Regardless of your cabin’s size, location or design, you’re probably planning to make its hearth a major feature. After all, cabins and hearths go hand in hand — a roaring fire can warm the entire home and offer a snug coziness you’ll only find in a cabin.
Because it’s such an integral part of any cabin, it’s important to start your hearth design early in the cabin building process. Seeing the hearth as the true core of the home, many cabin owners actually plan the rest of their cabin around the fireplace. And with good reason — a well-designed, well-placed hearth can save you thousands of dollars in energy costs over the life of your cabin and serve you well in the years to come.
1. Consider the function. The hearth used to be the power source for the home — it served as the stove, oven, water heater and waste receptacle, as well as the home’s heating system. Modern homes have diversified those tasks, leaving the hearth’s main function as a source of heat or perhaps just a decorative focal point. Cabin owners need to decide what they want the function of their hearth to be at the onset of the planning process so all other related systems can be planned accordingly.
With a very small cabin, a single hearth could be enough to heat an entire home. In larger cabins, many owners choose to use an energy-efficient central heating system for most of their cabin’s heating needs but still have a hearth available for special occasions.
2. Determine your fuel source. After deciding how you wish to use your hearth, the next step is determining the hearth’s fuel source. Aesthetics, efficiency, cost, availability and maintenance should all factor into this decision. “It’s important to do a little homework,” says Leslie Wheeler, director of communications for the Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association. Gas is a convenient, nearly hassle-free option for many homeowners, and although natural gas lines may not be available in all areas, homeowners can hook up a propane tank. Although wood is a comparatively inefficient source of energy — and a labor-intensive one, with all the chopping, splitting, seasoning, hauling and maintenance involved — “if you have a free source of wood,” Wheeler says, “that’s something to think about.” Coal, wood pellets and other sources of fuel require specific stoves, but can provide excellent heat sources for many homes.
3. Select your materials. When considering log cabin fireplace materials, think outside the box for the sake of your cabin’s structural integrity as well as your wallet. Although the look of traditional brick or stone is popular among cabin owners, the cost, weight and time involved can become prohibitive for many home-building projects. A good alternative is cultured stone, which retains the look of real stone at a fraction of the cost, weight and time needed for installation.
If you’re looking to increase the efficiency of an existing hearth, consider adding a fireplace insert. “It’s a wonderful product that goes into the opening of a fireplace,” says Wheeler. “Efficiency goes from 10 percent to about 70 to 75 percent. You can still have a chimney and the hearth look, and get real heat out of it.”
Alternately, buying a manufactured hearth can reduce many of the hassles associated with custom building and save big in energy waste and costs. Tulikivi hearths, for example, offer a variety of efficient designs made of highly heat-retaining soapstone.
4. Pick the placement of your hearth. Although many cabin owners prefer to tack their chimney on the outside of the house, a properly designed interior hearth and chimney will almost always heat your cabin more safely and efficiently and will require less maintenance than an exterior one will, says Ashley Eldridge, director of education for the Chimney Safety Institute of America.
“With a hearth in the middle of the home, any heat lost from the mass of the chimney itself stays in the room,” says Eldridge. “With an exterior chimney, you lose that heat to the outside, in addition to other adverse cooling effects,” such as dangerous creosote buildup caused by improperly combusted oils found in wood and fossil fuels.
Consult with a professional from the National Fireplace Institute (nficertified.org) early in your hearth design process. And regardless of the hearth you choose, make sure to properly maintain it to avoid house fires or other easily preventable disasters. A regularly used fireplace, particularly one on an exterior wall, will require cleaning at least once a year. With proper care, your hearth will be a major asset to your cabin and your lifestyle for years to come.