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From Fire Pits to Hearth & Home

Chris d Craiker AIA

Ancient fire pits were mankind’s first appliances. From the earliest cave dwellings, a fire pit was the cooking device, heating element and chief source of light as mankind emerged from the jungle and spread all around the world. Without fire and a place to keep it, mankind would not have survived in so many inhospitable locations outside of the tropics.  Man didn’t invent fire but his ingenuity on how to use it was among his most important innovation.

The fire pit evolved into a fire cauldron and man’s first challenge was to exhaust the fumes. Typically, masonry vertical chimneys did the trick for thousands of years.

The first structure built by pioneers in their new frontier homes was the fireplace, traditionally in the center of the home. The hearth and the fireplace continue to be more than a symbol of home, it became the heart of our shelters. Today, the classic wood or coal burning fireplace is being replaced with natural gas fueled appliances, thanks to EPA standards and alternate methods of producing similar ambience are available. Today, non-burning fireplace appliances are available and electrically powered units are becoming more acceptable. While burning wood inside your home has become a no – no, burning wood outside in a fire pit or in a pizza oven is acceptable. What was ancient is now cool. Go figure.

In today’s drive towards carbon neutrality and using less energy, local building codes, environmental regulations, energy efficiency and client considerations have made new inventions palatable and widely available.

  • “B” vent or natural draft systems exhaust fumes through metal flues up above the roof. They can be installed within existing chimneys but are the least efficient at eliminating all emissions.  They aren’t sealed but draw air from the room into a combustion chamber to exhaust out. See more

  • Vent-free or ventless technology relies on a higher burning temperature to rid the air of the combustion byproducts. Essentially, they burn virtually all the gases and eliminating any escaping emissions. Vent-free can be installed anywhere in the home and are generally less expensive then vented fireplace. They still use natural gas, propane or ethanol; however, they could also produce small but dangerous nitrous oxide and carbon monoxide. Check with your local building departments to ensure compliance. See more

  • Direct vent gas fireplaces exhaust fumes and bring in outside air essential to all fireworks. A sealed combustion system fireplace draws outside air and expels up to 100% of combustion emissions to the outside vertically or horizontally. Direct vent fireplaces provide optimal indoor air quality with a real fire making them among the most efficient gas burning appliance while minimizing carbon by-products. They are easy to install but generally on an outside wall. See more

While fireplaces are becoming more efficient, they are still burning carbon products. The next step is to eliminate burning anything altogether. However, we still desire the shimmering flame and ambience. Thus, the electric fireplace is becoming the eco- friendly option. They don’t release any emissions and don’t need venting. Their cost is lower than gas appliances and use about the same amount of electricity as a small space heater.  Water vapor fireplaces are the most realistic by producing 3-D iridescent flames, using water mist and LED lights without any CO2 emissions. You have to look close to see the fake flames.

This is not Grandmas Christmas decoration and you don’t have to watch glowing embers on TV to feel the ambience. If the fireplace and hearth are to remain an essential part of human shelter, it will be have to be carbon-less electric.

One of my favorite stories is about Frank Lloyd Wright and when a reporter visited Taliesin West, FLLWs Arizona home and studio, in a rain storm. Walking through the empty studio and quarters where dozens of buckets were collecting roof leaks, the reporter hunted for the Master. He found him in the only dry place in the building: crouched in the fireplace.

Chris d Craiker AIA/NCARB grew up in LA near many FLLWs famous leaking Landmarks

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