The appeal of gathering around a softly flickering flame taps into our primitive needs for warmth and security. Smoldering coals, stacks of wood and kindling, and ancient andirons are the markers of memories and our notions of cheerful, cozy gathering spots. But the fireplace is no relic of times gone by. Whether traditional log-burning versions or modern gas showstoppers, fireplaces are still hot.
Something of a luxury since they're no longer an efficient heat source, fireplaces now warm us in other ways, says architect Robert Tuthill. "The element of fire is a universal attraction that gives people an emotional warmth. Fireplaces add life to a room and are a source of kinetic energy."
It's that kinetic energy that draws us close. And in our living rooms, where we hope to escape the hectic rush, our fireplaces encourage us to slow down, to relax, to connect with our essential selves. And so fireplaces have endured. Some are the fireplaces of traditional living rooms, with elegant carved surrounds, blackened fireboxes and rugged tools. Others are modern metal versions that bring versatility to the chimney, double-sided versions that open into two rooms at once, and beautiful linear gas versions that beckon with sleek surrounds, adjustable flames and easy upkeep.
Whether you want a wood-burning masonry fireplace or one of the many modern versions on the market today, you'll want to weigh your options. Traditionalists may crave going through the motions of splitting logs and hauling them indoors. And then there's the satisfaction of watching the flames transform them while listening to the hisses and pops as generations before us did. But for many homeowners, the appeal of simply turning a knob or flipping a switch is too good to pass up. Using natural gas or propane, gas inserts can take the hassle out of lighting a fire. Wall thermostats can adjust the size of the flame, and vented versions ensure that any nasty byproducts are routed outside. There are even vent-free gas versions that are said to burn so efficiently there's no need to expel fumes.
And for those who want to dabble on a temporary or noncommittal basis, there are portable fireplaces that use gel fuel or electricity. This can be especially attractive to someone who doesn't want to invest in the expense of building a permanent fireplace. But one can't help but think they seem insubstantial when compared to the beauty of a real fireplace, a hearth and an anchor in a room.
No matter your choice, a fireplace will attract attention and define your surroundings. "Depending on the character of the room, the fireplace is often either the primary focus of the room or the secondary focus," says architect Bob Wetmore of Cornerstone Architects. "Today we often design the fireplace in tandem with the television, and they work together as the primary focus of the room and the furniture arrangement."
So remember, choose wisely. Real luxury comes from real materials, and there’s a lot to be said for the beautiful gas alternatives. Regardless, safety trumps aesthetics. Always adhere to local building codes and the manufacturer's specifications. At a bare minimum, ensure that everything is in good working order before you light that first log, flip the first switch or ignite that gel. Then get cozy. It's a timeless tradition.
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