Cindy Henderson wasn’t even sure she wanted an outdoor fireplace behind her home in Olde Providence. She and her family – husband Mark and teenage son Ian – loved the new pool. The back yard became an oasis, an escape. They wanted to add an outdoor kitchen to make it even more welcoming, and maybe a bathroom. But a fireplace? Well, that was down on the list.
“I went back and forth with the fireplace, honestly,” she says.
So, they waited and did their homework before deciding on such a large project. They enjoyed the new pool for two seasons. They paid attention to how they used the spaces around the pool, and how other amenities might fit. They thought about how people would gather. “After that second full summer we said, ‘How are we living out here?’”
Then they hired Celtic Masonry to build the fireplace gazebo, incorporating all their ideas.
She loves the covered space – “The fireplace makes that area!” – and the experts say the Hendersons did everything exactly right.
ENJOY THE VIEW
Outdoor fireplaces are hugely popular, especially this time of year. They’re available in a wide array of prices and styles, from portable bowls to more elaborate outdoor rooms like the Hendersons’. You can choose gas or wood models. You can forego the ceramic logs and enjoy a gas flame flickering up through colorful glass.
But before you uncrate that portable pit – and certainly before you hire someone to lay stone – do some space planning.
You don’t want to unveil your cool new fire pit or outdoor fireplace and realize you forgot to address one important question: So, where is everybody going to sit?
Outdoors or indoors, says Charlotte architect Lindsay Daniel, start with a furniture plan. You might think about the placement of sofa and club chairs if planning a fireplace in your great room. The same rules apply on your patio.
“The fireplace is the destination,” she says. “It’s the glue that holds everything together.... So, how are people going to interact with the fireplace? Where are they going to sit?”
Indoors, certainly, and more and more outdoors, you might have to accommodate both the television and the fireplace. They’re often paired.
The good news, Daniel says, is that modern flat-screen TVs make that easier than ever. TVs are light enough and shallow enough to hang over the fireplace without requiring a huge cutout niche. “The TV and fireplace aren’t fighting each other any more.”
There’s a flat-screen TV over the Hendersons’ fireplace – and Cindy Henderson says she enjoys the Panthers games there even more than at the stadium.
“The main thing,” Daniel says, “is that you have to design all the elements at the same time.”
Paul Nelson of Celtic Masonry agrees.
Most of the fire pits and outdoor fireplaces his company builds include curved stone seating. On outdoor fireplaces, Celtic often extends the hearth on either side of the fireplace and curves it gently to provide seating. “The hearth wraps around and creates a cozy area.”
PLACEMENT IS EVERYTHING
Cindy Henderson added two sofas in front of her fireplace, and a low wall around the outdoor area provides even more seating, enough for 30 people. She was even careful to use smooth stone for seating surfaces.
Jonathan Ogden at the Fire House Casual Living Store on Johnston Road says the fire pits in his showroom are displayed with seating. “We show them in groupings here, with four chairs around them.” About half of his customers buy outdoor chairs and sofas when they buy fire pits.
Plan your space, as the Hendersons did, then consider the layout a second time. It’s a variation on the old carpentry adage: Measure twice and cut once.
You can move a portable fire pit to accommodate different seating, but not a permanent fireplace of stone or brick. “Once they start it,” Ogden says, “it’s costly to go back.”
Where you place your fire space depends on lots of things. How and when do you plan to use it? Will you entertain large or small groups? Will the layout, like the Hendersons’, include pool and outdoor kitchen?
Pay attention to prevailing wind. Try to locate a permanent fireplace with its back to the breeze. Cindy Henderson says strong winds occasionally blow out the flames, so she’s shopping for a glass screen.
And remember, a big fireplace might block the view of other areas of the back yard.
That’s good if you want to use it as a sort of privacy screen. But it’s bad if you want to enjoy the view of a serene garden or water feature.
Architect Daniel came up with a solution to that issue. She designed a see-through fireplace for a family on Pinewood Circle.
