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Hearth of the Matter

The contemporary fireplace market heats up

No matter what home style you prefer or what kind of life you
lead, the comfort and beauty of a fireplace is still a mysterious and
appealing component to any living space. A flickering fire captures our souls and soothes the senses.
    “Early civilizations explained fire as a gift from the gods, a
surprise that falls out of the sky, or a substance that smolders
below the ground in a spirit realm. In every known human culture,
fire has a sacred nature, honored in story and ceremony,” writes
Jane Gitlin, author of Fire Places: A Practical Guide to Fireplaces
and Stoves Inside and Out.
    This book shows in text and in lovely detailed photos everything you need to know about what types of fireplaces to consider for you home, mantelpiece styles, fuel alternatives and the many options available today, whether you want to install a fireplace anywhere from the bathroom to an outside room.
    “There is no single, correct location for a fireplace or
stove,” writes Gitlin. “Much depends on your home’s décor and
how you use your rooms.” While traditionally fireplaces were focal points in living and family rooms, they are becoming more common in dining rooms and kitchens, along with dens, libraries, master bedrooms and elaborate bathrooms. Gas and electric petite fireplace can be installed almost anywhere, including next to the bathtub or in the bedroom, and can be controlled by a remote. Outdoor fireplaces offer unrivaled ambience for any outdoor gathering. Since most fireplace lovers don’t need the fire for heating purposes anymore, there are many more options to consider.
    The decision to have a fireplace custom-built or to buy a
prefabricated one can be confusing. Many elements need to be
considered, including installation, special features and accessories.
A manufactured fireplace can end up costing even more than one custom built. Depending on factors, it can also be substantially less
expensive. Do your homework, factoring in labor costs and yearly
maintenance. Code requirements may vary according to location.
    Prefabricated fireplaces come in two types. One is a fireplace
insert that can be installed within an existing masonry fireplace to
improvethe heat and reduce drafts, says Gitlin. The other is a
factory-made steel box that allows the fireplace to be installed
within a wood- framed enclosure. They are called zero-clearance
because they can be installed within one to two inches of combustible materials.
    Gitlin says there are many ways to position a fireplace. One can
choose to follow symmetry and place the fireplace equally between walls, cabinetry or windows or to follow a more eclectic approach incorporating art, shelving and views. “Outies” project the fireplace into the room while “innies” have the fireplace behind the wall and don’t take up any additional space. Back to back fireplaces use a common chimney, and freestanding fireplaces work well in large rooms and offer multiple views.
    Mantels should be carefully chosen to compliment the proportions and décor of the room. Many of the newer, modern fireplaces have eschewed the mantelpiece in favor of a more minimalist approach or have redesigned traditional styles in new forms and materials. Materials that can be used for mantels include brick, which has been used for fireplaces since the 17th century, natural and cut stones, molded stone and concrete, wood, metals and tile. Built-in cabinetry is another option.
    One of the biggest conflicts about fireplace placement,
according to Gitlin, is where to place the fireplace in relation to
the television set. The advent of flat screen televisions makes it
possible to place it directly over the fireplace, allowing chairs and
sofas to face one direction. Otherwise, the fireplace can be placed
on one wall with the television placed at a right angle in the corner.
    “Selecting and arranging mantelpiece decorations is an art,”
writes Gitlin. It doesn’t have to be symmetrical, nor does it have
to be laden with family photos. Decorating with the change of seasons can refresh the look of the room as well as celebrate holidays. In summer months, having lit candles on the floor of the fireplace offers light without heat.

Save the Forest
    The use of wood-burning fireplaces continues to decline as the
popularity of alternative fuel-burning appliances escalates. There
are two categories of fuel that are being used, organic and fossil,
and some of them are surprising. Decide what kind of fuel you want to use before selecting a fireplace, as each requires its own system.
    Organic fuels include “bio-diesel” fuels, which are derived
from 80 percent vegetable oils. Other options include shells from
nuts, fruit pit and discarded corn. Wood, of course, is organic, but
sawdust and shavings are also compressed into pellets or artificial
logs. As organic fuel stoves and fireplaces become more efficient,
particle emissions decline.
    Fossil fuels are nonrenewable and subject to dramatic price
shifts, so the efficiency of the fireplace unit is important when
selecting a unit. Coal and oil burning stoves produce the most
pollutants, so most of today’s fireplaces use natural or propane gas.
    A piece of history worth noting from the book: “Natural gas and propane are naturally colorless and odorless. Mercaptan, or
methanethiol, is the additive that gives gas fuel that rotten egg
smell. After a disastrous explosion in 1937, the U.S. government
required that mercaptan be added to gas and propane to aid in the
detection of gas leaks.”
    Gas fireplaces can be inexpensive, and not all require a chimney
to vent. Fake logs are disappearing in favor of ceramic stones or
metal sculptures. Mantels can be custom designed or bought pre-made to match the furnishings in the room.
    Gitlin points out that manufacturers are developing safer and
cleaner burning agents in response to ecological demands. There are some new additive-free logs on the market that do not pollute and can be safely used for outdoor cooking because they are made of hardwood and burn cleanly at high temperatures. Sterno and Flamenco burn fire behind artificial logs and create the snap, crackle and pop of a real wood fire in fireplaces without flues. These are gels combined with isopropyl alcohol, water and salt.
    Electric fireplaces are becoming more attractive and require
only an electrical outlet to create a fireplace effect and some extra
heat. They can also be turned on and off by remote control, making them a good choice for bedrooms.

