28 Feb Designing a Concrete Fireplace – Part 1: It’s Not Easy Being Grey
This is part one in a series of posts about designing fireplace mantels, surrounds, tiles and other fire features with precast concrete. I hope to share with you some of the appreciation for this fantastic material that I have gained over the last fifteen years, as well as provide some tips and info for designers and homeowners who are considering designing a concrete fireplace.
In the timeline of architecture and interior design, the use of concrete as a fine interior finish is a relatively recent phenomenon. Though widely used in construction for its incredible physical properties, concrete’s acceptance as an aesthetic finish, for the most part, has been less universal. The reasons for this probably have something to do with its greyness, its ubiquity in oppressive urban settings, and the fact that it is treated as rough and functional: something to be walked or driven on rather than, say, snuggled up in front of.
But as is the way of human creativity, leave us alone long enough with anything and we seem to be able to make it into something edible… or beautiful, and concrete is no exception. Concrete, when treated with a craftsman’s touch, can be as fine a finish as any of the other, more established materials like stone or wood. And with a careful combination of ingredients and colour, concrete has a beautiful aesthetic personality that is truly its own.
In the spectrum of finish materials, concrete occupies a unique place. On one hand, it is highly manufactured: it can be mixed, formed and shaped from a precise combination of raw materials in a controlled environment. On the other hand, its formation is largely uncontrollable: the mixing action is chaotic and random, its chemical reaction never happens exactly the same way twice, and it is affected by every minute environmental fluctuation. When casting in concrete, there is always an element, however small, of the unpredictable. This is what makes concrete challenging to create with, but also what gives it its unique beauty. No two pieces can ever be exactly the same and each casting literally captures a moment in time. It is this ‘uncontrollable’ element that gives concrete its organic, natural feel.
For the aesthetics of a fireplace, concrete is ideal. Fireplaces were traditionally built as a home’s primary heat source and hence, were built in the centre or core of a house with materials that have high thermal mass (and low flammability) qualities: heavy, brick, masonry, and stone. As heat sources and as cozy gathering places, fireplaces occupied exalted places in homes of the past and they were dressed up appropriately to be substantial and stately. It is no surprise then, that contemporary fireplace designs that convey this sense of weight, solidity, and timelessness just feel right. Concrete, intrinsically, communicates mass extremely well, and its organic aesthetic provides a substantial, ‘living’ complement to the primordial fire. When finely crafted, concrete’s clean lines and monolithic palette offer fireplace design an entirely unique, modern aesthetic.
Today, though the need to heat homes with open fire is all but gone, there is still something primal, comforting, and nostalgic about a formal fireplace. And the way a fireplace can focus and integrate into a room can transform living spaces into aesthetic experiences. Finely cast concrete is a modern surfacing medium that conveys the substance and richness of tradition but complements our contemporary sensibilities.
Part Two of “Designing a Concrete Fireplace” we will talk about Colour.