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How to Design a Functional Outdoor Fireplace

Learn how to incorporate an outdoor fireplace to make the most of your open-air entertainment spaces throughout the year.
by Whitney Richardson

Tucked under an expansive roof system, this outdoor fireplace handily showcases everything a well-designed hearth can be: warm, attractive, space-defining and sociable. Photo credit: Hearthstone Homes

Personal touches are becoming the trend in today’s homes as homeowners look for ways to expand upon what they already own in anticipation that they will be in their residence for an extended period of time. Cabin owners are already in tune with this need for personalization, as many design their retreats with the intent that it will be the last place they own. The key is including features that will expand the functionality of your cabin based on how you plan to use it.

A popular feature over the past seven years has been the outdoor fireplace, notes Don Kaufman, manager of sales training and work in the product development group at Lennox Hearth Products, because it allows homeowners to expand their backyard and to enjoy the natural surroundings as often and as long as possible. Its obvious function is to provide heat during chillier weather, but if designed well, it can be much more, whether for relaxation or entertainment.

“A fireplace is, in many installations, more than just a heating appliance,” explains Ross Johnson, sales and marketing manager at The Outdoor GreatRoom Company. “It becomes a focal point, whether indoors or outside.”

There are two basic types of installation: covered, in which the fireplace is installed under the protection of a porch or pergola, and remote, in which the fireplace is located away from the home as a stand-alone feature. A covered application will trap more of the heat in the immediate area, whereas a remote application may be preferable to keep the fire and/or smoke away from the cabin.

To ensure a design that suits you and your home, consider the following factors.

See-through, or dual-sided, fireplaces are nice way to tie indoors and out. However, heat can be lost more easily, depending on weather conditions, because of the dual openings. Photo: Lennox Hearth Products

Size. Standard width for an outdoor fireplace is 36, 42 or 48 inches, with most falling at 36 or 42 inches. Your choice will depend on the scale of the elements surrounding the application, such as proximity to the flame, and covered or uncovered setting.

An outdoor fireplace within close proximity or adjacent to your cabin also will be subject to the 3-2-10 rule, which requires that the chimney be 3 feet out or above the roof and that the point at which the vent terminates is 2 feet higher than anything within 10 feet horizontally. This may affect your decision on whether or not to incorporate a fireplace nearby, as the additional materials to extend and face the chimney can add a great deal of cost, Johnson cautions.

Make sure your furniture is close enough to the fire to help warm the bodies around it. Ottomans are great for getting feet nice and toasty, Kaufman notes. Photo: The Outdoor GreatRoom Company

Materials and Fuels. Materials available for outdoor fireplaces are comparable to those for indoor applications, with the added qualification that they be designed specifically for outdoor use. Part of your selection will depend upon the exterior of your home, as you will want a design that complements your cabin’s style.

The best fuel source will depend on what’s available, your usage plans and any local restrictions. Some areas, for example, have enforced burn bans — regulations that prohibit, permanently or periodically, any smoke fires to protect air quality and prevent wildfires. EPA-certified wood or pellet stoves may suffice in these cases; gas-powered fireplaces also are acceptable and provide the added benefit of a controlled flame that can be easily ignited and extinguished for casual use.

A raised hearth box better heats the upper portion of a person's body instead of legs and feet. Photo: The Outdoor GreatRoom Company

Arrangements. Try to design your fireplace so that the walls surrounding the flames block out prevailing winds. To ensure you and your guests take full advantage of the radiant heat provided by your fireplace, place furniture close enough to feel the effects.

“With gas and wood fireplaces, when they’re up and running, there’s about an 8-foot radius or arc that you could scribe around the space that someone will feel the warmth,” Kaufman states. He also recommends placing the firebox about 18 to 20 inches off the ground to ensure that the heat is targeted toward the upper body and making it deep enough to create potential seating space.

Also, make sure to install proper safety precautions — such as a mesh or metal screen, or glass panels — to contain ashes and embers, and to prevent accidents, especially when small children are present.

Published in Country's Best Cabins
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One Response

  1. The designs shown are not very efficient at radiating heat. A rectangular firebox with a flat back sends most of the heat up the chimney. The Rumsford fireplace design with angled sides radiates heat out from the firebox much better as well as reducing pollutants with its engineered smoke chamber. It is the only open fireplace design approved in some jurisdictions.

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