Fireplaces: Not Always the Best Decision for Homes

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Photo by Joe Coca

In 1973 we added a room to our house. My loom and spinning wheel and such had taken over what had been the living room, and there was a third baby on the way, so more space was a must. This new room would be a family gathering place: a place for morning newspapers, coffee after dinner, bedtime stories, the Christmas tree. It was to have active solar heating and, for atmosphere and supplementary warmth, a fireplace. And so it was.

The solar system was a clever arrangement that my husband designed. It drew hot air from a series of collectors into an immense rock bin under the flagstone floor, which therefore radiated a pleasant amount of heat when we had sunny days. It provided about a third of the heat for our whole house, not just for the living room, and we considered it a great success. The fireplace was another story.

The flickering firelight was pleasant on a winter’s night, and the kids loved sitting on the raised hearth and baking their backsides. But back then, there were no restrictions on wood fires, and every winter morning our neighborhood was thick with haze and the acrid smell of smoke. There was little available in the way of efficient fireplace inserts, so most of everyone’s heat went up the chimney. Available wood was soft, pitchy pine or fir, so chimneys tended to clog with soot in a hurry. “Chimney sweep” was a viable profession in these parts. And there was the energy crisis, with people rolling up their discarded newspapers into tight “logs” that burned fast and left behind a lot of messy ash. As time went by, we used the fireplace less and less, until it was little more than a design feature of sorts.

Well, maybe more than that. Maybe more like a habitat. There was the summer a mother raccoon nested in the chimney, and we didn’t realize we had these rowdy guests until her four babies were making nightly forays up over the roof of our bedroom. And there was the bat that gained egress through the open flue, and some squirrels, too, if I remember correctly.

Meanwhile, there were years of no-burn days when the air quality was poor, then a ban on wood fires altogether in parts of the county. Our active solar system had grown old and hard to maintain, and the living room was too cold for comfort. So we broke down and had the fireplace plumbed for natural gas. It was a humbling decision. We’ve always scorned those artificial logs and the casual ease of turning a knob instead of building a proper stack of kindling. But I have to admit, sitting by the fire these cold winter evenings, reading or knitting, I can enjoy that dancing flame and its gentle warmth almost as if it were the real thing, so long as I don’t think much about it.

But now we get another chance. We’ll be leaving this thirty-year-old fireplace behind, moving to a new house we’re designing from scratch. What we’re finding is that the choices are daunting. Wood-burning fireplace? It will have to meet stringent code requirements, and there are still a lot of no-burn days. And do we really want to be burning wood anyway? A pellet stove gives good heat and saves the trees, but where’s the romance in a bucket of pellets? Maybe we should just skip the fireplace altogether. There are better ways to keep a house warm. We’re paying a lot of attention to siting, thermal mass, insulation, air flow. We’re including thick walls and trombe walls and triple glazing. It will be a warm house, if not cozy. Maybe we could put up a fake chimney for the coons.

Linda Ligon is the publisher of Natural Home. This is part two of a series of stories that will chronicle her adventures in building her own natural home.

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