Contemporary Fireplaces
    When Holly Markham visited England roughly five years ago, she says she was blown away by the simple lines of the modern fireplaces she saw. Noting there was nothing comparable being sold in the United States, she abandoned her career in the high-tech sector and pursued avenues to get the designs approved for distribution in the states.
    She enlisted British designer Gavin Scott to bring modern
fireplace design to homeowners who want a break from the traditional hearth. Markham recalls showing him typical gas fireplaces. He reached over to one of those screens with a little metal chain and said, “What is this for?”
    It was an example of how the gas fireplace market mimicked wood fireplaces to the extreme.
     “The drive has always been to make all fireplaces look like
they are wood-burning,” Markham says. “People in modern houses want something super sleek. We also sell to people who have updated their traditional home or townhouse and have granite or concrete countertops and stainless appliances.”
    The owner of European Home, based in Melrose, Massachusetts, Markham is an importer, wholesaler and manufacturer of European contemporary home building products, including fireplaces, bath tubs, sinks and mailboxes, and works with more than 50 retailers here and in Canada. Ten years ago, the European fireplace market was predominantly traditional, and it’s now half contemporary. Markham hopes to see that happen here.
    The new fireplaces can be installed into the wall without a
mantle or surround. Optional surrounds are made of stainless steel or concrete, offering a dramatic and minimalist way to display the fire.
    In addition, old fireplace logs have been discarded. In their
place are “gas stones” or “river rock,” designed by Gavin
Scott Design. “Gas stones” consist of a natural gas or propane
burner, ceramic basket in white or black, a set of hand painted
ceramic beach stones and a remote control. The stones also offer the owners of wood-burning fireplaces the option of converting to gaswithout having to install the typical “fake logs” many people
would like to forget.
    In Vancouver, British Columbia, Solus Décor has been designing pre-cast concrete fireplaces for 10 years. Rougher concrete with voids and pits in its texture and styled in Renaissance or Baroque with traditional angels and curlicues have been around a long time, but these concrete surrounds are sleek and polished with clean contemporary lines. Solus also offers concrete tile fireplaces that can tailor the fireplace to its environment.
    Solus CEO Brad Carpenter says there’s a growing trend to
incorporate more organic elements within the home. “The use of
limestone and other cast stone and concrete add warmth and is
aesthetically pleasing,” he says. His own company’s growth has
been averaging between 35 and 40 percent since the beginning, a
testimony to the growing popularity of contemporary fireplaces. In
addition, “Fireplace manufacturers have also gone toward fireplaces that look like real fireplaces. It’s a cleaner look—not a lot of brass or louvers.”
    Carpenter sells to owners of modern as well as traditional
homes. “Many older homes have three or four fireplaces, and the
owners may want a different look for each one,” he says. While
business has been concentrated in Canada and the West Coast, interest is quickly spreading throughout the country.

The Great Outdoors
    Magical properties have been associated with outdoor fires since the time of the caveman. Cultures worldwide use fire for ceremonial purposes and the atmosphere created by fire can bring together even a casual gathering in a close and intimate way. As outdoor rooms and spaces are becoming more popular, there are a variety of fireplace options that work to warm up a chilly evening.
    An outdoor fireplace is generally connected to the house, in a garden wall or acting as a divider between the terrace and lawn, according to Gitlin. Concrete, metal and natural or cast stone work  both inside and out. Ceramic tiles and granite add decorative touches.
    Installing an outdoor fireplace under a roof on the porch, veranda or covered patio makes it a viable room on a rainy day or usable in the winter without having to shovel. If possible, make the fire visible from the inside of the house.
    Freestanding outdoor fireplaces can be larger and less subject
to certain building code requirements. They are usually built with
stone, tile, brick, metal or individual field stones. Some
prefabricated gas and wood burning models are available, but are
better suited to warmer climates.
     When building an outdoor fireplace, make sure the opening faces oncoming winds. That will direct most of the smoke out of the chimney instead of toward you.

Fire Pits
    “In today’s parlance, fire pits are high-tech versions of
campfires—chimneyless, open-sided fireproof containers that can be custom-designed permanent fixtures costing thousands of dollars or off-the-shelf purchases for under $100,” Gitlin writes. Outdoor pits are made with metal, concrete and masonry and can be used year-round. They burn either wood or gas. When deciding on a fire pit, make sure the surrounding area and seating arrangements can be used throughout the seasons.

Portable Outdoor Fireplaces
    A simple solution for outside is a lightweight copper, aluminum
or steel, freestanding fireplace. Some are just decorative and some
provide heat and a grill for cooking. Never use one on a wooden deck, or if you do, buy special protective mats made for this purpose. Remember that these appliances get very hot, so keep children and pets away, and don’t touch it for at least an hour after the last embers extinguish.

Published: December 02, 2007
Issue: December Philanthropy 07