Fireplaces both indoor and outdoor are great for our cool winter weather. There are so many options with fireplaces -- where do you start when planning one for your house? Fireplaces are the focal point of any room and should be carefully designed for both functionality and aesthetics. There are three basic construction methods: traditional masonry fireboxes and chimneys, pre-engineered masonry fireboxes and chimneys, and pre-manufactured out of sheet metal.
TRADITIONAL Traditional masonry fireboxes and chimneys are built on site from concrete masonry units, clay flue lines and firebrick. They can be faced with stone, brick or stucco. The advantages of traditional masonry fireplaces are flexibility in design, size, and shape. The Brick Industry Association has a series of technical notes on the best practices for masonry fireplaces on its website, www.gobrick.com. They include suggested fireplace openings appropriate to different room sizes and dimensions of the actual fireplace components to make sure that they draw properly. A good mason is essential for an attractive appearance and functional design.
PRE-ENGINEERED The two major brands of pre-engineered masonry fireplaces are FireRock and Isokern. These fireplaces generally cost half as much as true masonry and are much quicker to install. They are engineered to draw correctly if installed per the manufacturer's recommendations. They can be finished in stone, brick or stucco but are limited to the manufacturer's sizes and designs. Soapstone fire brick is great firebox material and can be used in pre-engineered fireboxes. Its natural color tends to hide the soot and it stores and reflects the heat better than standard firebrick. It is especially attractive when laid in a herringbone pattern.
PRE-MANUFACTURED The most economical fireplace is a pre-manufactured metal fireplace with a metal flue or direct vent. While less expensive they are not as attractive as masonry fireplaces. Heat-n-Glo and Lennox are two manufacturers with a wide range of products. These fireplaces can be wood burning or gas. They also come in a vent free model which I would not use in any of my projects. The vent free models are outlawed in Massachusetts, California, and Canada because of a design flaw that may allow the possibility of exposure to dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
KEEP IN YOUR HEAT Chimneys can often leak your heat and waste energy. One solution is Lyemance energy saving damper. This damper is located at the top of the chimney and has a rubber gasket that seals tightly. Since it is at the top the chimney there is the added benefit of keeping out critters and rain. The damper is operational from inside and eliminates any draft.
Contemporary construction techniques create very tight building envelopes that can cause fireplaces not to draw properly. To prevent this problem, fireplaces should have an outside air vent that can be opened when a fire is burning. Glass doors also help prevent heated inside air from being lost up the chimney.
Aesthetic considerations include the size of the fireplace for the room, firebox material, surround and hearth material and the design of the mantel if there is one. In his book "A Pattern Language," author Christopher Alexander reflects that the location of the fireplace is the most important factor. "Therefore: Build the fire in a common space -- perhaps in the kitchen -- where it provides a natural focus for talk and dreams and thought. Adjust the location until it knits together the social spaces and rooms around it, giving them each a glimpse of the fire; and make a window or some other focus to sustain the place during the times when the fire is out."
Jane Frederick is an architect and co-owner of Frederick + Frederick Architects in Beaufort.