Planning a new fireplace or updating an old one involves a bit of planning and forethought. First, you need to know the basic functional components of a fireplace. Then you want to consider matters of style, materials and design.
How far you go with this process depends on your budget and how important your fireplace is to the overall design of the room. If you intend to make the fireplace the focal point or even integrate it with your media center to create a dual-purpose focal point, then it probably deserves attention to details such as the materials and design of the hearth, mantle and firescreen.
There are three main components to a fireplace; the hearth, the firebox and the type of opening. The hearth is the area directly around the firebox; the firebox, as you would imagine, is where the fire actually burns. The hearth and mantel should have function and form appropriate to the room décor and design style of the room. The opening acts as a transition “buffer zone” between the fireplace and the room, using an insert, glass doors and/or firescreen to help keep sparks and burning embers from escaping the firebox.
Fireplace Hearths and Mantels
We will discuss fireplace hearths and mantels in more detail later in the fireplace guide, but a brief overview is in order when considering the heart as a part of overall fireplace design. Hearths may be flush with the floor, lower than the level of the floor, raised several inches or even built up a foot or two from the floor to create a hearth seating area. Some fireplaces have no real hearth and are simply flush with the wall. Many times a decorative mantel will be installed over the fireplace opening to enhance the look of the hearth and surrounds.
The design and materials used to construct fireboxes depend on the type of fireplace and chimney or venting system used. Traditionally, fireboxes are often set flush with the level of a home’s floors; other design options include raised fireboxes and dropped fireboxes. The style and scale of your hearth and mantelpiece will often guide the decision what height to set the firebox.
A standard rectangular fireplace opening is the norm, but you can find many interesting styles such as arch top openings, flared openings, double-sided fireplaces, two-sided corner openings and others. Perhaps the most unique design, and one which generates excellent heat radiation, is the U-shaped opening with a firebox that has three exposed openings!
Many homes built in the U.S. during the 19th and 20th centuries have at least one wood-burning fireplace. However, as we learn more about conserving our resources, health questions about wood smoke and home fire safety, the growing trend is moving toward the alternative fireplace fuels.
If your home has a wood-burning fireplace or you are building a new home, consider the following fireplace efficiency factors:
- Does the air supply to the fireplace come from inside or outside? Ventless systems can be more efficient since they are heating air which is already inside your home, but the drawback is increased humidity.
- Does the chimney effectively reduce heat loss (sometime called stack loss)? Especially if you have an older home, hire a chimney professional to inspect the cap, liner, etc. for ways to reduce this loss.
- Does the firebox, opening and hearth maximize heat coming into the room? While its tempting to think of the form and design aspects of a new or updated fireplace, there are very good functional reasons for traditional fireplace and hearth designs. Stone or ceramic tile hold heat very well, which can enhance a fireplace’s capacity to help heat your home.
Fireplaces Need a Good Air Supply
If your fireplace is externally vented, then air supply can be a challenge in today’s ultra insulated and air sealed homes. Since your fireplace draws cooler air from inside the home and expelled up through the flue, it needs to be continually replaced by more air.
A conventional fireplace without glass doors or without outside enough air passing into the home, below about 35 degrees F, it can actually become an energy drain as well as causing problems with smoke entering the room. With glass doors and a supply of outside air, the energy gain should be constant regardless of outside temperatures and resulting in positive heat gain. In a modern home with good insulation and window and door seals, a fresh air duct connected to the cold air return can be used to provide enough air for the fireplace to operate efficiently.
Updating an Older Fireplace
If your home already has a fireplace but needs a little facelift, you have plenty of options to update it with new surrounds, hearth and mantel materials. Consider a range of materials including stone, brick, ceramic tile, precast concrete or manufactured stone, wood and metals such as copper, stainless steel and copper.
The extent and style you choose largely determines the budget and how much of the work you can do yourself. You can purchase an inexpensive pre-made mantel for under $200 USD. A complete kit, including a mantel and surrounds can run from $300 to $500, but the sky is the limit, depending on the materials used and the intricacy and complexity of the trim work, finish, etc; you can easily spend several thousand dollars on a custom fireplace hearth, surrounds and mantel if your budget and tastes are toward the high end!
Most people decide to give their fireplace a facelift when redesigning a room. This is sensible, since the colors, textures and materials should be consistent between your fireplace design, furnishings, artwork, and other design elements.
It is common for such a project to begin simply enough; “we’ll just install a new mantel” and then you realize that adding glass doors or a new firescreen is in order. From there, you may decide the surrounds and hearth also need updating. You might also want to consider adding a convenient gas fire starter while you’re at it!
For a complex fireplace redesign, hiring a designer and contractor will be the way to go for most homeowners. If you are handy at setting tile and installing wood trim work, then you can probably handle some or even all of the project yourself.
If your room is already decorated, then designing the fireplace to match the décor is a logical choice. Remember to think in terms of whether or not you want the fireplace to be the room’s central focal point; this will guide your thinking in terms of how unique and intricate to make the design.
You will, of course, have far more design flexibility when updating an entire room and your existing fireplace together. In this case, you might even consider designing the room around the new fireplace, in which case the fireplace sets the tone for the colors, textures and other design elements you use throughout the room décor.
Getting Ideas for Your Fireplace Design
Visit showrooms, look at lots of photos and talk to designers and fireplace retailers to get ideas for your fireplace design. A unique fireplace using materials such as copper can be made to look aged with a natural patina and imperfect finish, giving your fireplace a rustic appeal. Or, you can go with something modern like stainless steel and a painted or stained mantelpiece.
If your older fireplace uses brick or other quality materials, consider how you might update the look rather than replacing them; a faux paint finish could be used for instance to give a white-painted older fireplace the look of natural brick. Stonework and masonry is very labor intensive these days, so if your existing fireplace has stone or brick work, you should seriously consider how to update and freshen its look without tearing it out or covering it over!
If you want the traditional look of masonry on a new fireplace or existing one without stone or brick work, there are a number of manufactured or “faux” stone and brick facing products you can use to achieve the look of real masonry without the expense. These products will be attached to the fireplace surrounds using construction adhesives and the pieces come in a variety of shapes and finishes to create a wide range of appearances, from rough stone to natural brick or smooth marble.
Many new homes use precast concrete mantels, which are an inexpensive solution. Tearing one out and replacing it with a custom made mantel will go a long way toward giving your fireplace a unique and more appealing look. This is one of the simplest fireplace updates and gives a lot of bang for the buck!
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