On the face of it, not much has changed in the world of fireplaces. You still see the usual array of corner “kivas,” ranch-style fireplaces with mantles, and metal inserts and freestanding stoves. Look deeper, however, and you’ll see a big change, summarized in one word: “gas.”
Gas first appeared in fireplaces as simple log lighters, nothing more than a length of perforated steel pipe with a wall-mounted shutoff valve. These are wonderful for traditional fireplaces with grates, ending the need to split kindling or force dense pinon to burn. Just turn on the gas, toss a match, and you’re all set!
But these days more and more homeowners want to avoid firewood altogether. They want instant flame and zero maintenance, especially if the house is to be rented out.
The easy way to accomplish this is with gas-only metal units, of which there’s a huge assortment available, primarily for in-wall living room installations. They cost $3,000 and up and are comparatively easy to install and trim. You’ll get ceramic logs, glass doors, and gas vent pipes. These gas-burners may fall short of the authenticity of a wood fireplace, but they sure are easy to use - that’s the trade-off!
Bedroom fireplaces (typically in a corner) are a bit trickier. People want them for obvious reasons: they provide a beautiful sculptural element; they’re romantic, and they evoke feelings of comfort and warmth. Who wouldn’t want to lounge in bed on a winter evening, reading a book and watching the dancing flames?
Like many, I just had to have that fantasy hearth in my first house. But the crackling of burning wood and the subtle smell of smoke made falling asleep difficult. Some nights I sweltered as heat was released long after the fire had burned out – then, just when I finally fell asleep, the temp would plummet, leaving me groping for more blankets. Soon we stopped building fires altogether.
Gas turns out to be the ideal bedroom solution – but there is only one UL-listed (i.e., code-approved) corner fireplace on the market, made by Adobelite in Albuquerque. The guts consist of a modular firebox with gas logs, a wallmounted igniter, a glass door, and vent pipe. Around that is assembled a plaster-ready cage made of rebar and metal lath. Adobelite was more than happy to work with me to customize their existing “Santa Fe” model to achieve the oldtime Taos Pueblo look I was after.
As its name implies, Adobelite is light enough to go on a second story without a lot of structural reinforcement – so it was the perfect choice for the guest bedroom in a recent project in El Salto. The cost was quite reasonable.
We confronted a bigger challenge in the master bedroom, where the owners wanted an authentic corner fireplace fitted for gas. Trabajos de Cruz built a beautiful woodburner with masonry, firebrick lining, and a damper. We installed a “Grand Canyon” ceramic log set from WoodlandDirect, operated by a remote igniter. Here was the catch: to pass code, we had to tackweld the damper partly open – but that meant warm air would constantly escape in the winter. To keep things green, the final touch was a custom hinged glass door by The Man of Steel in Santa Fe.
But I’ve saved the hottest item for last: In today’s contemporary design craze, “ribbon” gas fireplaces can go in any space – including covered portals - and will accept surrounds ranging from ultra-clean drywall to rustic natural stone. These units are typically 4’-6’ wide and only 2’-3’ high, featuring a long burner that creates a ribbon of flame, sometimes enhanced by decorative stones and glass crystals. Placed low in the wall, there’s room for a recessed TV screen directly above.
I’m still a huge fan of authentic wood fireplaces, which evoke the ancient hearth in a way gas burners never will. But wood smoke has become environmentally problematic, and at times illegal in some communities. Meanwhile our lifestyle is increasingly on-demand. So, it’s wonderful to have options that will accommodate every need.
Vishu Magee designs homes in Taos and may be reached at vishumagee.com
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