Outdoor fireplaces and fire pits add an extra dimension to a patio

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Bill Wade, Post-Gazette
Kim and Kevin Ifft's children, Madi, 9, Abby, 7 (in back), and Kemmer, 5, roast marshmallows at the family's side yard patio and fireplace in Ben Avon.
Click photo for larger image.

There's nothing like a fire to heat up the conversation and cast a warm glow on family and friends, especially outdoors. But only so many people can crowd around a camp fire or portable fire pit.

That's why when Kevin and Kim Ifft were designing a side patio for their 130-year-old Greek Revival in Ben Avon earlier this summer, they opted for something a little bigger and a whole lot more permanent: an outdoor wood-burning fireplace.

"We love to be outside and wanted something we'd be able to use all year long," says Kim, a photographer.

Made from salvaged brick they found in the Pennysaver, the rustic-looking fireplace stands 8 feet tall and has a flagstone mantel. The 6-inch-thick hearth sits 30 inches above the exposed-aggregate concrete patio, allowing room to store firewood.

"We wanted it to have history, like our house," says Kim. "We call it our New Orleans courtyard."

Masonry fireplaces are increasingly making their way onto America's decks and patios, and not just in balmy places like California and Florida, where they mainly add charm to year-round living spaces. Thanks to home and decorating magazines and HGTV, they're catching on other parts of the country, where they can extend outdoor living in both the spring and fall.

"People are starting to realize their options," says Marci Buckiso, co-owner of The Fireplace and Patio Place in the North Hills.

Some outdoor fireplaces feature hearths with elaborate masonry surrounds. In addition to wood, some are fueled by liquid propane or natural gas and are installed on an outside wall. It's even possible to get one with a water feature or finish it in the shape of a chiminea. Most run about $5,000.

"It's an easy way to extend your home," says Buckiso, who added an outdoor fireplace to her own house in Peters two summers ago.

Last fall, landscaping contractor Mike Douds constructed a massive wood-burning outdoor fireplace for a Richland couple. The elegant structure, built from a compressed concrete product that resembles weathered cobblestone, features a 48-inch stainless steel firebox insert with a gas igniter and a wide limestone mantel and hearth. Nearly 9 feet tall and flanked on both sides by a stone sitting wall, it's the focal point of a 1,800-square-foot patio that looks out over the couple's 3-acre wooded back yard.

The homeowners, who asked not to be identified, modeled the fireplace after ones they had admired while vacationing in Florida and one they spied in Southern Living magazine. They originally considered putting it near the back of the garage. But once they realized that they'd never be able to see it from inside the house, they decided to give it a more prominent place. Used in all but the coldest months, the patio is the gathering spot for parties and informal family get-togethers.

"We love it," says one of the owners, who often decorates it with plants and candles. "And the beauty of it is, no one knows we're back here."

The fireplace accounted for about $5,000 of the cost of the patio, which took a crew of four close to a month to complete.

Fire pits

But what if your budget is a bit more modest? You might follow the lead of Lynn and Ruth Leichts, who had a fire pit integrated into their patio.

Ruth originally wanted just a small deck to cut back on the grass behind their Evans City home. Her husband convinced her that a better idea was a patio made from brick pavers. Ray Saber, owner of Blue Fox Landscape Design Inc. in Gibsonia, did the work.

The fire pit took the place of the couple's chiminea, a victim of overuse. Lynn tends to build big fires, and the clay fire pot collapsed.

"When we were envisioning that space, we figured it made sense to put in a fire pit," says Ruth.

The 10-inch-tall pit, made of a tumbled concrete product, measures 3 feet across. The 400-square-foot patio also boasts a waterfall-fed pond and a foot bridge over a small stream.

"The men were really in tune with all the bark and boulders," Ruth says with a laugh. "It sort of looks like the Paleolithic period."

Integrated fire pits are actually an old idea: Saber has installed more than a dozen in the past decade, including a few with gas logs. They're placed most often in line with the curve of the patio, half in and half out, where it's convenient for people to gather.

Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
This fireplace in Richland weighs more than 10,000 pounds and required a footer.
Click photo for larger image.Bob Donaldson, Post-Gazette
This fireplace in Richland was built using a compressed concrete product that resembles weathered cobblestone.
Click photo for larger image.

Blue Fox Landscape Design -- 1-724-444-5700.

Cal Spa -- www.calspas.com; 1-800-225-7727.

Douds Bros. -- www.doudsbrosinc.com; 1-724-898-2006.

Heat-N-Glo -- www.heatnglo-lifestyle.com; 1-888-427-3973.

Hearth, Patio & Barbecue Association -- www.hpba.org; 1-703-522-0086.

Hearthlink Fireplaces -- www. outdoorfireplaces.com; 1-877-337-8414.

