The roof's steep 45° angle meant that WeatherGuard employees had to wear harnesses and use safety lines.
RENSSELAER, N.Y. - When the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) announced plans to build a new $48 million train station here, officials said they wanted the station to blend in with the area's historic structures. Rensselaer is just across the Hudson River from the state Capitol in Albany, a city which was first chartered in 1686.

And when it comes to building materials, few have the prestige or connote historic importance like copper - one of the world's oldest roofing materials. The ancient Romans used copper cornice to decorate the Pantheon in 130 A.D. and a mosque in Istanbul, Turkey has a functioning copper roof believed to have been installed in 795 A.D.

So there was no question the roof of the Rensselaer Rail Station would be copper.

"This building is intended to be a major landmark, a major statement of arrival into the Albany capital district," said lead project architect Frank Gilmore. "A train station this big has not been built in 60 years."

In designing the station, Gilmore drew inspiration from old train station postcards from the golden age of rail service. The final plan was a 67,000 sq. ft., three-story building that would include retail, commercial and meeting space. Covering the massive station would be a 100 ft. x 200 ft. copper roof, topped by an octagon-shaped glass clock tower with a 15 ft. high all-copper dome.

A flatbed semi-truck was required to bring the 4,500 lbs. dome from Kramm and Son's workshop in Menands to the Rensselaer Rail Station.

A special opportunity

Thanks to an unusually low copper price at the time CDTA bought the materials, the roof and dome were only expected to cost about $750,000 to install - a substantial savings, according to Gilmore.

The job of installing the roof was given to specialty roofing and sheet metal contractor WeatherGuard Roofing Co. of Schenectady, N.Y. A well-known area firm, WeatherGuard installs all major roofing systems, including built-up, single ply, EPDM, cedar shakes, slate, fiberglass shingles, modified bitumen, hypalon, standing seam metal and all other varieties of architectural sheet metal. The 16-year-old firm does up to $15 million annual volume, according to company vice president and project manager Edward Lawless.

The roofing work took about six months to complete. Before laying the copper, WeatherGuard workers placed 2.5-in. of polyisocyanurate insulation with half-inch plywood over a metal deck. The insulation was mechanically fastened with W.R. Grace ice and water shield and rosin shield.

More than 28,600 lbs. of 20-in. wide 16 oz. Revere copper coils were roll formed by Ultra Seam with a double-locked, 1.5-in. high seam to make the station's roof. An additional 25,600 lbs. of 16-32 oz. Revere copper was also required for valleys, ridges, flashings and copings to complete the project.

Work on the roof took approximately six months. The roof is divided into eight areas with intersecting ridges. Up to 10 WeatherGuard employees were working on the project at any one time. Workers had to use harnesses and safety lines as they labored on the roof's steep 10 on 12 slope, which translates to about a 45° angle.

"It's not a real easy roof to climb," Lawless said. "A lot of times you actually had to pull yourself up because of the (angle)."

More than 50,000 lbs. of copper was used to create the train station's gleaming copper roof.

An uphill battle

The roof's pitch also made material handling more difficult than anticipated. Material for each section had to be handled individually and crated up to the roof. Pans had to be arranged on the ground before they were hoisted. A custom scaffold was designed by a local company to help bring up both employees and materials. Occasional high winds made installing the up to 28 ft. long pans a challenge.

"It was tricky," said WeatherGuard field supervisor/safety Director George Thomas. "You couldn't spin around if you set (a pan) up there wrong."

While work on the roof was progressing, the job of making the copper dome that was to top the station's glass clock tower was given to historical sheet metal specialists Todd and Hugo Kramm of Kramm and Son, Menands, N.Y. The company was hand-picked by Gilmore to make the three-ton dome. Todd and Hugo have crafted ornate copper fixtures for many neotraditional and historic buildings in upstate New York, including floral ornaments on the restored Albany County Courthouse and fancy copper cornices on the fascia of the Waterford Promenade Building in Waterford, N.Y.

Unlike most copper tops, the dome Gilmore had designed was to be 100% copper, including the frame, without other materials such as steel, wood or even masonry supporting it. It was a true "Old World" look the architect was going for, and cheaper alternatives such as fiberglass would not offer the same effect.

"So often you end up dealing with some sort of stamped, rigid, prepainted roof material," Gilmore said. "This is the real McCoy."

The Rensselaer Rail Station is the ninth busiest rail station in the U.S., serving more than 1 million passengers annually.

Dome, sweet dome

The design raised a few eyebrows. "Everyone around here said (the dome) could not be done in all copper," Todd Kramm said. "We disagreed."

But even with a combined 75 years of experience in the sheet metal business, the train station's dome would still be a challenge for the father and son team. It took Todd and Hugo more than three months to cut, bend and weld 188, 20 oz. 3- x 8-ft. flat copper sheets by hand. They turned the sheets into 192 ribbed panels and held them together with 10,000 copper rivets.

"It's really a process," Todd said, still sounding a little tired.

The dome uses a series of 6- x 6-in. and 4- x 4-in. curved box beams, double-locked and soldered. It also employs a gutter system to collect condensation from the dome's inner walls.

When they were through, Todd, Hugo and Gilmore had a dome they believe is one of a kind. It took a flatbed semi-truck and a police escort to bring the dome from Kramm's shop in Menands to the work site. A crane hoisted the dome on top of the 67 ft. glass tower. Three WeatherGuard workers carefully guided it into place. The tower's base is also copper, clad with a custom herringbone design created by Thomas.

Both the roof and dome currently exhibit a rich, gleaming bronze color. Within a few years, however, the copper will begin to oxidize and within a decade will create the weathered, green color known as patina.

While WeatherGuard is no stranger to historical renovations, having worked on the former homes of U.S. presidents Martin Van Buren House in Kinderhook, N.Y. and Franklin D. Roosevelt's Hyde Park, N.Y. residence, the Rensselaer station is still something special.

"It really is a beautiful job," Lawless said. "We're especially proud of it. It turned out spectacular."

For Todd Kramm, the dome also has meaning. Todd is a relative newcomer to the sheet metal business, having worked with his father since 1987. At the time, Todd had grown dissatisfied with his career as an engineer, designing machinery for large corporations such as General Electric. "In engineering, you make all these drawings, you do all these calculations" and then somebody else puts it together, he said. "You never really see it out in the field."

Having the chance to do architectural work on landmarks such as the Rensselaer train station gives Todd a satisfaction that was never possible in the corporate world, he added. "Now I drive by the train station and look at it. I think 'Holy cow!' Look what we did."

The train station is scheduled to open by the end of the year. When completed, it will serve as one of the busiest stations in the U.S., with more than 1 million passengers boarding annually.