not currently awarded a LEED credit, it is, nonetheless, an important environmental consideration. For example, copper piping does not require glues that may off-gas or harm fire fighters in the event of a fire.

Building Beautiful Buildings to Last

Often, when thinking of environmentally preferable options, bland functional designs that put the environment and efficiency ahead of excitement-generating aesthetics come to mind. Copper, however, allows one to have the best of both worlds. Ultimately, people need to be excited about the buildings they are building or seeking to occupy.

Copper and LEED

LEED is one standard by which many purchasers value the “greenness” of a building. It also is a quick way for buyers to identify the caliber of a property's design and its potential to be an efficient structure for years to come. Copper, in many applications, contributes to achieving LEED credits by saving energy and reducing a building’s carbon footprint. Although not all uses of copper directly apply to LEED credits, all support fundamental objectives to maximize energy efficiency and minimize impact on our environment.

The Bottom Line

It has been estimated that, for an additional upfront cost of approximately 2% to support green design, there is an average life-cycle savings of 20% of total construction costs.1

Green is not simply getting more respect; it is rapidly becoming a necessity as corporations... push green buildings fully into the mainstream over the next five to ten years.

– Harvard Business, Review 2006

Copper's Contribution to Green Building

Copper's pleasing aesthetic qualities ensure that designers can achieve their visual aspirations while also meeting important environmental and cost-performance objectives.

From extraction to recycling, copper has a minimal impact on energy consumption and natural resources, while its use has an immensely positive impact on energy efficiency, indoor air quality and life-cycle costs.

Copper can be used in any number of ways in a building, improving the environmental performance of its envelope and elements. It is the standard for environmentally sound wiring and plumbing, as well as a wide array of products, such as bathroom, lighting and ornamental fixtures. Copper components ensure the high performance of the newest technologies, such as high-efficiency HVAC, lighting and electrical systems, even including the latest generation of photovoltaic cells.

Many building products benefit from copper's recycled content, often over 80%, and its durability, measured in generations rather than years. Copper's many green attributes are clearly demonstrated by the case studies in this series.

Innovation & Design Process (LEED) Innovation in Design Recycled content
Materials & Resources (LEED) Building Reuse, Recycled Content, Regional Materials Envelopes, roofs, plumbing, accents and fixtures
Energy & Atmosphere (LEED) Optimal Energy Performance Passive solar walls, high efficiency wiring and systems
Competitive Operation, Maintenance & Energy Costs (BEES) Passive solar heating, innovative and efficient technologies, low maintenance exteriors
Comfort of Indoor Occupant Sunshades, plumbing, internal monitoring systems


  1. arrow up Eemax Tankless Electric Water Heaters Employee, March 2007
Copper Deveopment Association Inc. (CDA) and Canadian Copper & Brass Development Association (CCBDA) provide information and technical assistance to architects, contractors and builders considering the use of copper and copper products in projects of any scale. This publication has been prepared for the use of such professionals and compiled from information sources CDA and CCBDA believe to be competent. However, recognizing that each installation must be designed and installed to meet the specifi c requirements of the application, CDA and CCBDA assume no responsibility or liability of any kind in connection with this publication or its use by any person or organization and make no representations or warranties of any kind thereby.