Keeping the home fires burning
Geothermal systems, heat pumps, passive solar designs: they’re all great weapons against winter’s chill, but when it comes to visual charm they pale next to a fireplace.
And judging from the number and variety of fireplaces gracing the homes in the recent Housing Design Awards organized by the Greater Ottawa Home Builders’ Association, we love our charming hearths more than ever.
“We do plenty of fireplaces as part of our home design,” says Friedemann Weinhardt, of Ottawa’s Design First Interiors.
A fireplace with a massive surround of dark marble was part of a renovation project that Weinhardt entered in the awards; the project didn’t win here, but its fabulous bathroom did at the Ontario Home Builders’ Association awards.
The fireplace “is in a large room with a large view (of the Ottawa River), so all the elements needed to be proportional,” he says.
He often treats fireplaces like this as a wall unit, providing a visual anchor for the room.
Weinhardt says other contemporary fireplaces often emphasize the linear rather than height.
That gives homeowners the opportunity for popular design options such as placing a flat screen television above a mantel.
Alan Lester, of Carleton Place-based Karhu Fine Cabinetry & Millwork, who’s not a fan of the television trend, says fireplace surround and mantel design has become simpler and more contemporary over the past few years.
Surrounds, for example, are more likely to echo the slab cabinetry doors that have replaced panel doors in kitchens.
On the other hand, the engineering of those simple designs can be complex as clients request, for example, built-ins around fireplaces to house audio-visual equipment.
One of the biggest changes Lester has seen in the past few years is the shift away from natural wood to coloured lacquer finishes, especially whites and off-whites.
Sprayed-on low-sheen finishes give a clean look that complements both contemporary and classic designs.
When homeowners opt for natural wood, he says they’re as likely to ask for walnut or white oak as for the cherry that’s been all the rage over the past decade.
Lester cautions that combustible materials around a fireplace must conform to building codes for clearances from the heat source. If in doubt, call a fireplace expert to check construction.
As to cost, he says a simple custom-made mantel and surround starts under $2,000 but “the sky’s the limit depending on cabinetry.”
Chuck Mills opted for the less-is-more credo when he designed a classic end-wall fireplace as part of a major renovation of an Ottawa home built in the early part of the 1900s.
The joint project by his firm, Chuck Mills Residential Design & Development, and Crossford Construction won in the $350,000 to $499,999 renovation category at the recent design awards.
The design features a black slate surround for the fireplace and cherry cabinetry with glass-fronted, Shakerdoors built by Louis L’Artisan in Bourget, Ont. Repeated square and rectangular patterns and a balance between horizontal and vertical lines create a restful, reassuring air.
“I tried to keep everything understated because it’s a relatively small room, sort of the classic front parlour, and because of the age of the house,” says Mills.
“The owners wanted a place to display their items from travelling and there was a lack of room in the original house, so I combined those two elements when I designed the fireplace.”
He says that there’s a fireplace in more than 90 per cent of what he builds and there’s no general rule to designing them.
In fact, he was on-site measuring up a new home he’s building when contacted for this story.
Unlike his award-winning renovation, that home will include a massive stone fireplace stretching over 30 feet high in the great room.
Design, in other words, depends on context.
Buyers of production homes also like their cosy flames.
Bruce Nicol, vice-president at Tartan Homes, says gas fireplaces in tract housing have become standard over the past decade thanks in part to falling costs and because they can now be vented outside like a dryer, no longer requiring an expensive, vertical chimney.
That venting also allows them to be placed almost anywhere in a home, from kitchens to bedrooms.
At Cardel Homes, a fireplace has become a de rigueur focal point as the company replaces the traditional living room with an open-concept family room or great room/ kitchen.
Many buyers upgrade the fireplace, spending on average about $2,000, says Cardel’s area sales manager, Harley Wallin.
About half the buyers of Cardel’s Inverness II in Blackstone, for example, have opted for a floor-to-ceiling ceramic tile surround that matches some of the home’s flooring as well as crystal rocks in lieu of imitation logs inside the firebox.
“It’s not at the level of kitchens and ensuites yet, but it is an area where people will spend money,” says Wallin.