Fireplaces Warm Up Patios, Outdoor Rooms

Outdoor hearths offer style with boundless entertainment options, as well as opportunities for builders to provide the finishing touch to an outdoor space.


This fireplace includes speakers and an iPod docking station. Photo courtesy of Cal Spa

This fireplace includes speakers and an iPod docking station. Photo courtesy of Cal Spa

By: Marcia Jedd

Contractors have huge potential to expand their offerings in the growing demand for outdoor rooms. Fireplaces are the perfect epicenter of these spaces; they encourage socializing while taking the chill out of the air.

"Inside or outside the home, the fireplace is an anchor, whether it's on or not," says Ross Johnson, vice president of sales at Fire Stone Home Products , a maker of fireplaces in Burnsville, Minn. He reports more requests for outdoor hearths from gas campfire models on up to a 6-1/2-foot arched Southwest-style fireplace.

Gas or Woodburning? While gas fireplaces and fire pits continue to rise in popularity, Jennifer Cramer-Miller, vice president of sales at L. Cramer Designers Builders in Edina, Minn., notes their custom home clients often want to enjoy real woodburning outdoors. "We have masons build a natural firepit or stone fireplace. People have a real affinity for the beauty of natural stone in a landscaped setting."

For Rhonda Mindrum, designer with Abbotswood Ltd. landscape design firm in Terrace Park, Ohio, the great majority of her landscape projects feature an outdoor kitchen and fireplace. She says gas-assisted woodburning fireplaces help seal the deal for consumers. She subcontracts with masons to build fireplaces and plumbers to install gas lines. Rhonda says gas-assisted fire pits or rings are also popular. She recommends making a fire ring big enough: four to six feet in diameter with a stone sitting ledge or cap about 18 inches off the ground. "That's so the fire won't be so hot to those directly around it."

Rhonda advises contractors to propose amenities around the fireplace. "For example, we'll often add a stone wood box to add charm for real wood-burning fireplaces."

Both Jennifer and Rhonda recommend contractors hire only qualified, experienced professionals to assist in fireplace installation. "These outdoor areas are a big deal and not for the faint of heart," Rhonda says.

Marketing Outdoor Hearths Ross says that many fireplaces such as Fire Stone's modular surround fireplace units are considered permanent fixtures and thus are mortgageable. "With the slowdown of the building industry, a lot of builders are looking to offer something different to give customers. Fireplaces are a top outdoor amenity." He advises builders to point out that outdoor living spaces cost significantly less to build — a fraction of the price of the $200 per square foot required for typical indoor living spaces today.

"In many parts of the country, outdoor fireplaces allow the consumer to extend the season from cool spring nights into fall. The possibilities are endless with new styles such as a fireplace that sites between the family room and the patio," says Don Johnson, director of market research for the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association in Arlington, Va.

See-Through Looks Are Hot See-through and two-sided fireplace styles are popular. Vermont Castings (Chateau Vista), Hearth & Home Technologies (Heat & Glo Twilight) and Cal Spa (Cal Flame FRP-4300) are among the makers of these styles of indoor-outdoor or outdoor-only fireplaces. For example, Cal Flame's model is perfect for separating alfresco dining from patio/living spaces. The unit offers the contractor options to install only the main rectangular unit with a flat mantel top and later add an arched unit as a showpiece. The arched top comes ready with an iPod station, remote control and built-in dual 4"x9" flat speakers.

Finishes of outdoor fireplaces include stucco, rock, brick, stone and even porcelain. To be sure, today's outdoor hearths offer style, convenience with boundless entertainment options, as well as great opportunities for builders and landscapers to provide the finishing touch to an outdoor space.

Marcia Jedd writes frequently on design and construction issues.

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