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.