Just Add Fire
authors Patrick O'Toole
Indoors or out, the appeal of gathering friends and loved ones around a roaring fire is strong. So it’s not a surprise that requests for outdoor fireplaces and fire pits continues to grow at a rapid rate, according to remodelers from around the country.
A recent Qualified Remodeler poll asked remodelers to rank the most-requested outdoor living elements, and it found that fireplaces and fire pits were No. 5 behind outdoor essentials such as decks, shade structures, hardscapes/patios and outdoor kitchens. Thirty-four percent of remodelers cited fireplaces and fire pits.
Eric Kent, owner and CEO of Archadeck of Charlotte, is one of those remodelers who sees the growing demand firsthand. “We introduced the idea of outdoor fireplaces and fire pits and cooking stations to our prospects and clients 12 years ago, and it has grown every single year since then.”
For Kent, offering a full range of outdoor living solutions—from designing and building three-season rooms to patios and outdoor kitchens and everything in between—requires a breadth of knowledge across many different outdoor living categories. In the case of fireplaces and fire pits, the design considerations begin with clear direction from the building codes, particularly with respect to wood-burning fireplaces.
Code requires that all wood-burning fireplaces be placed at least 10 feet away from residential structures. If they are placed inside of 10 feet from the home, they must be converted to gas-fed instead of wood-burning. Alternatively, a chimney must be built to exceed the height of the adjacent building by 2 feet.
“If you can imagine that you are building a screened-in porch, if you are right up against the house wall and you are within 10 feet, you will have to build a chimney that goes above your house,” Kent says. “If you have a two-story house, a structure of this size becomes costly. So more than likely if you wanted it to go in that location, you would go with a gas fireplace and then the code goes away.”
Kent’s typical client is a suburban homeowner in a single-family detached structure with a large yard. In these cases, requests for wood-burning units far exceed gas-fed solutions, he notes.
Special care should be given to placement. As outdoor living spaces have grown more robust—sometimes including several distinct living areas for cooking, dining and gathering—design and placement considerations have become much more complex, particularly in the case of fireplaces. Because they are larger structures, it is important to keep them from potentially blocking views. Conversely, large fireplace structures can be seen as a way to create additional privacy in a yard, Kent says.
“Oftentimes people will begin to think about, What don’t I want to look at? They will use a 4- or 5-foot wide structure as a privacy wall or a screening wall. You don’t want to put it right smack in front of a window because now you have lost that potential view that you now may want to see. We often place it on a 45-degree angle or backed up toward a neighbor’s house—something they don’t need to see.”
Outdoor Fireplaces in Manhattan
Joshua Wiener, owner of SilverLining Inc., in New York City, is well known for major remodels among a well-heeled clientele. They are not a design firm, but rather take on major projects designed by architects. As has been well-documented in QR Outdoors in recent months, outdoor living is also an urban trend. It is common for homeowners and remodeling clients to build out rooftops and terraces for these purposes. And, Wiener says, they seek the same amenities found in the suburbs—outdoor cooking, dining and gathering.
“In addition to penthouse and rooftop situations in apartment buildings and co-ops, we also do a lot of brownstones,” Wiener explains. “And with brownstones, you also have the option of exterior wood-burning fireplace in a small yard; but, generally in Manhattan and Brooklyn, 99 percent of the time we do gas just because it is so much easier. With gas there is no smoke to control when you are living in close proximity to people. Having a smoky fireplace is not the best.”
According to Wiener, the city of New York offers clear guidelines on placement and safety relating to rooftop and terrace fireplaces. Buildings have their own rules as well and sometimes prohibit them.
Design aesthetic tends to take on an added significance in some of the projects that Wiener builds. Fire is decorative first and warming second. He’s built out S-shaped enclosures with a string of curving burners. Gas burners are also placed in a linear fashion to accent a masonry wall. In addition, non-burning fireplaces now use water vapor and LED lights to offer a very convincing fireplace look and feel. Importantly, these can be embedded in walls and in multiple locations to offer light and ambiance to dark, shadow-filled urban spaces.
Both Kent and Wiener say that stone masonry and brick are the top choices among clients for the fire structures they build. They add a firmness and authenticity to the fireplace or fire pit. But other, lighter materials are often called for when they are placed on top of decks that are perched on hillsides, Kent says.
“Ninety percent of what we do is a stone fireplace or fire pit. Another 8 percent is going to be brick. Once in a while, someone asks us to construct something way up high because it is maybe up on their deck. In those cases, the exterior might be siding to match their home. You still have the safety of a firebox with a stainless-steel frame wrapped in cement board—from there we match it to the home. That is a very niche market. And it is a less expensive way of integrating a fireplace.”
Another design consideration involves accessories near or installed with fireplaces. Pizza ovens are common, but Kent says he often designs and specifies the use of a ruggedized flat-screen television.
“We are a dealer for SunBrite TVs. It is an all-weather outdoor TV, with a nonreflective screen that we integrate over the mantle so that you can watch your favorite sports show or movie at night while you are in front of the fire. Today, audio-video is part of that whole design process.” QR