Lennox Hearth Products -- www.lennoxhearthproducts.com; 1-800-655-2008.

Napoleon Fireplaces -- www.napoleonfireplaces.com; 1-800-461-5581

RAIS & Wittus -- www.raiswittus.com; 1-914-764-5679.

Vermont Castings -- www.vermontcastings.com; 1-800-227-8683.

A pit is not only a lot cheaper than a fireplace -- most run about $500 over the cost of the patio -- but also more flexible. When you tire of building fires, says Saber, you can fill it in with dirt or sand and use it as a planter or sandbox.

Use of outdoor fireplaces, fire pits and chimineas is generally allowed -- with seasoned firewood -- according to Jim Thompson, section chief of enforcement for the Allegheny County Health Department's Air Quality Program.

Building your own

OK, so you'd rather go all out and build a fireplace. What are your options? Lennox Heath Products' stainless steel, wood-burning Oasis fireplace is designed to go into a brick, stone or tile surround and can be outfitted with glass doors; it retails for about $1,785. A similarly priced stainless steel, vent-free fireplace by Napoleon Fireplaces is powered by liquid propane or natural gas and comes with an optional remote control.

Vermont Castings' Al Fresco line of outdoor fireplaces come in both wood and gas models; there's even a vent-free gas fireplace model for installation on a city rooftop or terrace. Price: $1,115 to $1,800.

Heat-N-Glow's LifeStyle Collection includes two outdoor models: the 36- or 42-inch wood-burning Montana (about $1,750) and the 42-inch gas Dakota ($2,700), which vents through the decorative front grille, eliminating the need for a chimney. Its ritziest offering, however, is the new Twilight see-thru fireplace. This vent-free product, which retails for about $3,600, is basically two fireplaces in one: One side opens in your family room, the other on your patio.

In planning your outdoor fireplace project, keep in mind that most models are not ready to fire up straight out of the box; they must first be enclosed in a wood or masonry surround. And that -- depending on the complexity and material used -- can cost almost as much as the fireplace itself. If the unit is powered by gas, you will also have to run a gas line under the patio.

Footers and foundations

It's also important to note that a stone or brick fireplace can weigh several thousand pounds -- all concentrated in one spot. So you may have to provide additional support, such as a footer or foundation.

The Richland fireplace, for example, which weighs in excess of 10,000 pounds, required a footer extending 3 feet below grade.

"You want to make sure it never moves," Douds says.

Cal Spa's Cal Flame line of gas outdoor fireplaces are a bit easier to install in that they are already finished with stucco, cultured stone, tile or brick. All you have to do is hook one up to propane or natural gas, says Martin Drews, a sales rep for The Home Resort in Boardman, Ohio, exclusive dealers for Cal Spa in the Pittsburgh area. The fireplaces, which weigh 600 to 1,200 pounds, come equipped with a fireproof pad underneath, so they can be placed even on a deck. For a few more dollars, you can add up to three waterfalls, trickling down the front and sides. Price: between $4,000 and $6,000, depending on finish and features.

Also ready to use but at a lower price is the Nexo outdoor masonry modular fireplace, imported from Denmark by Hearthlink Fireplaces. These chiminea-like hearths stand between 6 and 7 feet and are faced in either natural sandstone or stucco. Prices run between $1,499 and $1,949.

The 77-inch tall Gizeh outdoor fireplace from RAIS & Wittus offers a more contemporary look. Made from Cor-Ten steel with a 21-inch-deep fire area, this sculpture-like fireplace weighs just 220 pounds and can double as a grill. Cost: $1,350, plus about $250 for shipping.

The Iffts managed to keep down the cost of their custom-made fireplace by using salvaged brick and doing much of the grunt work themselves. The couple -- who were helped by Emsworth craftsman Dan Trobee -- ended up spending only about $2,000. In all, it took about two months working nights and weekends to scrape old mortar off all the brick, construct the sitting wall that runs the perimeter of the patio and stack the fireplace. The effort, though, was well worth it.

The fireplace is nestled deep in a corner and surrounded by berry bushes and morning glory. Antique bakery hooks and star-shaped wall ties that Kim got at The Meadows antique fair dress up the front. The sides are supported by wrought iron architectural scrolls that the couple found at an antique store in New Orleans' French Quarter. An antique iron gate nearby hangs heavy with New Dawn climbing roses.

Another particularly homey touch: while the concrete on the hearth was still wet, Kim pressed a penny commemorating the birth year of each family member into the right side of the hearth, along with the hand- and footprints of each of her four children and two dogs.

"The whole room is a collaboration of the stuff we love," says Kim.

Post-Gazette staff writer Gretchen McKay can be reached at gmckay@post-gazette.com or 412-761-4670.


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