Designing the Fireplace

October 09, 2020

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

About a year ago, I wrote “Trees, Wood, and Fire” in the Ready for Rain newsletter and mentioned how our perspective on the fireplace had changed after living on Orcas for a while:

We had a natural gas fireplace in the city which ignited with the push of a button, and planned to have a similar model in the new house. It was so clean and easy.

Having burned wood for the winter on Orcas, gas just didn’t seem right. I started to feel the new house needed a wood burning fireplace instead. Sure, it would be more maintenance and take time to manage, but that was part of the experience. 

This decision turned out to be the first of a hundred decisions about the fireplace “unit” for the house. The story of getting it right provides a real-world look at home design and what it takes to create a one-of-a-kind feature. 

The Big Idea

Early in the design process, we saw an opportunity to have a two-sided wall (interior and exterior) that serves as a home for cooking, heating, and entertainment. Inside, we would have a fireplace and TV. The outside would have a second fireplace and grill.

Here’s how it was framed:

Below is one of my first 3d models of the unit from July of 2019.

It’s a relatively simple idea that is also an important one. The fireplace unit will be a central part of the house and the heart of our activity. Getting it right was more of a challenge than I would have imagined.

At the beginning, we had to think about the big questions like how it looks, what it’s made of, and how we plan to use it.

From the beginning, we agreed that the surface of the unit could be hot-rolled steel, which is made from 1/8th inch thick steel sheets. We love steel because it’s durable and beautiful. Metal seemed right for a unit with a grill and two fireplaces. As with many of the finishes, we want it to be “bulletproof”.

Initially, we focused on the interior unit, with fireplace, TV and storage. It would be the most visible element of the house and set the tone for everything else.

I looked forward to the design process and, as usual, assumed it would go quickly and easily. What happened in reality was a long process of iteration; one design after the other. Between us and John, there was always a new idea.

The Evolution

Let’s look at a few versions of the interior and how they evolved. As you’ll see, it’s mostly a process of subtraction, which I think is a good sign.

The first concept was a unit that was placed in front of the wall, protruding into the room. It was mostly covered in steel, with a recessed section for the TV, etc.

It seemed like a good idea. The TV would be beside the fireplace and not above it. But, it was boring and we saw opportunities to to add a bit of style.

Then we had a revelation. What if the unit wasn’t a big wall of steel with recessed shelves? What if, instead, the drywall behind the unit was more visible and the elements were simply placed in front of the wall? This seemed like we were on the right track, as it made the space feel more open. 

We tried a number of different configurations with shelves and cabinets. The one below was one of my worst attempts, but it got us further down the road.

We soon realized that we needed to get specific about what components would live in the unit. This way, we could use start designing with the right dimensions. I sent this to John:

For the first time, we felt that we were on the right track. Instead of a big monolithic piece of steel, it was becoming a more open and purpose built unit.

This model became our more stable version and one that hasn’t changed significantly:

The same is true for the exterior. After a few tweaks, it was stable and we were feeling good.

The Pressure Is On

We told Drew that the design was close to final and that we were ready to get the work started. He called a friend from out of town who planned to come do the metal work. This meant that we had to have everything buttoned-up so we didn’t waste this person’s time.

The day before the metal worker arrived, we had a call from John, who was having second thoughts about the steel. Before pulling the trigger he and I agreed to at least entertain the thought of using brick as the main surface of the unit. Initially, Sachi was happy to consider the options and I created a model as a test:

That evening, Sachi and I had a design discussion. She was not fully invested in the brick and wanted to stick to the steel surface. I could see her point. Within a few hours, the brick discussion had ended and the arrival of the metal worker was imminent.

We told Drew that we would have final designs ready on Friday morning, less than 48 hours away. Our goal was to meet on site and work through the entire design.

John took on the challenge and, over Wednesday night, designed what became our final specification. We reviewed it, made a few tweaks on Thursday and spent Friday going over the details with the crew on-site. Things looked to be buttoned up and we left feeling good. 

Of course, we were not done.  

The following Monday (yesterday) ended up being full of more questions about the unit. The vision was clear and agreed upon, but some details needed attention before work could begin. 

At the last minute, we ended up adding an access door under the grill and using stainless steel on the front of the grill cabinet. 

Right now, we’re feeling relieved and above all, confident that we ended up with a design that we love. Decisions on details will keep coming for a while, and that’s all part of the process of getting it right. We iterate our way to what we want. 

I’m excited for the day, probably in just a few weeks, that I can show you the final product.

This article originally appeared in the Ready for Rain Newsletter, #78 A Place for Fire

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