Light the Fire

by Kacey Larsen

“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” as the adage goes, and that is particularly relevant considering the popularity of fireplaces and fire features in outdoor living spaces. According to the 2016 U.S. Houzz Landscaping Trends Study, 36 percent of the homeowners surveyed who have completed, are currently working on or are planning an outdoor project intend to include a fire pit within their outdoor living purchases. Houzz further breaks it down by identifying homeowners’ locations who have or want a fire pit: 31 percent urban, 35 percent suburban and 40 percent rural.
Another piece of interesting news from the Houzz study is that outdoor projects come in all budgets — nine out of 10 homeowners spent or plan to spend less than $5,000 on minor projects while over two in five homeowners spent or plan to spend $20,000 or more on complete outdoor overhauls. Jarod Hynson, president, Earth, Turf, & Wood in Denver, Pa., can personally vouch for this trend in spending. “We’re a design/build company that specializes in outdoor living. It’s people’s backyards, but it’s a high-end residential market,” he says. “We’ve done projects anywhere from $20,000 to $1.2 million. We’ve probably put a fireplace in about 40 percent of the projects we build.”
Fireplaces and fire features can certainly accommodate a myriad of budgets as they can range in size, material and types of fuel used. In the opinion of Glen Lumia, president/CEO of Creative Design Construction & Remodeling in Northvale, N.J., good, better and best options can correspond to the size of a client’s budget. He considers drop and use (pre-made units) to be good; modular units that provide design flexibility to be better; and full masonry structures with endless possibilities to be best.
Another decision to be made involving fire features and fireplaces is what type of fire fuel will best fit a homeowner’s needs or desires. Lumia recommends considering if there is accessibility to hard piped gas preexisting on-site; if not, direct piping can get expensive and be invasive to the landscape, he says. Maintenance; types of use in terms of heating, ambience, and/or visual interest or focal point; and ease of use should also be discussed. As Lumia points out, “Many clients don’t want the hassle of wood and would rather have the ability to push a button or turn on [a fireplace] from their hand-held device,” which is why an honest conversation needs to be had during the planning and design phase.
Hynson echoes the importance of understanding your client’s wants and needs, but indicates that he does have a personal preference when it comes to fuel. “Personally, I’m a big advocate of firewood because I like the crackling and the popping of the firewood and the heat it throws off. Gas is quick because it’s the throw of a switch and you’ve got a gas fire — you may not have a whole lot of heat from it, but it’s clean, simple and you don’t have to get firewood,” he explains. “The thing we’ve found with outdoor fireplaces is they turn the backyard from one season with a pool into a three-season area. So you could sit out back in October, November to watch Monday night football with a TV over top the fireplace and be very comfortable with a roaring wood fireplace. We always encourage our customers: The bigger the firebox, the more wood you can fit in there, the more heat it will throw.”
Beyond decisions about the fireplace or fire feature, consideration should be given to how it will fit into the overall outdoor living space. “When we design outdoor spaces, we are always conscientious of the views primarily and traffic flow secondary,” explains Lumia. He points to one of Creative Design Construction & Remodeling’s projects involving a pool and spa in addition to a fireplace, as an example, indicating the placement of the pool and spa were intentionally to the left so the placement of the fireplace did not interrupt lines of sight from the outdoor space’s covered area or any of the home’s windows.
An interesting trend Hynson reports is for families to have both a fireplace and a fire pit in their backyard, which can create a destination and separate gathering spots. “At my house, I have a fireplace and a fire pit because the kids always seem to gather around the fire pit. But over by the fireplace, we tend to see that more as an adult congregating area. And we have a multitude of families who say, “Hey, we want to do both,” because in reality a fire pit doesn’t cost that much,” he says. “The fire pit becomes a destination somewhere in the backyard.”
Some homeowners want their fireplace or fire feature to be more than a destination — they want it to be a focal point. Lumia points to a project involving an infinity spa that drops into an infinity pool which drops into a lake, and the homeowners wanted a focal point. So Creative Design Construction & Remodeling constructed fire bowls that cascade water into the pool, have LED light features, and are controlled via pool controls including the homeowner’s cellphones. He explains that the units were “raised to offer a focal point and starting/finishing line for the drop-off edge and patio.” Direct burial materials (PVC piping) is used for the fire features’ conduit.
One important key before and during the design phase, as Hynson points out, is to check and double check all building codes regarding fireplaces and fire features. “We typically research a lot of that before we even begin the design because we don’t want to have a customer fall in love with a design that we can’t build because of regulations.”

Stick to the Codes
Awareness of recommendations and codes can aid the planning and placement of fireplaces and fire features to ensure the safety and comfort of homeowners. “Always check with manufacturer recommendations and local building codes to ensure compliance. With so many options available, size and features will definitely impact location choice,” Lumia says. “Generally speaking, electric fireplaces will not need a vent. Wood burning fireplaces will need a chimney — generally 2 ft. taller than anything within 10 ft. It is best to review the manufacturer recommendations for gas units. We always use licensed tradesmen for the utility connections.”
The regulations Hynson indicates his team runs into most often when it comes to fireplaces and fire features relate to distances and heights. “I would say that probably 75 percent of the outdoor fireplaces we build have some type of a pavilion on top. If you want to go the route of having an outdoor TV or other types of electronics, you really want that to be covered. If there’s adequate room, there’s usually an outdoor kitchen which might be under the pavilion as well, so now you’re going to have grill smoke and stuff as well. You’ll want to have a cupola or venting system at the peak of the pavilion to get the smoke out,” he says. “Every township is so different it’s enough to make you go nuts, but we do run into some regulations in terms of distances and heights — sometimes a fireplace has to be so far away from the house; sometimes the pavilion needs certain rooflines.”
An additional thought for consideration when planning and selecting a fireplace or fire features with clients is the ability to convert down the road. “I would say that 90 percent of fireplaces we design are wood burning, but you can always convert a wood burning fireplace to a gas fireplace,” Hynson says. “You can always put gas logs or a gas enclosure in a wood fireplace, but you can’t go the other way.” | QR

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