Fireplace Chat

Warmth Without Wood

In many areas wood burning fireplaces are prohibited in new construction because particulate-heavy smoke adds to air pollution — so what are the modern alternatives? We want a  sleek contemporary design for the living room of the ranch house is building in Sonoma, California. Ecosmart, for example, makes a range of portable units that burn denatured ethanol, a liquid fuel made from fermenting the sugar and starch components of plant by-products such as sugarcane and grain, using yeast. I have mentioned them before; this is one called Aspect.

Because the flame does not produce smoke and burns at a relatively low temperature (compared to wood) no flue or vent is required so all the heat from the burner remains in the room. The stainless steel box comes fully assembled.  I saw one installed in the guest room/home office of a new townhouse in

San Francisco’s new Presidio Landmark LEED-certified townhouses recently (shown at left) and it seemed a good choice for the compact space. I happen to like the portability and geometry of such an appliance but one person told me that to her it looked a lot a like a suitcase…(well it’s definitely a way to pack warmly!) Such units retail for a round $6,000. It could sit on the room-wide hearth that’s to be the focal point of our living room. Or could it? Take a look at these sketches of the fireplace wall by architect Nicholas Lee.

This one shows a built-in fireplace on a cantilevered hearth.

Here’s one that’s framed on all four sides and floats over the hearth, like a painting.

I think a portable ventless fireplace would look too temporary in this situation, so I guess I would have to agree with the suitcase comment. An alternative that we are now considering is a vented gas unit, like this one — the Solace, from the Marquis Collection by Kingsman.

But we want it to rest flush with the concrete hearth — that is, with the floor of the firebox resting on the hearth so the opening is framed on only three sides, like Nick’s first sketch — and we want a flat front, which will have to be in metal or plaster or some other non-combustible material. The flue will either be buried in the wall or project slightly from it. Our estimate for the fireplace with gas line, venting flue, including the concrete hearth, is around $7,000 so we think this might be a better fit for us. What do you think?

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