A popular way to extend time outside during the colder months in the Midlands is to include an outdoor living space in your landscape. The popularity of outdoor living areas increases every year, and one major component of the most enjoyable outdoor areas is a fireplace, fire pit or chiminea. These elements become major focal points of the outdoor room and can add ambience and functionality. Before building a fireplace or fire pit, check with local authorities, building inspectors and the fire department about local codes and regulations.
Fire Pits from A to Z
Remember gathering rocks during campouts to make a ring around the fire? A fire pit is a more elaborate version of those campsite fire rings. Fire pits can be permanent or temporary, simple or elaborate, and they can be made from natural stone, modular stone, brick or even an old syrup bowl. A brick circular wall 18 to 24 inches tall with four- to five-inch pebbles in the bottom of the circle can suffice as a fire pit. If there is already an existing patio, a circle can be cut out of the patio, large stones placed in the inner part of the circle and sand or pebbles placed on top of the exposed earth and voila, you have a fire pit! Handsome and economical kits can be found at most large home improvement stores and can be assembled in a few hours.
Be careful about placement and check zoning laws. A wood burning fire pit offers the natural sights, sounds, smells and heat of a fire that gas logs cannot duplicate. However, it can produce a lot of smoke, so it should be built without a roof or covering over it so that the smoke can escape.
A less labor-intensive approach would be to install a natural gas line along with gas logs, which offers some advantages over wood burning pits. Gas logs produce no ashes or embers and may not require a special building permit. Disadvantages are that they do not burn as hot, and they definitely lack the charm of a wood-burning unit. Fire pits outfitted with gas logs should be covered when not in use and must be waterproof. To extend the use of the fire pit during the warmer months, have a circular stone or metal top fitted to the opening of the fire pit. This can serve as a wonderful table when it is too warm to burn a fire. Or have a grill custom designed to fit over the fire for a great way to roast oysters or grill steaks.
Fireplaces: The Stars of the Outdoor Living Room
Just like in many favorite interior rooms, the outdoor fireplace is the main focal point of many outdoor living spaces. They are identical to the ones built inside, consisting of a firebox, chimney, flue and hearth. Stone, brick and stucco are popular materials to use for the façade of the fireplace, but a complete fireplace with all the trimmings can be an expensive proposition. Make sure the design is sound and is in harmony with the style of the house and garden. The fireplace can be wood burning or contain gas logs, and a mantel can also be included to display plants, candles or any other decorative ornaments. Be certain that they are heavy enough or carefully secured so that they do not fly off during a strong wind. Many people install flat screen televisions above their mantels. If this is an important component of your outdoor living space, make sure that they are installed where they will not get wet or retain moisture. The fall and winter months can be so mild that using these outdoor rooms and lighting a fire is very popular during football and basketball seasons.
Most wood-burning fireplaces require building permits. Contact the local municipality to learn about setback restrictions and other local regulations. Construction may not be able to begin until a building permit is obtained.
What are outdoor fireplaces made of?
Many homeowners match the design of their outdoor fireplace to the style of their house. This is certainly not mandatory but does create a more harmonious environment. Brick offers a more traditional façade. Stacked or veneered stone can lend a rustic feel, while stucco and man-made stone can give the fireplace a more modern or contemporary look. There are also very attractive pre-fabricated modular kits available with many options for all budgets, including wood burning or gas. The kits run the gamut from very simple designs to more ornate designs. Some have log holding bins attached on both sides of the fire box which make stoking the fire much more convenient. These structures also have durable stainless steel parts so they can withstand the outdoor elements. One trick to make kit fireplaces look more authentic is to paint the inside of the firebox with barbeque black spray paint. It makes the fireplace look less modular and more like a masonry fireplace.
Chimineas: The Original Outdoor Fireplace
Chimineas may be the original outdoor fireplace. These pear-shaped fireplaces are made of clay and, therefore, are very fragile. Allegedly chimineas were first produced hundreds of years ago by Mexican tribes and used for warmth and cooking. Modern types can be made from metal or steel, but the original ones are made from molded clay. They consist of a rounded bowl at the bottom with an opening for the wood and fire and an elongated neck that acts as a chimney. Often they are mounted on metal stands that keep them from freezing and breaking in cold and rainy weather. A quick and easy way to extend the life of a chiminea is to add a three- to four-inch layer of sand in the fire bowl to insulate it and keep it from cracking when exposed to high heat.
Because chimineas have long necks, smoke is directed upwards and does not blow into the eyes of those gathered around it. Make sure to buy one with a properly fitted top for the chimney, and place the top on the chimney when it is not in use so that rain and water will not get down into the bowl. These quirky fire pits are portable and very economical, but there are not many design options. Choose one with the least decoration so that, hopefully, it will blend into the background of the garden and become a wonderful focal point with a warm blazing fire.
Chase away the cold air and cloudy skies of winter by adding an outdoor fireplace, fire pit or chiminea to your landscape. If possible, build a patio or paved area around the fire feature large enough to add chairs or sofas. Imagine sitting outside on a chilly evening in front of the fireplace, fire pit or chiminea — this is outdoor living at its best. These three options will allow you, your family and friends to extend the time spent outside as the temperatures drop.