Fireplaces that think outside the hearth

For The Baltimore Sun
Wood-burning fireplaces aren't for everyone. Here's the lowdown on what else is out there.

When Joel Meneses, designer at Real Design LLC, was asked to renovate a Fells Point home, he knew he wanted to maintain the fireplaces. “Historically, [a fireplace] defines a room as a gathering place and not just a room with furniture in it,” he says. “It informs the space planning.”

The fireplace was located in a wall next to a stairwell. Like many urban homes, this one had few windows, so getting light to penetrate the interior was a challenge. By removing the wall with the fireplace and wood mantel, Meneses created a way for light to enter the stairwell, leaving room in the air above for a fireplace that appears to float in space. Meneses liked the idea of playing with a material perceived as heavy — concrete — in a lighter-than-air application.

Meneses teamed with Mark Melonas, owner and founder of Luke Works Inc., to craft a steel shell anchored to the concrete wall that was then clad in decorative concrete the color of burlap. The venting is shrouded in steel with a rusted patina and bamboo panels, all of which complement the colors of the room. By thinking outside the box of the traditional wood mantel, Meneses created a sculptural focal point in the room.

A fireplace isn’t for everyone, particularly the wood-burning variety, which requires maintenance. But for some, a house isn’t a home without one. Melonas explains that fireplace owners are willing to slow down the pace of life and honor a tradition of gathering that is as old as fire itself.

“They recognize a cultural ritual of setting aside time to enjoy a wood-burning fire,” he says. “You’re creating a moment in time and devoting hierarchy in your design to that ritual.”

If there’s one thing the Meneses-Melonas fireplace demonstrates, it’s that today’s fireplaces defy the stereotypes of yesteryear, when the wood mantel was king. Today, fireplaces come in different shapes and burn different materials. 

Megan Maddox, fireplace buyer at Watson’s Fireplace & Patio in Lutherville, sees many customers moving to linear fireplaces. These long, thin fireplaces, usually gas or electric, “are put in like a piece of art,” says Maddox. 

Manufacturers like Fireplace Xtrordinair offer linear gas models with up to 1,200 square inches of fire viewing area. In addition to coming in many shapes, electric fireplaces can be wall mounted and then taken with you if you move. Manufacturer Dimplex even makes electric fireplaces set into media consoles.

Gas fireplaces

Maddox explains that most of Watson’s customers are looking for gas fireplaces because of their ease of use. “You have a remote control that starts the fireplace for you,” she points out. “There’s no chopping or storing wood, and you don’t have to deal with the debris of hauling wood in the house.”

Gas fireplaces are noted for their efficiency, too. While a wood-burning fireplace loses as much as 90 percent of its heat up the chimney, a direct-vent gas fireplace has no chimney and vents to the outside of the house, so you’re not sending heat outside. Direct-vent fireplaces are closed units with glass fitted over the opening. (New in 2015, manufacturers will be required to have a safety screen over the glass, too.) Most units turn on with the flip of a switch or with a remote control.

A masonry fireplace can be converted to gas by installing a gas insert. While some people enjoy the look of flames inside a picture frame, others prefer the open hearth look. For them, gas log units can be placed inside a fireplace, but as these are open to the room, the efficiencies normally gained with gas are lost. Gas burns clean, but these open units require some maintenance because dust or pet hair can get onto the logs, says Mark Burlbaw, president of Mark & Buttons, a full-service chimney sweep and masonry repair company in Owings Mills. Otherwise, the maintenance with gas is minimal.

Wood-burning fireplaces

A wood-burning fireplace is classic, the place to which everyone gravitates. But it does take some work. It needs to be cleaned after a cord of wood (8 feet long, 4 feet wide, 4 feet high) has been burned; it’s often wise to have a cap on the chimney to keep out birds. And weather takes a toll on masonry chimneys, causing cracks that need to be repaired. But, says Burlaw, “I don’t want to give fireplaces a bad rap.”

“I like a fireplace, and I like burning wood,” he says. “But I have more efficient units than a regular masonry fireplace.”

Burlbaw likes the full-masonry, precast versions made by Bellfires that have improved efficiency. New zero clearance, air-cooled fireplaces can even have a blower installed to push heat into a room, and these factory-built models don’t require masonry.

Ethanol fireplaces

Perhaps the hippest trend in fireplaces is the gel- or ethanol-burning varieties. These fireplaces are the chic cousin to the old can of Sterno your mother burned under her chafing dish at Thanksgiving. Ethanol makes a dancing flame when it burns, puts out no ash and requires no ventilation. Since you simply fill a burner with ethanol — no gas line or tank required — the designs are extremely flexible. Many can be moved from room to room (or house to house), or they can be placed inside an existing fireplace.

Although ethanol fireplaces have no heat loss because there’s no chimney, these fireplaces aren’t primarily for warming a room. According to EcoSmart Fire, a leading manufacturer of clean-burning, eco-friendly bioethanol fireplaces, its largest model throws off only 18,600 BTUs. (The average direct-vent gas throws off between 20,000 and 35,000 BTUs.) But for someone who wants the look of a fireplace with almost no maintenance, a gel or ethanol fireplace may be the best fit.

Stoves

While not quite the wood-burning fireplace of the quintessential holiday card, wood or pellet stoves have the benefit of being mostly sealed for better efficiency, combined with the charm and ambiance of wood burning. Unlike a wood stove, which needs to be tended, a pellet stove runs on pressed wood pellets fed into a hopper and can thus be left to burn. While you don’t need to haul logs, you do need to haul bags of pellets. 

“A pellet stove definitely needs to be cleaned each year,” adds Burlaw, “and if you live in an area that loses electricity you’ve lost your stove, because you need electricity to run the fan system and feed the fuel into the stove.”

Faced with so much choice, what seems like a simple decision in the home suddenly becomes more complex. Watson’s Maddox says it all comes down to thinking long term and making a choice that fits your lifestyle. 

“You might have a fireplace for 15 years,” she explains. “You might love the pop and crackle of a wood fireplace, but do you want to cut and store wood for 15 years? You need to determine your lifestyle and get the [fireplace] that fits.”

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