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Fire it up: Get cooking outside with locally quarried stone

Fireplaces made with local stone inject present-day entertaining with a dose of Maryland tradition

By Kit Waskom Pollard, For The Baltimore Sun

3:42 PM EST, November 8, 2013

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When Jake McCarty decided to build an outdoor living space with a fireplace as a focal point, he knew that natural stone from local land was the way to go.

McCarty, a Cockeysville resident, had a lot of ideas about what he wanted in his backyard, but he wasn't sure where to start.

"I went to the library and read every book I could find on stonemasonry," he says. Touring the city gave him more inspiration. "I started looking at the older stonework in Roland Park — at how well the corners were cut and lines were made. I used that as a touchstone."

McCarty's nearly two years of research lead him to Aldo Lagomarsino, a Baltimore-area stonemason and the owner of Aldo Construction, who completed the stonework in about two months.

The centerpiece of the project is a fireplace, about 10 feet tall and 6 feet wide, made of hand-chiseled Butler stone mined by Vinci Stone from the Butler Quarry on Falls Road.

"It's massive," McCarty says. "We entertain here all the time — have fires, drink wine, hang out with the family. It's a great experience."

The desire for an outdoor living and gathering space is part of what's driving a surging interest in stone fireplaces and patios, experts said. The availability of local materials like Butler stone only adds to the demand.

Aaron Raines, a landscape designer with Live Green Landscapes in Owings Mills, attributes the growing interest in stone fireplaces to people's desire to entertain. "They've become more popular in the past 10 years — as a social thing." Raines says. "People want to have a glass of wine or dinner by the patio."

Lagomarsino agrees, adding that in the cooler evenings, in particular, a space with a fireplace can be cozy and comforting.

"It's like you have an extra room in the house," he says. "At night, people prefer to be around a fire instead of somewhere else."

Both note that natural stone is an ideal material for fireplaces, since stone retains heat and is extremely durable. Though manufactured stone has gained some popularity over the past few years, experts insist that, in the long run, it is poor choice for fireplaces and fire pits.

"A piece of mortar is very breakable and very cheap," says Lagomarsino. "Fake stone is something you want to avoid, no matter what."

Justin Tagg, a third-generation stonemason and the owner of Towson's Stone Manor Masonry, concedes that manufactured stone is less expensive and does not require a professional craftsman to install, but he warns about its lack of durability.

"I don't mess around with 'rocks in the box,' " he says. "If you want to build something, use natural stone or 5-inch veneer."

Indoors, natural stone fireplaces are also popular, but they tend to be part of the original construction of a house; they are not as easy to add on to a property as outdoor fireplaces. Tagg says that although building any fireplace requires technical know-how, the regulations and permit process are more stringent for indoor fireplaces than for outdoor.

Citing ease and convenience, many homeowners are opting for gas inserts in their outdoor fireplaces, says Raines, explaining that they like the idea of lighting a fire with the flip of a switch. "It's more low-maintenance," he says. "You can have a quick fire without spending too much time."

Outdoor stone fireplaces are typically part of a larger landscape project.

"The fireplace is usually a piece of a total outdoor living area — one component of a bigger outdoor space," says Raines. He starts projects by discussing how the client plans to use the space — whether they have children or grandchildren and entertain a lot, or if they are looking for something more intimate.

Next in the process is a trip to a stone yard, where clients can choose from a variety of stone options.

"That was the fun part, picking out the stone," says Barbara Miller of Reisterstown, who worked with Raines on an outdoor living area, including a bar, kitchen and fireplace. She and Raines visited Badolato Stone, where she chose Butler stone for her fireplace, Idaho Quartzite for the patio and bluestone caps for her seating walls.

When choosing stone, homeowners consider texture and durability, but often color drives much of the decision. Badolato owner Sam Lauderdale says it is critical that homeowners see stone in person before making decisions.

"Natural stone has so many subtle colors and textures you see in person that you don't see in pictures," he says. "You need to put eyes on it."

Though stone yards typically sell stone from all over the world, homeowners often find that local stone is especially desirable for its color, timeless quality and easy access.

Lagomarsino loves local Butler stone, with its shades of gray and tan. "One of the best multicolored stones on the planet is Butler," he says. "There's nothing quite like it. It's rich in color, sparkling and a beautiful shape."

Joe Vinci of Vinci Stone reports that pink-tinged Tennessee stone used to be popular but has fallen out of favor over the past few years. However, Butler stone, with its unique color, is considered classic in the Baltimore area.

"There's a lot of it in Homeland and Guilford," says Raines. "It's been used for the past 150 years."

Access to local stone is also a benefit. If homeowners decide on additional stonework in five or 10 years, they may not be able to easily get stone from Georgia or Idaho — but local stone will be readily available.

Local stone is also more cost-effective than stone that must be shipped from elsewhere, experts said. The cost of an outdoor stone fireplace can range from a few thousand dollars for a simple fire pit to well over $20,000 for something more grand. While most run between $10,000 to $15,000, which includes the time and expertise of designers and masons, stone from outside the region can be twice as expensive as local stone thanks to transportation costs.

"Stone is heavy!" says Lauderdale."Local stones have an advantage because you don't have to pay for the transport" from other states.

Landscape designers and stonemasons emphasize the importance of working with experts, and most homeowners seem to heed that advice. "Eighty percent of our business is either landscapers or masons," says Lauderdale.

He notes the importance of hiring professionals with experience, who can help narrow down choices and steer homeowners in the right direction.

"Find somebody who knows what they're doing" Lauderdale says. "Homeowners come in, and we tell them what you can and can't do with a particular stone. You don't want somebody experimenting on your patio or fireplace."

Though McCarty had a vision for his backyard space, once he hired Lagomarsino, he found his ideas evolving — and improving.

"The process was dynamic in nature," he says. "There was a lot of discussion. Aldo made some very good recommendations on subtle points. They were a big improvement from what I initially had."

The best stonemasons are artisans with impressive attention to detail, says McCarty, who worries that the strong tradition of quality stonework in Maryland may be dying out. "There are very few people interested in chiseling stone by hand," he says.

Though it took McCarty years to finalize his design and find Lagomarsino, today, when he's enjoying his patio and fireplace, glass of wine in hand, he couldn't be happier.

"There are a lot of little stylistic features," he says. "The craftsmanship is just beautiful."

Tips for homeowners

Adding a stone fireplace to your yard or home is a major undertaking. Here's some advice from experts and homeowners who have been through the process:

Don't skimp on stone. Experts agree that natural stone is worth the cost and they insist homeowners should choose the color and type they like most instead of trying to cut corners. "Get what you want, because stone is forever," says Sam Lauderdale, owner of Badolato Stone in Cockeysville. "The small differences in the prices of stone are not material when it comes to the overall cost of the project."

Find the experts. For Jake McCarty, research was an important first step when he started planning the stone fireplace, patio and pizza oven now in his Cockeysville yard. "Visit other projects and really look for craftsmanship," he says. "There's as big a range in stonework as there is with writing."

Think big picture. Aaron Raines of Live Green Landscapes urges homeowners to think in terms of overall design rather than individual elements. "A fireplace needs to be part of an overall design program," he says. "You can't just throw a fireplace out there by itself and expect it to be an amazing space. You need a plan for it to function so it feels natural."

Do your homework. Reisterstown resident Maribeth Benjamin says she learned — the hard way — that it makes sense to have a plan from the beginning instead of doing projects piecemeal. She relied on magazine photos to communicate with her team, which included Raines at Live Green. "Magazine articles went a long way," she says. "I couldn't always explain verbally what I wanted, but I could show them."