Focusing on your Fireplace

- Thursday, July 01, 2010

OK, I know July is an odd month to write a column about fireplaces. With temperatures currently reaching triple digits I doubt anyone in the Lowcountry is pondering lighting a fire at home to ward off a chill. In our mild climate, it is rare that we ever need to actually light a fire at home for warmth, more often than not it is to set a mood. There is something appealing about the sight of flickering flames and the sound of crackling logs. In fact, I have been known to crank the air-conditioning during my annual Christmas party just so I could light the fireplaces in my parlor and dining room for added ambience and Holiday cheer. So, since I am currently helping a client design the fireplaces in her new home under construction in Colleton River, I figured the topic was a good one to expound upon.

No longer used solely for practical uses like heating or cooking, a fireplace is the fundamental symbol of home, the domestic core of warmth and nourishment. It has become a desirable architectural feature. Those of us lucky enough to one or more fireplaces in our homes treat them with a particular reverence. We adorn the mantelpieces with prized possessions, pose for photographs in front of them, and decorate them each season in an almost shrine-like manner.

There is no single, correct location for a fireplace in your house. We typically see fireplaces in living rooms and family rooms where they provide a unique focal point and anchor a room architecturally. Other popular locations are in a study or den or library, often flanked by built-in bookshelves. Over the years I have worked on houses featuring a fireplace in the master bedroom or even the master bath, which takes the idea of tub-side candles a step further. Including a fireplace in these spaces is rarely a necessity but, given the chance – and the budget – most of us would like to have one, even if we never burn a fire in it. The effect can be dramatic even when no fire is burning.

When designing a fireplace it is important to look at all elements of its construction. Think of the fireplace is part of the architecture of a room rather than just pure decoration. It should match the style of the house and be proportioned to the scale of the room. Consider the myriad options for the materials used for its components: the hearth, the firebox lining, the size of the firebox and shape of its opening, the mantel or surround. The possibilities and finishes are endless. Wood, stone tile, brick, and metal can be used in all combinations to create a unique and personal focal point in a room.

For the Colleton River project the architect had already specified a generously scaled fireplace, centered between two banks of windows in the greatroom. It was up to my client and I to decide on the execution of materials. The style of the home is casual and relaxed; a raised cottage that has the look of an old cabin or family retreat that has been added-on to over generations. The vibe inside will be shabby-chic and inviting, reflecting the lush nature of the land and water on display outside the many windows. My client affectionately refers to her new home as “the fish camp” and “tree house” when describing her desires for the décor.

An antique finish brick was chosen to line the fireplace, ensuring an instant patina for the firebox to evoke years of use. A raised hearth was desired to provide bench-height auxiliary seating and to bring the firebox higher for better viewing. A slab of blue-green slate, echoing the lichen on the trees outside, will serve as the surface for the hearth. And a mantel will be made from a reclaimed wood beam to tie in with pieces of driftwood found on the property.

My client is scheduled to move into her new home in December of this year. I am not sure if the weather outside will dictate the need for a fire in her new fireplace to keep warm, but I would not be surprised if she fires it up to roast marshmallows as dessert for a dinner party. It is going to be that kind of house, casual, relaxing, and fun.

CAPTION PHOTO #1 The double-height spaces that appear so often in today’s homes require a strong architectural statement which a tall fireplace and chimney can provide.

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