Fireplaces: Which Way to Go?

Cover photo courtesy of Robb & Stucky’s Boca Raton showroom


It’s a main focal point of many living spaces, indoors and outdoors, but the options from which to choose today are dizzying. We’re here to help.


Photo courtesy of Jill Buckner.

A fireplace can make a big difference in attracting buyer attention whether the purchaser plans to live in the home or use it as an investment and target renters or buyers. The reason is simple. A well-designed, functioning fireplace becomes an immediate focal point and connotes warmth and coziness, even if the heat given off by some kinds is more of a glow than a way to raise the room’s temperature.


Atlanta designer Eric Rothman, who runs Rothman & Rothman, a design firm, with his wife Jenny, installs at least one fireplace in 85 percent of the homes they work on—and sometimes several—which may mean a fireplace goes into a living area, kitchen, master bedroom, and outdoors.


The main challenge with fireplaces today is which type to choose since there are almost too many, from log to gas, electric, gel, wood or pellet stove indoors, and fireplaces or fire pits outside. St. Louis designer Kelly Starks Schellert, ASID, of Ceanii Artful Interiors, says the choice should hinge on factors such as budget, ease of use, maintenance, and the style of the home. “Purists may want to go with a log-burning design while someone wanting something more avant-garde might mix a modern gas fireplace in a period house,” she says.


We talked with these designers about various options, as well as Rick Vlahos, Executive Director of the National Fireplace Institute in Arlington, Va., which administers industry certifications.


Log-burning. Rothman says he has few Millennial clients who ask for this type of fireplace if they’re building or remodeling, and if an existing house does include a log design they’re likely to want to convert it to gas. The reason is the effort needed to buy the right type of seasoned logs, light and tend the fire, install glass doors to trap the flame and add a fan heat exchanger to blow heat back into the room since so much is likely to escape up the chimney. Rothman also has found that many clients shy from using them because they don’t like the necessary clean-up of removing soot or ashes and hiring a chimney sweep once a year or so to clean and inspect to be sure it’s safe to build a fire.


Yet, the log model appeals, particularly in certain parts of the country such as the Midwest, Texas, Oklahoma and out West in Colorado, Vlahos says. It holds less appeal in the Northeast and Pacific Northwest where home owners tend to be more energy conscious, he says. Prices for a masonry fireplace run “all over the place,” Vlahos says, generally from $5,000 to $15,000 but easily can be much more. Know, however, that a factory-built design usually costs a little less than one custom built. However, there are many variables such as the type of material to finish the fireplace—brick, stone, rock, marble, granite, porcelain tiles or planks, Vlahos says. The size and complexity of design will also be factors, as will other finishing details such as the mantle, glass doors and hearth. And for any finished design, a home owner should try to determine how much “serious heat” it may produce, Vlahos says.


Gas. Starting in the 1990s, gas became much more popular and now represents about 70 percent of the market, Vlahos says. And there are many reasons for the uptick: 1) ease and cleanliness of having a fire with just the flick of a light switch or remote control device as long as there’s a gas line into the home or one that can be added; 2) the resulting glow that looks real even if there’s no smell; 3) the warmth it adds to a room and which stays rather than escapes; and 4) the sheer attractiveness of the sleek designs that have emerged to house the flame—often long and narrow or square—or even freestanding boxes such as those from Spark.


Evanston, Ill, designer Rebecca Pogonitz of GOGO Design Group recently transformed one client’s townhouse in the Chicago area by covering black metal surrounding the firebox in the seating area of an open floor plan with sleek, wavy porcelain planks from Porcelanosa, which she stacked close together. “I wanted to add an organic feeling that would work with their furnishings,” she says. The fireplace already had a gas insert. The total cost for materials and labor was close to $5,000.


Such designs can be built in one of two ways. The first is known as direct vent, which borrows air from the outside—through a wall, chimney, or roof—for combustion. It provides some heat. This type represents about 80 percent of the gas market, Vlahos says. The second, less popular but also less costly type is ventless, which provides less heat but works without needing an outside air source. Not all multifamily buildings, however, approve ventless models due to concern about carbon monoxide not being thoroughly removed. In general, Rothman pegs the direct vent option at anywhere between $8,000 to $10,000 and the ventless at between $5,000 and $7,000, but those reflect high-end designs in the Atlanta market.


Electric fireplace. These may appeal to a much smaller percentage of home owners, but they deserve consideration. This is especially true since manufacturers have improved them greatly over the last decade so the flames appear more authentic, Vlahos says. They also don’t produce an emission, so they can be used in any room, can be easily adjusted and don’t require venting. Designer Richard Ramus with Robb & Stucky in Boca Raton, Fla., likes electric models for many projects he works on and pegs the cost at a lower $2,000 to $3,500, though that may go up if more pricey stones such as marble are selected for surrounds. And St. Louis designer Schellert adds another reason—the safety factor and peace of mind they bring.


Gel fuel. Instead of a gas or electric line, these designs are “powered” by liquid alcohol or gel fuel, says Vlahos. “Think of the old-fashioned sterno can you used when camping and this is very similar,” he says. The upsides are that they don’t have to be vented and are affordable at between $500 and $700 for the unit with the cost of liquid alcohol or gel extra, Vlahos says.


Wood stove. Although this type of unit may conjure images of Paul Bunyan and rugged looking cabins, the reality is that there are many modern versions that use pellets instead of logs, a byproduct of sawdust. And they can efficiently heat a room or house, especially a compact design, Vlahos says. Some of the newer models are very modern and hip. Rothman is working on a project where he plans to suspend a wood stove from the ceiling.


Photo courtesy of Michael Glassman.

Outdoor choices. With the increase in popularity of outdoor rooms rather than just landscaped yards, many home owners have requested fireplaces to extend use into more seasons and night and contribute greater ambience, says Sacramento, Calif., landscape designer Michael Glassman. At the costlier upper end are custom masonry designs constructed from scratch on site that may cost anywhere from $10,000 to $15,000. But there are also handsome prefabricated designs that can cut the cost in half, says Vlahos. Many models can work with logs or a gas line, Glassman says. The one caveat is to place a tall design, so it doesn’t obstruct a great view, Rothman says.


Photo courtesy of Michael Glassman.

A gas unit is easier to install and use if there’s an outside wall. Yet, another choice is an even less costly fire pit—often a few hundred dollars—that also offers the benefit of being able to place chairs or a bench all around to create a camp-fire feeling. Pits can also be permanent and built in or portable, and the units can work either with logs or a gas starter or be fitted for both for greater flexibility. One caveat is to use a cover for safety, especially when children are present, Glassman says.


Before you decide…Vlahos stresses the importance of buying from a reputable dealer or store and using a skilled installer. Ideally, both are certified. Any fireplace should also be regularly serviced. The National Fireplace Institute offers area contacts if you go online to its site.

Comment List

  • Rebecca Pogonitz 03 / 03 / 2018 Reply

    This is a really informative and easy to read article, that covered all the bases of fireplace knowledge. It’s an honor to be featured in such a helpful article. Thank you for including GOGO design group!

  • Kelly Schellert 03 / 03 / 2018 Reply

    Fabulous article!!

  • Janet Janowiak 07 / 03 / 2018 Reply

    Great list of the various fireplace options and I appreciate that you included the price ranges.

  • J Belk 30 / 05 / 2018 Reply

    These are beautiful fireplaces! Thanks for the info!

Leave a Reply