Design for Life: How Green is My Hearth? An Efficient Fireplace

Carol wonders how to make her fireplace more efficient.


Architect Kathy Rogers replaced an inefficient brick fireplace with a symbolic hearth, which displays candles or a sculpture.

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I've been sitting and gazing into my fireplace, deep in thought, but things aren't what you might imagine. There's no overstuffed chair, no steaming mug of herbal tea. In fact, there's no fire. I'm staring at a carefully constructed concrete facsimile of logs with a gas line running in from the side.

I inherited this contraption with the house my family bought last spring. The fireplace was a selling point, as it is in most houses. There's something about that classic brick shape that draws people together and gives a room a focal point, something to gather around, to anchor the room.

Now I'm considering how I want to make this fireplace both a more efficient heat source and more enjoyable to my eye. I stare at these fake logs and wonder: Why would I rather burn real wood when I don't have my own forest and would have to buy firewood? Can I get sustainably forested logs? And what about the pollution from wood smoke? Aren't healthy forests and cleaner air good reasons to burn gas, not real logs?

Still, these concrete logs really bother me, and I think I know why. I like to create environments that reconnect people with nature, and gas flames licking at unmoved concrete logs just don't do that. I would rather have a genuine gas fire than a fake wood fire. Surely a sculptor could create a beautiful metal grill as a framework on which gas flames could dance and produce heat, light and delight without telling lies.

Besides, my history has taught me to love wood heat. For 11 years, I lived in a rural coastal area where almost everybody heated with wood. We had efficient, heat-producing woodstoves, placed centrally in our homes. We bought firewood from crusty old guys who knew how to manage their forests for sustainable yield; after all, they didn't want to go out of business. Every house I designed had a handy dry place for storing firewood within easy reach of an outside door.

I grew to love having a central hot spot to gather around, a place to warm my hands when I came in from outside. I loved that ongoing winter rhythm of semiconsciously monitoring the state of the burn and stoking the woodstove at intervals. I didn't realize how much I embodied that ritual until I moved back to the city and lived with a thermostatically controlled furnace that required nothing of me.

A hearth by any other name...

Now I'm living in a city where the houses are so close together that wood smoke is a significant cause of winter air pollution. So what are my options? I could close up the flue and turn the fireplace into a symbolic focal point, similar to what architect Kathy Rogers of Sogno Design Group did when she remodeled a house in Kensington, California. The owners wanted to replace a huge, inefficient brick fireplace that dominated the living room with an efficient, clean-burning woodstove in their basement family room, adding an open interior stairway that would allow warm air to rise into the main house.

Rogers removed the original fireplace, but a large chase for the basement woodstove needed to rise up through the living area, creating a new design challenge. "We didn't want to take up space by thickening the wall or creating an ugly chase for the flue," Rogers says. "Instead, we essentially created a beautiful chase-something similar to the original fireplace. We designed a structure that would both contain the flue and act as a symbolic hearth." While Rogers' hearth doesn't actually function as a fireplace, it often displays a sculpture or candelabra. A recycled-copper "firebox" and a surround of recycled-glass tiles complete the feeling of a well-crafted gathering point.

Warm fuzzies

I love Rogers' solution, and I can almost imagine turning my own fireplace into a big, beautiful candleholder. Then again, maybe I want the full blaze. Architect and consultant Terry Cline notes there's something primal about warmth that radiates from a single source-and in Massachusetts, where he lives, that kind of heat means a lot in winter. "We typically refer to a furnace as 'central heating,' but it doesn't feel central at all; it's just uniform monotony," Cline says. "Radiant heat from a central source such as a wood stove maximizes the sense of being cocooned and sheltered from the cold."

I could just retrofit my fireplace with glass doors and outside combustion air to cut down on the amount of air that's sucked out of the house and up the flue. I'm more likely to go with a woodstove insert that burns wood and produces heat more efficiently. And with the recent addition of catalytic converters, the flue gases are fairly clean. (See "Heating Your Home with Wood," page 80.)

Where to get my firewood? In a nice bit of serendipity, I recently had a conversation with a tree surgeon whose bid for trimming the dead wood from our huge heritage oak tree included chipping the wood into mulch and hauling it away. When I asked if he would just drop it in the yard unchipped, he replied that it would be a huge volume of stuff. Fabulous! I'll have leaves for garden mulch, twigs to keep my compost pile aerated and kindling and logs for the fire.

Up in flames

Now I'm faced with another choice: to see the flames or not to see the flames? Woodstoves without glass doors are more efficient, and they provide a marvelous central, radiant warmth. But there's nothing in the world like a view of flames.

Gazing into flames, we fall into a hypnotic reverie. Our minds and bodies fully engage in witnessing the glowing, flickering, licking mystery of fire. When people gather around a fire, staring into the flames and seeing each other's faces lit by the warm glow creates an intimate comfort that has no equivalent. Stories are told. Secrets are shared. Even in silence, people commune with each other. As Gaston Bachelard says in The Psychoanalysis of Fire (Beacon, 1964): "To be deprived of a reverie before a burning fire is to lose the first use and the truly human use of fire."

Everyone makes different choices. Some people love the ease and efficiency of a gas fireplace; a model with glass doors is still a pretty efficient heater. Some enjoy the simplicity of a symbolic hearth or a candle. As for me, I plan to have my flames, my truly central heat and the joy of being warmed by the gifts of my beautiful old oak tree.

Carol Venolia is an eco-architect who is passionate about reuniting humans with the rest of nature. She is the coauthor, with Kelly Lerner, of Natural Remodeling for the Not-So-Green House (Lark Books, 2006), and she codirects the EcoDwelling program at New College of California.