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Fireplace Design – Where Do I Start?
Picture how your fireplace will be used. You’ve probably already got a location in mind, but the practicality of the location may be affected by venting needs, installation clearance requirements and fuel choices.
Part 1: GREAT EXPECTATIONS
First, why are you installing a fireplace? Is is for recreational use and entertaining? Is it serving as a backup emergency heating system? Supplemental heat for a chilly room? Is it simply a decorative element to enhance your decor? Fireplaces are available in a wide range of designs fireplaces being used as supplemental or backup heat sources will get the most use and a higher quality (more expensive) model will be a better choice that generally offers greater efficiency.
Who will be using the new fireplace? What is your lifestyle? Elderly people and those with health problems may not be able to handle the vigors of toting firewood. But if you have the time to enjoy the rituals of cutting, splitting and stacking wood and the idea of free heat from fallen trees on your property, an investment in a wood burning fireplace may suit your needs perfectly. Otherwise, expand your possibilities to gas or electric fireplaces.
Fireplace design experts and chimney sweeps agree that low-end, builder-grade fireplaces should only be used for occasional, recreational fires such as family gatherings at holidays. If you expect to use your fireplace once a week or more during the winter, opt for a higher end model that will last for many years because replacement is an expensive, time-consuming project. Now let’s begin with the next stage of planning.
Part 2: CHOOSING THE FUEL
Do you picture burning natural firewood? Wood burning fireplaces will put the most restraints on your design. The chimney system must run vertically in a relatively straight configuration and clear the roof line according to local codes, which are a minimum of 3′ in most areas – but can be excessively more depending upon your roof pitch and home design. You’ll want the fireplace installed in an area that’s accessible to a doorway to the outside to bring in your firewood and take out ashes. A wood burning fireplace will also have the greatest requirements for a fireproof hearth that protrudes into the room and for side and top clearances. And unless you opt for a high-end, energy efficient fireplace fireplace design that offers tightly sealing doors for long burn times and upgraded designs to provide high heat output, burning wood may actually remove more heat from your room than it adds.
Opening front, decorative wood burning fireplaces are banned as new appliance choices in some areas that are prone to air quality problems. Decorative fireplaces consume a lot of fuel, can produce excessive amounts of smoke into your neighborhood, and offer little to no heat output. So carefully consider the quality and features of the models available during your planning stages. Higher end models may give you many more years of service plus convenience features that give you longer burn times, more heat from every piece of wood and cleaner burning that results in less smoke and a cleaner chimney.
Make sure you have a good source of firewood available and space to stack your wood pile. The type of wood you burn – and how you store and care for your firewood – will greatly affect your wood burning experience.
For all but the most talented do-it-yourselfers, a woodburning fireplace is a job that is best done by a licensed and experienced professional.
Gas fireplaces offer a convenient, realistic flame at the touch of a button. Remote controls are available for most models. Many can also use thermostat controls that adjust the flame or turn the fire on and off based on the room temperature. Venting options may allow installation in nearly any room, on any floor of your home.
Gas fireplaces come in a variety of styles, sizes and designs and offer multiple venting options. Decorative models won’t give you much heat, while higher end models can heat an open floor plan nearly as effectively as a furnace. Direct vent models may vent horizontally or give you enough options with offsets for the vent to terminate remotely from the fireplace. Every model from every manufacturer is different, so check installation requirements carefully to make sure your design can be implemented for safe and efficient use.
Gas fireplaces are designed to burn either Natural Gas (piped into your home by the city gas company) or LP (Liquid Propane) which is stored in a tank in your yard.
Installation of a gas fireplace will require a plumber or HVAC technician (check local codes) to run gas lines to the fireplace and to install the fireplace and venting system, so this is a project that will require professional installation.
Once not even a consideration for fireplaces, electric fires are now all the rage. They operate at 100% efficiency and require no venting so they can be installed any where. They may also be the only option for renters or for high-rise condos and office buildings. Designs range from small to large, traditional to contemporary. Most include a heater than can provide plenty of warmth for smaller areas. There are no special installation requirements – just plug into an existing 3-prong outlet – so this is a relatively simple installation that most homeowners can accomplish on their own.
Now that we know what type of fuel is right, let’s plan where it will be installed.
Part 3: CHOOSING YOUR FIREPLACE LOCATION
As we learned in part two, the fuel you’ll be burning in your fireplace may dictate where the fireplace can be installed based on the venting requirements of the model chosen. A woodburning fireplace in an upstairs bedroom is not practical because you’ll be toting wood up and carrying ashes down.
Sometimes a compromise will be required to meet venting and clearance requirements of the fireplace style you choose. Your ideal location between two windows may not work, but the more spacious area on the opposite wall would be perfect. Or perhaps the woodburning fireplace you prefer between the windows can’t fit, but a gas burning model will. So determine how important the location of the fireplace is to the design you have in mind and remain flexible during this stage of planning.
Depending upon the era, fireplaces have been designed through the ages with a variety of styles. A corner fireplace may provide the perfect balance for other elements in the room. Flat or low-profile hearths are more practical in smaller rooms where you’ll be less like to stub your toe walking by. Flat hearths were popular from the early 1800’s to the 1940’s. Raised hearths may bring the fireplace up to offer a better view from a bed or sofa. A hearth raised 16″ to 18″ offers additional seating in the room. Think of the design elements in your room, how the furniture will be arranged, and the type of fireplace you’re installing. Raised hearths allow less bending when loading or tending to a wood fire. If you’re trying to replicate the look of a particular era then research the style of fireplaces, surround and hearth materials plus mantel styles that were popular at that time.
