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Fireplaces more often than not have bragging rights in home real estate listings. Who doesn't love the flicker of flames and the warmth that the hearth imparts?
Sometimes elegant, sometimes architectural, often romantic, a fireplace -- with a handsome mantel or as part of a whole wall -- is a focal point in interiors. It's a magnet for intimate seating, with sofa, chairs, ottomans and coffee tables likely to gather around.
These days, fireplaces can be installed in nearly every room of the house, as well as outdoors, largely thanks to direct-vent gas technology, which actually was introduced by manufacturer Heat & Glo in 1987. Where wood-burning fireplaces are tethered to chimneys, direct vent requires a double layer pipe (to bring direct air from the outside and expel combusted air) that can be run virtually anywhere. And today, the "log" choices are much more realistic than early models.
But another seismic shift has been the advent of what the hearth industry calls the linear fireplace.
By now you've probably seen it in magazines, and it's a popular style at designer showhouses all over the country. Like the move from a 4:3 to 16:9 format in TVs, this propane or natural gas-fired fireplace is long and lean. The rectangular insert is set into a wall, framed like a piece of art, or frameless. Often the flames themselves create a dancing, mesmerizing pattern. The bed sometimes is dressed with sparkling glass, pebbles or beachy stones, depending on the ambience you prefer.
As interiors have been trending to more modern, clean styles, it's no surprise that this look is attractive.
"Modern styling is becoming more mainstream," says Becky Scribner, marketing director for Heat & Glo. "We work with a lot of builders, and they're starting to put in linear gas fireplaces instead of wood-burning."
An easier installation than a full masonry wood-burning fireplace adds to the appeal.
Another category is the vent-free fireplace, which, is said to be nearly 100 percent energy-efficient. As it requires only a hole cut into a wall, with no vent kits, vent-free fireplaces are up to 75 percent less expensive to install (starting at around $2,500, depending on style, mantel choice, etc.)
However, since these rely on indoor air for combustion, there is some debate about indoor air quality. Vent-free fireplaces are not approved for installation in Canada and are restricted in some parts of the U.S., such as California, so be sure to check local codes. Needless to say, these do require installation by a gas or plumbing contractor, but most manufacturers will tell you that with proper installation, there shouldn't be any problems.
In addition to gas models, bioethanol technology also has been touted for its environmental friendliness because it burns clean with no smoke, sparks or fuss. From handcrafted freestanding pieces of "fire" furniture to grates for traditional fireplace conversion to firebox inserts for custom built-in designs, companies such as EcoSmart offer options fueled by bioethanol, a renewable liquid fuel whose combustion produces heat, steam and carbon dioxide. EcoSmart ethanol-burning models are priced from $500 to $10,000, depending on style.
Stunning installations include feature walls -- where the linear fireplace takes center stage -- asymmetrical placements or teamings with high-definition TVs. Their shapes can even be round and two-sided, just like some options with aquariums.
Many people with traditional wood-burning fireplaces are changing over to new technology for more efficiency and ease. Some, who don't want to sacrifice real wood logs, combine with gas, so there's an option of working both ways (gas-assisted wood burning).
While remote controls have been available, Heat & Glo is actually introducing a Wi-Fi enabled gas fireplace controlled app at the Building Show in Las Vegas in early February. Now you can warm spaces before coming home as well as check to make sure the fireplace was turned off before you left. In addition, there are some first-to-market safety features, including a child lock and hot glass indicators.
More ultramodern styles are on the docket as well, including Heat & Glo's new model called REVO -- a slender, 7-inch-deep profile that comes in square, horizontal and vertical shapes that can be hung on the wall like art. It features the company's patented razor burner, which produces a particular pattern and a reflected glass interior. Multicolor LED accent lighting also is available.
Similarly, a stylish vent-free model from Napoleon features a torch flame design with porcelain reflective radiant panels. Shown on its website (www.napoleonfireplaces.com) in a contemporary bath, its burner comes with decorative glass embers. Some safety features include an energy-saving "no pilot" gas valve control system that automatically shuts off the supply. Accent lights to mount underneath and above are optional.
If an inherited traditional mantel seems old-fashioned -- say, a dark wood or turn-of-the-century oak that is just not your style -- you can change the finish or paint it, as well as visually lighten up the surround, with tile or stone. Where brick walls may date a fireplace, again, an update with paint or even a new stone or stone veneer face will do wonders.
Chicago designer John Wiltgen says he has enjoyed playing with fireplace design for more than 30 years, and has retrofitted many existing fireboxes, combining antiques with new technology.
"We consider fireplaces a pivotal element of design, says Wiltgen. "They can be stylish examples of one-of-a-kind functional art and architecture."
A few years back, Eldorado Stone, which manufacturers stone-lookalike materials for cladding, introduced a series of composite mantels that have the heft, scale and look of stone without the weight and cost (prices start at about $1,500). They come in a range of styles, including some beautifully classical profiles as well as more clean-lined designs with mitered corners. They'll stand out on a plain or textured stone wall.
One of Eldorado Stone's newest mantels is an elegant hand finished surround called the Dylan. It's composed of real limestone aggregates and hand-finished in a four-step process that makes each piece one-of-a-kind. It's a crisp design that easily transitions between traditional and modern decor.
"There's been a growing trend toward contemporary living spaces," says Brent Spann, vice president of marketing for Eldorado Stone. "With its modern lines and artfully beveled edges, (the Dylan) is ideal for the types of fireplaces that grace contemporary homes, high-rise apartments, condos, lofts and bungalows."
Tile offers still another option not only for surrounds, but also for dressing fireboxes. Motawi Tileworks, a boutique artisanal company based in Ann Arbor, Mich., shows a variety of examples for tile mantels as well as tall feature walls. All of their tiles are done by hand --trimming, sanding, dipping and glazing -- with each piece handled 28 times.
There's been a tremendous uptick in fire pits in outdoor rooms, but the flexibility of some of the new fireplace designs has ignited interest -- especially linear burners, which are being installed on tables.
"Outdoor fireplaces are growing like wildfire," says Scribner -- pun intended.
No matter which style you choose, you can create a welcoming gathering spot that offers visual warmth as well as real welcome heat when it's cold outside.
-- EcoSmart Fireplaces, 888-577-3925, www.ecosmartfire.com
-- Eldorado Stone, 800-925-1491, www.eldoradostone.com
-- Michael Fullen Design Group, 949-715-1633, www.michaelfullen.com
-- HearthCabinet, 212-242-1485, www.hearthcabinet.com
-- Heat & Glo, 888-427-3973, www.heatnglo.com
-- Lennox Hearth Products, 800-655-2008, www.lennoxhearthproducts.com
-- Felicia Zwebner, 917-868-8994, www.feliciazwebner.com
-- Motawi Tileworks, 734-213-0017, www.motawi.com
-- Napoleon Fireplaces, 705-721-1214, www.napoleonfireplaces.com
-- Spark Modern Fires, 866-938-3846, www.sparkfires.com
-- Regency Fireplace Products, 604-946-5155, www.regency-fire.com
-- John Robert Wiltgen Design, 312-744-1151, www.jrwdesign.com
-- Wittus Inc., 914-764-5679, www.wittus.com