You are a king by your own fireside, as much as any monarch in his throne.
--Cervantes, preface to "Don Quixote"
Besides regal, other adjectives that come to mind when describing the wonderful feelings one gets from the hearth are romantic, toasty and cozy. A fireplace is one of the three top features people want in their homes, a desire often brought to the forefront by that very first fall nip in the air.
"People enjoy a fire," says Ted Corvey, head of Tulikivi Group, the North American branch of a Finnish company that manufactures natural stone fireplaces (the name Tulikivi, pronounced too-le-KEE-vee, means firestone). "The fire tends to be the focus of an event, whether it's a party or family gathering. It's the central part of a home. It's not just the visual but the sensual appeal: You can see it, hear it, feel it, smell it."
According to the trade magazine Hearth and Home, roughly 75 percent of those building a new home rank the fireplace as the No. 1 amenity. And according to government housing forecasts and statistics from McGraw Hill, there are fireplaces in about three-fourths of that market.
Architecturally, a fireplace can contribute significantly to the layout of a room. It draws the eye and can serve as a starting point for arranging furniture. It may even divide the space.
Stylistically it can be traditional, with a mantel of wood or stone reflecting designs from 18th and 19th century French, English and neoclassical motifs, and Victorian, Colonial, art nouveau and art deco influences. Or it can be contemporary, a streamlined unit integrated into a wall.
"The fireplace industry is paralleling most other home furnishings industries [in terms of design]," says Glenn Thompson, vice president of sales and marketing for the Majestic Co., a manufacturer of gas fireplaces. "The consumer is becoming more sophisticated, moving the product mix upscale."
Such design innovations as see-through fireplaces, peninsulas, coves, bays, islands and even installations that accommodate windows above and to the sides, have added to the variety of decorative fireplace options in the last four years. Most of these sophisticated units are showing up at the high end, retailing from $1,500 to $4,000 and up vs. the typical price of $300 to $600.
But design isn't the only improvement of recent years. Technology has been driven by environmental issues as well, including all aspects of pollution and waste disposal, particularly the way emissions may contribute to the greenhouse effect. Fireplaces must meet the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EPA) regulations for clean air.
"It's changing the makeup of the traditional fireplace," says Mr. Thompson, "moving manufacturers to cleaner wood-burning technology as well as gas technology."
The EPA took an active role in 1988, requiring wood stoves, which started to gain ground in the '70s during the energy crisis, to meet certain emissions standards. As of July, non-certified stoves could no longer be sold. The EPA publishes a list of certified wood stoves (see accompanying box).
What most people know as a traditional wood-burning fireplace pulls about 90 percent of the heat generated by the flames up the open flue and out the chimney. Airtight glass screens slow down the heat loss by eliminating drafts from the room up the chimney.
To improve efficient convection (hot air) heating in chimney fireplaces, options include placing an insert within. Or a free-standing stove may be installed in the fireplace chamber (the stovepipe is run up through the chimney). The trouble with the latter option is that heat that otherwise might radiate into the room is lost from the sides and back of the stove.
Gas has become an attractive alternative for those who don't like to haul wood, who prefer instant light and heat (there is even a remote-control option) and who aren't fond of cleanup.
The blue flame characteristic of gas fireplaces is not appealing to wood-burning die-hards, who don't want what they consider to be an artificial look. So some manufacturers have responded by producing a more "realistic" golden flame.
As far as style is concerned, there's a tremendous range. For period looks, you might try an architectural salvage house, or an antique shop.
Fourth Bay/Condor is an excellent source for a Victorian look. Its most popular seller is made of hand-cast iron and tiles imported VTC from England. It is available as an insert and as a factory-built fireplace that burns wood, coal or charcoal briquettes. A natural gas and propane-burning unit also is available. The cost ranges from $2,100 to $3,000.