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Is zinc the new green standard for building?

Many roofs in Paris are made of zinc.
Many roofs in Paris are made of zinc.

A bird's-eye view of Paris shines with the natural patina of zinc. In the late 1800s, zinc was the material of choice for Parisian rooftops. Once metallurgists honed the process of smelting zinc into sheets, the metal became popular particularly in Belgium, France and Germany [source: Porter]. Two hundred years later, some of those original roofs still crown the historic buildings.

Borrowing from this dated European trend, American architects and contractors seeking more sustainable resources have rediscovered the value of zinc for roofs and walls. Embedded in the Earth's crust, a majority of the element comes from underground mining. Extracting zinc along with other metals and minerals for manufacturing takes a toll on the environment. But compared to aluminum, copper and steel, zinc requires a fraction of the energy to convert it into usable materials.

Zinc is the 27th most common naturally occurring element, frequently found in batteries, brass and galvanized steel. Our bodies depend on zinc for cell production, vision and fertility. When we catch a cold, zinc supplements can give our immune systems a boost. Although saddled with a higher price point than other building materials, including asphalt shingles and timber, zinc is providing fresh options and inspiration for healthier home construction as well.

Gray metallic paneling may not sound appealing for home sweet home, but zinc has some surprising -- and attractive -- benefits. Zinc sheeting is highly malleable, which means it can conform to a variety of styles, both angular and curved. The shapes of the individual zinc panels are manufactured in any number of shapes, such as undulating waves, interlocking hexagons and parallel ridges. After time, its brighter gray coloration gives way to a duller patina that can be tinted with hues of blue, green and red.