an inspiring hearth

A fireplace provides a sense of warmth that is both tangible and emotional. Gathering around the hearth in the wintertime evokes a primal feeling of safety and security; and in most American homes, the hearth area functions as a dominant architectural feature of our primary gathering spaces.

San Francisco codes do not permit wood-burning fireplaces for both environmental and safety reasons, but a gas, electric or bio-ethanol fireplace can provide you with almost all of the traditional benefits, as well as some modern conveniences! If you feel nostalgic for the crackle and pop of a wood-burning fire… consider installing an outdoor fire pit, where venting will be unnecessary and the safety hazards associated with burning wood can be managed more easily.

If you are planning to build a new hearth or remodel your existing one, the first topic to consider is the energy source.

Gas fireboxes have been engineered to provide a flame that looks similar to wood burning, so if you are looking for a more traditional look, they can be a good option. Gas fireplaces also provide robust heat; they can readily warm an entire room, even acting as a substitute for your central heating system. A drawback of gas fireplaces is that they require venting, whereas electric and bio-ethanol fireboxes do not. (Ventless gas fireplaces are available on the market but I generally do not recommend them, especially if you have small children.  The glass fronts have a tendency to get dangerously hot, and the flame is also less realistic in ventless versions.)

Electric fireboxes, because they are ventless, can be placed anywhere in the home, according to your practical and aesthetic preferences. They are also less expensive to purchase and install. The main drawback of electrical fireboxes is aesthetic – the flame itself looks more like a computer-generated picture of a flame than a real fire. Electric fireboxes are also an inefficient and expensive way to heat your home unless the house runs on solar.

Bio-ethanol is a relatively new energy source for fireboxes, and definitely worth considering. This renewable material combines some of the benefits of both gas and electric. It has a beautiful, dancing flame and does not require venting, as bio-ethanol burns without smoke or harmful emissions. The main drawback of bio-ethanol is operations cost, as the fuel itself is quite expensive. Also, bio-ethanol fires do not get very hot, so if you are looking for a primary heat source this may not be the best fuel source for you. For more information about bio-ethanol, please visit EcoSmartFire.

Once you know your fuel source, it’s time to think about aesthetics. As a general rule of thumb, built-in features such as fireplaces should follow the interior architecture, not the décor. If your home is a San Francisco Victorian, you should probably consider a traditional stone or carved wood mantel, even if your furniture is ultra-modern. If you live in an Eichler, something simple and clean will probably work best. In some cases, of course, breaking the rules can be a gateway to great design, but it’s helpful to know the rules first — and now you do. 🙂 So now it’s time to start shopping! Here are links to inspire you:

Francois & Company
Exquisite Surfaces
1st Dibs
SF Victoriana (here you can find all the molding and decorative elements you need to build a custom mantel with traditional San Francisco details)
Solus Decor
Sonoma Cast Stone
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