Contemporary Fireplace Design | Paloform
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Contemporary Fireplace Design

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Here is an article that I wrote about fireplace design that appears in the latest issue of New Condo Guide in Toronto:

There are few things more traditional than a hearth at the centre of a home. But the image of sitting around a crackling fire, its warm glow cast on the faces our friends and family, is universally appealing, whether your tastes run to Cape Cod Colonial, industrial loft, or zen minimalism. And even though central heating has been commonplace for the better part of a century, the fireplace still holds a place of honour in our homes, regardless whether we live in a studio apartment on the 22nd floor or a sprawling suburban split-level. Fireplaces are iconic features of domestic design.

Aesthetically, changing technologies have radically altered what is possible in fireplace design. Natural gas, propane, ethanol and even electricity have come to replace the traditional wood burning fire, making for easier installations and flexible placements within modern living spaces. Even many wood-burning fireplace inserts do not require the same masonry structures that were once a fire-safety necessity. Though it is now possible to do just about anything with a fireplace, it is a good idea to remember the traditional role of the hearth within a home when planning a new fireplace. Here are some tips to help you to turn your fireplace into a feature with substance:

1. Choose the right fireplace for your needs.

Consider both the aesthetics and the function. Size is a factor – the fireplace should be proportional to the wall and the space. Also, make sure you obtain the dimensions of the fireplace opening that will be visible after the unit is installed and the wall is finished as the fire “viewing area” is often much smaller than the size of a unit might suggest. If you are retrofitting, determine how much you want the fireplace to project into the room. From the functional side, consider how often you will use the fireplace – how much heat do you want it to provide and is the heat output appropriate for the room size? If you want a large fireplace in a small room, you may be able to work around the heat output by choosing an ethanol fire over natural gas. And speaking of gas, is it available to the location where you want the fireplace? There is a huge range of options so it is a good idea to explore online resources and visit local fireplace dealers for more information.

2. Build it in.

Most contemporary fireplaces can be installed into rooms with minimal modification to the existing structure – some can be even be hung on the wall. The design challenge then, is how to make your fireplace look like a solid, central component of your home, and not an afterthought. Fireplaces tend to look best when they mimic the configurations of traditional masonry structures: when they appear to be built in to the house. Again, there are firebox choices available to suit most needs, including models for rooms with no access to a gas line or exterior venting. If a fireplace must project into a room, consider building floor-to-ceiling, rather than creating a build-out around just the firebox. All fireplace types, regardless of fuel, offer options that can be built right into walls.

3. Use materials that convey mass and substance.

The benefits of installation flexibility come with potential design pitfalls. Where traditional hearths require massive structures by necessity, contemporary fireplaces are the opposite. The aesthetic risk then, is that fireplaces can end up looking insubstantial or even illogical if boxed in drywall. Choosing a material like concrete, stone or even porcelain to clad the wall around the firebox will naturally communicate weight and give a strong material presence to a room.

4. Respect tectonics.

Design elements look best when they appear to obey the basic rules of construction – for example, heavy stone veneer looks out of place floating above an insubstantial wood screen, and even applied motifs like columns and lintels should obey the laws of physics. Although modern materials make for unlimited design options, following the logic of traditional building forms tends to give the best results and helps you to avoid designs that look strange. For example, when cladding a fireplace feature wall in a concrete tile, the tile should go floor-to-ceiling and corner-to-corner when possible and avoid arbitrary breaks. Tile patterns should allow pieces to bear down on each other, and ultimately, the floor. This emulation of a traditional chimney chase will “feel more right” when compared with allowing a fireplace insert determine the structure.

While modern heating and ventilation systems continue to lessen the “need” for fireplaces in homes, our love of the hearth persists and more options exist with greater installation ease and flexibility than ever before – you can now put a fireplace in virtually any room in any house. When designing a fireplace it is useful to remember the hearth’s historic purpose and create a feature that speaks to both substance and style.