I’ve chosen my fuel and the room it’s going to be installed into, now how should it look?
Part 4: CUSTOMIZING YOUR FIREPLACE DESIGN
A fireplace is usually a generic box that holds a fire. Decorative accents provided by the manufacturer (such as trim styles and door or window finishes) will be your next decision. The greatest element of your design style will be the hearth, surround, trim and mantel choices.
The hearth is the extension into the room that provides protection to your flooring while the surround provides protection for the walls surrounding your fireplace. Requirements will vary greatly for the surround and hearth based on the type of fuel your fireplace burns and the individual requirements for the model chosen. Woodburning fireplaces will most often require a hearth 18″ or more in front of the fireplace, and extending to each side to offer maximum protection for sparks and tumbling embers. Gas fireplaces and electric fireplaces may require little to no hearth or surround, although incorporating these elements into your design may offer a more authentic look and appeal for your room.
Hearths and surrounds can incorporate a wide variety of materials just be sure and choose the right material, in the correct thickness for heat transfer protection, and make sure it’s installed correctly. Make sure there is adequate weight support beneath the fireplace and hearth area to support the fireplace, venting system and hearth/surround materials. A fireproof underlayment may be needed in some installations. Here are some materials you may consider for hearths and surrounds:
Brick or brick veneers
Stone, stone veneers or cultured stone
Slate, marble, granite & solid surface materials
Metallic surfaces such as stainless steel or copper
Mantels and Trim
Your mantel and trim choice may have the greatest impact on the aesthetic design of your fireplace. A grand mantel can take a standard fireplace from ordinary to exquisite! Many home owners choose to allot more of their budget for the fireplace installation into the mantel than any other part of the project, so consider how the mantel will affect your overall look and costs. The mantel is installed to from the surround and provide a finished look. Detailed mantels are most often used in homes with a traditional design. The mantel includes decorative vertical trim that sits on the fireplace hearth and most often includes a mantel shelf.
Make sure the mantel is installed to allow sufficient clearances to amply meet the fireplace manufacturer’s instructions. Deep shelves, for example, can present challenges with wood burning fireplaces as the overhang can cause fire hazards due to the excessive rising heat.
Mantels are available in a huge variety of materials, styles and designs:
Looking for a very contemporary design? Contemporary designs use simple lines to create a harmonious feel, or exciting textures and patterns that might not be enhanced by use of a mantel or shelf. In a contemporary design, consider using a simple trim the merely finishes off the edges of your surround.
I have the perfect design in mind! I know just how it should look and I’m ready to go!
Part 5: THE NUTS AND BOLTS OF FIREPLACE INSTALLATION & PLANNING
The complexity of your fireplace design and installation will determine how much help the average do-it-yourselfer may participate in the project.
Plan, Plan and Check Your Plans Again!
Does the fireplace offer the features you most want?
Can your home accommodate any required venting needs?
Do you have adequate space for the fireplace plus the needed framing and hearth required for this model?
What hearth and surround will you use?
Have you chosen a mantel that meets clearance requirements?
We recommend that you draw your fireplace project on paper and plan all dimensions very carefully. A great next step is to use newspaper and create a template on your floor and wall so that you can visually see the amount of space that will be allotted to your new fireplace installation, how close furniture will be to the new fireplace, etc.
Buy your fireplace and find your contractors
Now that you’ve chosen your fireplace, your surround, hearth and mantel, what’s next?
Purchase from a retailer or supplier that meets your individual needs. You may even find that a single store can help with everything you need: the fireplace, venting, mantel and surround plus the installers to get the whole job done for you. Or you may need to buy from several sources to get all the materials needed for the project. Buy from the store(s) that offer the technical support and product selection that you most desire.
Framing and sheetrock will probably be needed. Is this a job you can do yourself, or is a carpenter or handyman required? Make sure framing allows not only the proper opening for the fireplace but the hearth and mantel as well.
If you’re installing a gas fireplace, make sure you have a licensed tradesman to run gas lines. Arrange for delivery of the LP gas tank or connection of gas lines to your home if you’re adding a gas fireplace to a home that doesn’t already have gas appliances in use. Gas service may include a wait from a few days to several weeks, so plan early!
After the framing is done, the fireplace is installed. Check building code requirements and make sure you or the contractor apply for the permit and have the required inspections done to help assure the fireplace is installed safely and correctly. Installation of a wood or gas burning fireplace, the venting system and the gas lines are jobs best left to a professional. A safety inspection is performed after the fireplace is installed, checking for proper clearances to framing, proper installation of the venting system and proper installation of gas lines.
After the framing inspection is done, you may install sheetrock, surround and hearth materials, and the mantel. This part of the project may be done by talented homeowners, or may be left in the hands of tradesmen specializing in the materials you’ve chosen such as tile installers, carpenters, general contractors or talented handy-man companies.
After your fireplace installation is complete, a final inspection by the building inspector is required for gas or wood burning fireplaces. This helps assure that another tradesman has not covered combustible areas of the fireplace with surround materials (such as covering vents on the fireplace with tile) and that the hearth and mantel are installed with proper clearances. Final gas inspections are also done at this time, perhaps by a different inspector.
After final inspections are done, follow your manufacturer’s instructions for break-in use. This usually involves small, low fires that help cure paint and refractory materials used on gas and wood burning fireplaces. Review use and safety instructions with everyone in the home who will be operating the new fireplace.
Now uncork the wine, call your friends and family, light a fire and enjoy! Your new fireplace will add a special warmth to a chilly evening. You’ve made a great investment in your home’s value and to your quality of life.
This article copyrighted by THE FIREPLACE CHANNEL
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