The rear of the firebox is an ornate steel grate. The metal keeps logs from tumbling through when there’s a fire, but opens the view to the beautiful back yard when there’s no fire.
Ceramic logs for gas fireplaces are available in almost infinite variety – but you don’t have to settle for oak or birch.
Think colorful glass, for instance. Bits of jewel-tone glass are replacing ceramic logs in more and more gas-fired fireplaces and fire pits. Blue, green, red, clear – and any custom mix you choose.
“We have glass balls, pyramids, all kinds of glass shapes instead of logs,” Ogden says. “The flame comes up through the glass. You get to pick the color of the glass, or you can do river rocks.”
You also have more choices than just wood or gas.
Alexander Radmard of Homefires in Charlotte mostly sells coal baskets, indoor fireplace inserts that resemble antique English baskets for burning coal in shallow fireplaces. They’re primarily used in older homes with shallow, narrow fireplaces designed to burn coal. They’re popular in Dilworth, Myers Park, Plaza-Midwood and similar areas in Charlotte, he says.
Most are made in the United Kingdom, and most are gas fired.
But Radmard can customize hearth products, and they don’t all burn gas. There are electric models – and even models that burn ethanol. Some marine stoves burn alcohol, so that option isn’t as unusual as it might seem.
“Ethanol is a lot like moonshine, actually,” he says. “But it has toxins in there so you can’t drink it.”
How much will it cost? Well, from a little to a lot.
At Lowe’s stores, according to outdoor living zone manager Ralph Clark, prices start at less than $100 and range up to about $300. He speculates that lots of Charlotteans received fire pits for Christmas. “Lots of our sales on Black Friday were Christmas gifts.”
Chimineas, the round pots with short chimneys, remain popular. Perhaps, he says, because the chimney directs smoke upward, unlike an open fire pit or bowl. One popular fire pit model includes seating. The fire pits in Ogden’s showroom begin at about $150 and range up to $800. The less expensive ones are steel; the more expensive models are made of aluminum.
Prices vary widely for outdoor fireplaces of stone or brick, Nelson says, depending on size and other amenities included. Brick is less expensive than stone. A simple brick design might cost $5,000 to $6,000, while stone might range from $8,000 to $20,000.
Whatever you spend on a portable fire pit, choose one with a rim. You’ll be glad you did, says Ogden of Fire House. “You can use that as a table. Some (rims) are metal, but you can get models with stone or tile.” Some models even have inserts that cover the fire bowl during warm weather, allowing you to use the entire surface as a table.
Other things you might not think about, but should:
You probably won’t have to get permission from your neighborhood homeowner’s association to add a portable fire pit or permanent pit or fireplace to your yard. Again, probably – which means you should check. “We usually let (customers) know that Step A is finding out if the neighborhood has restrictions, and what they are,” Nelson says.
One important exception is that if you live on one of the Catawba River lakes, you might have restrictions on where you can locate your fire. You’ll have to abide by lake setback rules: “You need to maintain that buffer zone from the water,” Nelson says. And you have to be careful not to add too much impervious surface, which increases rain runoff. Impervious surface restrictions mean that if you have a long, paved driveway, you might not be able to add a large paved patio. Check the rules and ask your contractor to suggest alternatives to solid paving.
An outdoor fireplace chimney has to be tall enough to draw properly. Beyond that, chimney height is mostly a matter of personal taste, Nelson says – unless you locate the fireplace too close to the house. If it’s very close, the building code will determine height.
A portable fire pit too close to vinyl siding will melt the vinyl. Smoke will discolor siding.
Jonathan Ogden at the Fire House warns all his customers not to place portable fire pits on porches. “The most important thing is, don’t put it in a covered area,” he says. “It needs to be in an open area.”
Ralph Clark says customers don’t ask many questions – but probably should. “No, you can’t use (a portable fire pit) on a wooden deck.... Yes, you can use the Duraflame (wax) logs.”