A new metal engraving system intended to reduce metal theft.
Courtesy of the Home Office, UK. A new metal engraving system intended to reduce metal theft.

Brands or tags are known ways to prevent the theft of livestock—but what about parts of buildings? Metal theft has been on the rise recently, due to the global rising cost of scrap metal. According to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, metal theft-related insurance claims rose 81 percent between 2009 and 2011. Commonly stolen metals include copper, aluminum, brass, bronze, and lead. The problem has reached a point of significance to prompt the FBI to claim in 2010 that "copper thieves are threatening U.S. critical infrastructure … and present a risk to both public safety and national security."

In response, the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining (IoM3) in London has developed a new engraving technique to track the metal components of buildings that are at risk of theft. The new method, which stamps the name of the building and a traceable code into metal elements, provides information that may be checked against a national database if stolen.

Recently, the technique was used on the lead roof tiles of the Northampton Borough Council's Guildhall office building in the U.K. In a press release, Councillor David Mackintosh said: "Historic buildings all over the country are being targeted by metal thieves, and I am happy that we are not just part of the discussion but taking action to support the Home Office in preventing people from stealing our nation’s heritage."

Although this growing form of criminality suggests a truly sad state of affairs for building owners and architects, perhaps the new tracking approach offers an added benefit: the potential to include material life-cycle information, so that legally removed building components may be utilized in better-informed second lives.

Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.