This fire pit by EP Henry features bench seating and walls made of Dakota Blend Coventry Stone. (photo courtesy of EP Henry, www.ephenry.com)
Cavemen, cowboys and campers have always warmed to the notion of a communal fire.
Now, outdoor fire features are igniting on the home front, from chimineas and fire pits to fireplaces and cocktail tables that can be converted to fire bowls.
Masonry fireplaces have become an integral part of outdoor entertaining in the luxury home market. They’re frequently combined with such niceties as open-air kitchens and pizza ovens, says Tim Dewson, president of Dewson Construction Company in Wilmington.
“People are always looking for reasons to get outside and enjoy their yards,” he says. “A fireplace or a fire pit allows people to spend time outdoors earlier in the year and to extend the summer into fall.”
Carol Christensen, casual furniture buyer for Waterloo Gardens in Wilmington and three locations in Pennsylvania, says nearly all of the company’s upper-end hardscaping projects include a fire element.
“Gathering around the fire pit has become a social event,” Christensen says. “Couples can get together for drinks, and making s’mores is a great way to get your kids to spend time with you.”
For centuries, masonry was the only option for an outdoor fireplace. Recently, manufacturers introduced prefabricated fireboxes constructed from stainless steel. The boxes serve as a durable base for both wood-burning and gas fireplaces and cost about $1,500. The homeowner can then specify the surround to be built around the firebox, typically stone, brick or stucco.
Another innovation is “crystal fire,” a circular marble-top cocktail table that can be readily converted to either a wine cooler or a fire pit fueled with natural or propane gas.
“When you lift the lazy Susan in the middle, you can either put in ice for drinks or light a fire that glows through multi-colored glass,” Christensen says. “It’s absolutely stunning.”
Expect to pay about $1,500 for the unit. Christensen says the most popular configuration is to surround the table with four large, club-style patio chairs.
“In the morning, you can put your feet up on the table and read the newspaper,” she says. “It’s about enjoying the outdoors without having to compromise on comfort.”
Choosing a fire feature requires a balance of aesthetics, practicality and safety. The choice is sometimes dictated by local ordinances, so make certain to check before you begin a project.
First, consider the scale of your property, as well as your personal style of entertaining.
“A fireplace throws off a lot of heat,” Dewson says. “A fire pit is more like a place for toasting marshmallows.”
Both can be equipped with cast-iron racks for cooking. But before you toss on the steaks, be aware that spattered grease can stain the stonework.
Dewson has built free-standing fireplaces that warm veritable outdoor rooms, complete with built-in seating with storage for wood underneath and a pergola overhead.
The fireplace is almost always constructed from the same stone or brick as the house, with hardscaping in a complimentary or contrasting material. A recent project combines a fieldstone fireplace with a patio of bluestone, all accented with a medallion of antique pavers.
That project, designed by Zach Davis of Davis Young Associates in Yorklyn, includes such details as a chimneypot on top of the fireplace to mirror the one on the house. A salvaged mill stone serves as a raised hearth.
“When we design a fireplace for a stately home, we try to make it look old and substantial,” Davis says. “And we usually elevate the hearth so everyone can see the flame.”
Raised units provide the added benefit of being much easier to clean and maintain, he notes. Wood-burning fire pits also should be equipped with a cover.
An outdoor fireplace by Dewson.
“If it rains after a fire, they tend to look a bit messy,” he says.
Dewson notes that adding a fireplace to a patio adjoining a house is less complicated if the new fireplace is sited opposite an existing hearth.
“The chimney is already there, and both fireplaces can share it,” he says.
A clay chiminea is a less expensive alternative, typically less than $500. It’s also relatively easy to move and doesn’t require professional installation. Popularized in Mexico, it evokes a pleasant Southwestern sensibility.
Still, there’s some extra work involved. You will have to cut logs into small lengths in order to fit them inside the base of the unit. In cold weather, store the chiminea indoors to prevent cracking.
Cast-iron chimineas are more durable, but aren’t moved easily, so give serious thought to placement. Like fireplaces and fire pits, chimineas can be equipped with gas. Gas chimineas can include realistic-looking ceramic logs.
“They’re vent free, so you can enjoy a gas chiminea indoors or outdoors,” says Linda McCreary of Fireplace Specialties in Selbyville.
A wood-burning chiminea should be stationed only on a stone surface because of the risk of fire. The same goes for fire pits and fireplaces.
If you want to incorporate a fire feature into a wood deck, gas is the only way to go from a safety standpoint. Gas is also more convenient than wood. No one has to split logs, stack kindling or shovel ashes. It’s a better choice in an urban setting or any place where neighbors are in close proximity.
A wood-fueled blaze also can be unpredictable, especially in an open fire pit. “If the wind is blowing, you can get smoke in your eyes,” Dewson says.
Still, he says consumers are evenly divided over gas and wood. That’s because nothing replaces the crackle, smell and primal appeal of the genuine article.
Flammable gel packs are a third alternative. “The amount of gel depends on the size of the unit,” McCreary says. “A small fire would require only one container of gel. A larger unit might require three.”
Expect to pay $10,000 and up for a professionally designed and installed masonry fire pit. An outdoor entertaining area with a fireplace, pergola and patio could cost $50,000.
But that doesn’t mean homeowners of more modest means are out in the cold. Target sells more than 60 models, ranging from a $49 stainless steel pagoda-style portable fireplace to a $600 circular stone table with a copper fire pit insert. Home Depot sells a $3,400 stand-alone outdoor wood-burning fireplace that can be converted to gas.
Never light a wood-burning fire pit or chiminea in a garage or other enclosed space due to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Insulate the bowl of a metal or clay chiminea with 3 to 4 inches of fine gravel or sand. Build only small fires in a clay chiminea the first five times you use it to prevent the clay from cracking.
Don’t place a wood-burning fire pit near outbuildings, trees, wood fences or other flammable materials.
Don’t burn chemically treated wood.
Use kindling, dry logs and newspaper to start a fire. Never use gasoline or other flammable fluids.
Don’t leave a blaze in a fireplace or fire pit unattended. That goes for gas units as well as wood-burning ones.
Don’t move a chiminea or fire pit for at least 24 hours after use as they retain heat.
Check to see if there are any local ordinances or guidelines concerning outdoor fire units.