Firepits, fireplaces, and fire elements are in demand.
Shortly after the events that shook our country in September of 2001, the face of residential landscaping transformed. With people suddenly afraid to travel, they dipped into their portfolios and began investing in their homes. Resort-like features were being incorporated in backyards as homeowners created their own private outdoor living oases. The term “staycation” became part of our everyday vernacular.
Over the past two decades these outdoor spaces continued to evolve. Then in 2020, the COVID pandemic reignited the push for families to enjoy the outdoors surrounding their homes. Once again, travel was down and severely limited. People craved social interaction, but were afraid to have guests in their homes. As a result, outdoor rooms became a sound investment and many interior features were brought outside. These exterior living spaces now include shade structures, upholstered couches and sofas, outdoor entertainment (such as televisions and audio systems), and of course, fire features.
Due to their rising popularity, fire elements top the trend surveys for landscape design. They’re a “hot” commodity and, as a result, can increase a home’s value—especially when compared to homes lacking these features.
With today’s variety of fire elements available for residential garden spaces, professionals in the landscape space are tasked with the specifics of design considerations, fuel types, and safety factors. And the first thing we must look at when planning to add a fire feature often addresses the homeowner’s most pressing question: “Where can I put my fire feature?”
This might be more complex than it first appears. You must consider the spatial arrangement of the outdoor room (existing or planned furniture), proximity to the home or other structures, and prevailing winds at the site. The design should also adhere to local land use regulations. When considering land use regulations, be aware that most municipal departments consider structures with a footing to be a building structure. Zoning officials will require that the structure adheres to yard setbacks and coverage calculations. Health departments or sanitarians will want to ensure that the structure is the appropriate distance from the septic system. Building officials will be concerned with the structural design, distance to combustibles, fuel line depths, pressure tests and ignition sources as well as the use of licensed tradesmen. Begin with the basics of good design and a thorough site analysis and design feasibility.
Besides location, the next most pressing question from clients tends to be: “What’s it going to look like?” At Kent Greenhouse & Gardens, we draw inspiration from the home itself, the style and aesthetics of the architectural features of the home, any unique features in the landscape, as well as the homeowner’s individual tastes when the time comes to select materials to craft the fire element. This design step helps identify the type of fire feature that will best fit the space and client’s needs. There are three primary types of fire elements to consider: firepits, fireplaces, and fire accents.
Types Of Fire Elements
Firepits. Firepits generally provide a more casual and relaxed atmosphere. They are easy to use and install, while providing multiple viewing and warming angles. Traditionally built of masonry components, firepits can be permanently installed to the space or prefabricated models can be purchased that can be portable and moved around the space. Firepits are generally less expensive than full stack chimneys. One disadvantage of firepits is that they can be a little messy and sometimes the smoke can be overwhelming.
Fireplaces. Fireplaces, on the other hand, offer visually stimulating views even when not in use. When designed appropriately, they have a better draw and the smoke is less intrusive for guests. However, since the firebox is open to one side, it can limit the fire visibility from multiple points of the yard. With a chimney stack penetrating a roof structure, though, they have the advantage of being integrated into covered porches/rooms and pergolas or pavilions. The technical components of proper construction make them more expensive and more time consuming to install. In the Northeast, we recommend frost-protected footings and for larger structures, the consultation of a structural engineer.
Fire accents. Fire accents, such as fire tables or fire bowls, are clean burning, easy to use in a controlled atmosphere, and can be integrated into almost any hardscape. They are, however, limited to noncombustible fuel fires and their nontraditional style is often associated with more modern design.
Both fireplaces and firepits can be wood burning or run-on natural gas or liquid pro-pane. Wood consumption is the most com-mon. It’s an easy resource in most regions and can be integrated into yard clean up by burning fallen limbs or sticks. Some regions, however, have bans on wood burning structures for smoke and/or wildfire threat. Wood burning fires can also be messy and smoky and since they require time to set up and burn out, they are not “spontaneous.”
Natural gas or liquid propane are gaining in popularity. Some structures today have very realistic burners and ceramic log sets that can appear like a traditional wood burning fire. These fuel sources are easy to use, allow impromptu use without planning, and can easily be turned off when it’s time to retire for the night. The appliances burn clean and there is no smoky smell which can be a positive or a negative depending on the client’s preference. Without sparks and embers, they tend to be safer during times of drought or high wildfire risk.
Unless using a portable fuel supply, such as a barbeque cylinder, the initial construction of natural gas or propane firepits or fireplaces can be more expensive. Trenching from the fuel source, licensed plumbers, and municipal inspections should all be planned into the design solution and construction timeline. Additionally, the fuel consumed is an operating cost to be considered by the client. Liquid propane and natural gas are often confused by homeowners. However, they are very different in their “state” and as a result, require different construction methods. If you are unfamiliar with these methods, you must consult a professional that is familiar and can guide your design or construction.
When it comes to safety, it goes without saying that you can never be too careful. We encourage our customers to establish “rules” of the fire element. We advocate adult supervision and to treat the fire element like a pool in terms of safety. We prepare them to answer: Who is authorized to tend the fire? How much fuel is appropriate? Where is the nearest water source? We also emphasize that the surrounding environment should be cleared of foliage and leaf litter. When safety is a priority, everyone can truly enjoy the space.
All throughout history, fire has served as a natural place for people to gather. Humans are drawn to congregate around a roaring flame and share stories, form bonds, and be together as one with nature. How lucky are we, in the design-build field, to be able to take something so fundamentally primitive and elevate it to be a cohesive component in our clients’ homes?
Brian Cossari PLA, ASLA is the director of the Kent Greenhouse & Gardens branch of Hoffman Landscapes. Kent Greenhouse & Gardens, based in Kent, CT since 1973, provides landscaping services ranging from full service landscape maintenance to landscape architecture and design-build construction projects.