There are many reasons I married my husband: for his salsa recipe, ability to make the modem thing work, and taste in books (if he likes an Alan Furst, so will I). But perhaps his greatest hidden talent is he can make a fire. Yes, I know your husband can make a fire too. But trust me, my husband is the son of a fireplace tool maker. His father owned a factory in the aptly named Pennsylvania town of Sinking Spring, and my husband knows his way around a fireplace tool set like a dentist knows her suction hose, sprayer, and molar probe.
These days, however, my husband’s fire-making skills are obsolete. One of the sad aspects of renovating an old houseâ€”at least if you live in my Northern California townâ€”is not being allowed to keep a wood-burning fireplace because of the pollution and health risks associated with woodsmoke. So, goodbye to the romance of the hearth?
Above: A modern fireplace in the Ten Broek Cottage by Messana O’Rourke Architects.
After the architect told me the wood burning fireplace had to go, my first reaction was predictably libertarian: Keep your laws off my living room, City of Mill Valley! The rule seemed like one more pushy intrusion into everyday life by a megalomaniacal zoning department. (These are after all the same people who have mandated fluorescent kitchen lighting, inadvertently creating an underground railroad of gently used ceiling fixtures that make the rounds one step ahead of the inspector’s visit.)
What if Stone Age zoning inspectors had prevented cavemen from playing with fire? We’d still be eating raw meat and taking cold showers.
But then I started Googling. It turns out that woodsmoke is actually a pretty bad thing to breathe. Children can get asthma from it. In fact, dozens of studies link exposure to woodsmoke to a rise in both chronic and acute illnesses in all ages of humans. Citing smoke’s chemical and particulate emissions as major sources of air pollution, many counties ban wood fires on days when air quality is poor. (If you’re caught in my county with a fire on a no-burn day, the fine is $100.)
Above: A soulful space by the great Belgian design impresario Axel Vervoodt, roaring fire included.
So, yes, goodbye to the grand chaos of a wood fire, and the crackling sound of it, and the little missiles of burning ember that go flying out from the center, and the lovely smoky smell. Goodbye to the Boy Scouts’ Campfire Building Badge, and to roasted marshmallows, and to husbands’ elaborate fire-starting rituals: the carefully arranged pile of twigs and bits of wedged newspaper that looks like a spooky devil catcher from True Detectives.
When you’re in the thick of a remodel, with a big chimney in the middle of the living room, you stare at it and wonder what to do with it. Leave the hearth sitting empty, a gaping black hole that’s a reminder of yet another cherished ritual that has turned out to be bad for us? Board it up (how will Santa find us)? Or spend $3,000 to convert the fireplace to natural gas?
Here are your choices:
You make the fireplace inoperable. A lot of people do this. You close off the chimney, shut the damper, leave the fireplace sitting open, and fill the hearth with something decorative.
For instance, there are glass fireplace logs formed by pouring molten glass into casts of real wood (for more information, see Jeff Benroth). These logs are not meant to be heated, but you can add a few strategically placed votive candles for a firelight effect. Or, you can stack a set of white porcelain logs (their lengths range from 12 to 14 inches) in a non-operational fireplace and admire their chalky purity. “We all have a fond memory of sitting around a campfire. This sculptural set brings that memory home,” notes KleinReid.
Board it up. After you seal the chimney, lay a wall of brick inside the fireplace. Cover the brickâ€”with plaster or a grill or a decorative cover. Then treat the mantel like one more piece of furniture in the room: hang a mirror over it and put a houseplant on the mantelpiece.
Convert a woodburning fireplace to burn natural gas.
In the end, this was the option we chose because I wanted more than a fond memory of fire; I wanted fire. We couldn’t afford the $3,000 to convert the fireplace to gas, of course. And it’s probably ridiculous to burn natural gas just for the sake of creating atmosphere. But what’s one more cost overrun (or folly) when you’re renovating? So we robbed another bank and ran a gas line from the furnace in the basement all the way up into the living room. We re-bricked the chimney. We installed a vent. We bought a set of ceramic logs. And ceramic embers. And got a set of airtight glass doors.
The ceramic logs and embers are a lot of fun to play with, actually. You can stack the wood in different configurations and arrange the embers around the base.
So now we have a fire whenever we wantâ€”without ashes to sweep or soot buildup on the mantel or tiny carcinogenic particles of burned wood wafting around in the air. The flames leap and the embers glow and, on some nights, I even will allow myself the filthy indulgence of burning a little Red Cedar Incense ($7 for a box of 50 pieces from Paine’s) to infuse the room with “real fire smell.”
There is one problem, though. To get the natural gas flowing, you must turn a giant scary lever located inconspicuously in the bottom shelf of a bookcase next to the fireplace. But first, you have to light a long match and place it in the fake embers. Then you run over to the bookcase to turn on the gas. If you crank the lever too far, gas rushes into the fireplace and causes a whoosh, and flames leap up as if unleashed from the depths of hell. There is always a fear one or more of the dogs will get singed. On the other hand, if you don’t turn the lever far enough, the lighted match in the fireplace doesn’t catch fire at all, and I worry that a slow steady seepage of invisible gas will claim me as surely as if I were Sylvia Plath.
Luckily, my husband is very good at turning on the gas.
What about you? Would you give up your wood-burning fireplace for health reasons? Tell us about it in the comments section.
Read more of Michelle’s Domestic Dispatches, including My Worst Design Decision Ever and Five Strategies for Covering 500 Windowsâ€”for Under a Million Dollars.