Since the dawn of man, humans have been drawn to fire. It’s mysterious, romantic, warm, and even nurturing, providing heat, light, and a place to cook. It makes a home feel like home.
Nowadays, we aren’t exactly cooking over an open flame, nor do most of us require a fireplace to heat our homes, but there’s still that instinctive draw to the hearth. But we also know that fireplaces come with a few caveats and drawbacks. So today, I thought I’d explore some healthy fireplace ideas (and this construction peek below of the fireplace in our Modern European home).
First, the Bummer About Indoor Fire
Most of us already know that fire has a few significant downsides. Whether we're talking about burning candles in your home, the dangers of second-hand smoke, or the environmental concerns about wildfire and pollution, there are many concerns about fire and health.
Having a fireplace is likely a no-go if you or a family member are sensitive to smoke, asthmatic, or have other breathing issues like COPD. (But I'll still go over a few ways to get the fireplace aesthetic.) The concept of a "healthy" fireplace is a bit of an oxymoron.
There's also no way to have a truly eco-friendly indoor or outdoor fireplace. Like most aspects of today's world, there's some give-and-take. There are, however, many ways to have a healthier fireplace for you and the environment; all things are best in moderation.
Design + Image: Studio McGee
Since most of us aren’t reliant on having a fireplace in our homes for warmth or cooking, we’re in it for the ambiance. In that sense, a beautiful, crackling fire is truly unbeatable, especially during the chilly time of year. There’s nothing that creates a cozy, warm, relaxing atmosphere quite like a fireplace. There’s a good reason why “hearth and home” are concepts that go hand in hand.
Even during warmer months, well-thought-out mantel decor is a great way to blend the fireplace with the rest of the room. Whether adding a few fresh flowers to the mantel or some natural elements to invoke a personal touch, a fireplace can be an essential decorative element in your home year-round.
Whether you’re wondering how to make the most of an already-built-in fireplace in an older home, considering a remodel or update, or planning a new place, there are plenty of ways to make a fireplace work into your design. Here are some healthy fireplace ideas for your consideration.
1. Make the Most of a Wood-Burning Fireplace
If you have a traditional style wood-burning fireplace, it's a treat to use it occasionally. It's lovely for holidays and home gatherings. Can you beat sitting in front of a fireplace with a cup of tea, a cozy blanket, and a good book? I would argue that there’s almost nothing better.
A wood-burning fireplace will produce heat. Of course, you have to have some nice, dry wood for a clean burn. The general rule is the harder and dryer the wood and the hotter the fire, the cleaner the burn. Kiln-dried firewood contains very little moisture and will burn for a long time. Hardwoods like ash, oak, maple, hickory, and apple are also clean-burning. It probably goes without saying, but fire safety rules tell us you should never burn coated paper, plastic, or anything else in a fireplace in your home.
If you have a wood-burning fireplace in your home, it's crucial that you have the chimney flue cleaned and maintained regularly. Of course, chimney cleaning can get messy, but professional cleaners should take steps to protect your home thoroughly. You will need to regularly clean out the ash as well (it's best to leave about an inch of ash in the bottom of the fireplace to offer heat protection).
Over the last decade or so, the EPA has implemented a voluntary retrofit program for wood-burning open fireplaces. The program encourages homeowners to swap out their wood-burning fireplaces with a retrofit wood-burning “stove.” These glass-front inserts include a vent that pushes heat into your home while lowering the emissions and smoke—making them more efficient.
It's worth noting that you can't legally install an "old school" wood-burning fireplace in most places. Depending on your state and local codes, you may still be able to use an existing wood-burning fireplace. Still, if you’re upgrading or installing a fireplace in your new home, you'll likely need to find a more sustainable and healthier fireplace option.
2. Convert a Wood-Burning Fireplace to a Gas-Burning Fireplace
If your older home has a nice stone or brick fireplace that’s out of commission (or that you don’t want to fuss with), you can have an old fireplace converted to gas. These offer the look and heat of fire and work with a simple switch on the side of the fireplace.
Gas and wood combinations also give you the ease of lighting with gas but then continue to burn with natural wood. The benefit of these is that they're easier to light (the truth is that lighting wood is actually quite difficult). Fully gas-burning fireplaces can be expensive, so gas-lit wood is more economical, too. Again, though, it depends on whether your locale allows wood-burning fireplaces at all.
A gas fireplace (sometimes called direct vent gas) is a nice choice for many homeowners, particularly if you only plan to use your fireplace occasionally. It stays clean, it generates some heat, and you can adjust the level of the flame to suit your preference. You can still have the stylish fireplace look.
With a gas fireplace, you have plenty of options. Some are enclosed in glass, so you aren't getting fumes or smoke into your home. They're also pretty safe (no open fire for pets or kids to get near).
Gas fireplaces have come a long way over the past few decades. They used to feature crystals in the bottom or very fake-looking gas logs. These days, many have quite a realistic aesthetic, which is nice, particularly if it fits your personal style.
Of course, there are a few drawbacks to natural gas or propane. Environmentally, fossil fuels are always a concern. There are also concerns about natural gas leaking in the house (although it is rare, it's essential that you have your fireplace regularly maintained and inspected).
Photography: Jennifer Lavelle
3. Go for an Electric Fireplace
Your healthiest option for getting the pretty look of a fireplace is to consider an electric fireplace. The benefits of an electric fireplace are obvious—you don't need to risk burning anything or dealing with gas coming into your home.
If you don't have access to a gas line, or you have a modern or contemporary home, then an electric fireplace might be your ideal choice. The overall design of electric fireplace options has come a very long way from the "faux fireplace" looks of the 1970s and 80s. Many of them even use water vapor and lighting to create steamy smoke (inside the chamber). Most of them also kick off at least some heat (though not as much as gas or wood-burning traditional fireplaces). If you’re building a home or remodeling, you can also have an electric fireplace built right into your space. Electricity gives you a lot of flexibility for location, but of course, they’re not quite like the “real” thing.
There are also environmental drawbacks to having another item in your home that requires electricity. Still, all things considered, electric fireplaces have the most negligible impact and offer the healthiest option for creating a fire-like atmosphere.
Design + Image: Jean Stoffer Design
4. Explore Alternative Fireplace and Heating Options
In Europe, many homes are far older than those here in the United States. Because of their construction and design, many have long relied on built-in fireplaces and stoves for heat. While some of these fireplace ideas might not work for your home, they're worth considering and exploring.
Masonry heaters are one interesting example. This heat source is used throughout Scandinavian countries, where they're constructed from soapstone or clay. They feature a chamber with a chimney. Fuel (usually wood) goes into the chamber, heating the entire stove. The masonry heater stays warm once the fire goes out, radiating plenty of heat.
Pellet stoves are another energy-efficient option that use electricity to heat and burn very dry pellet fuel made from wood. These are similar to the old coal-burning stoves, without coal's environmental and health drawbacks. These stoves use a fan (powered by electricity) to push out heat.
There are also new bioethanol fireplace options, which use ethanol—gas made from alcohol. These burn so cleanly that they don’t require a flue. They also don't produce smoke but can produce carbon dioxide (most come with built-in detectors). Many of these are very sleek and modern-looking. There is, however, some concern that with ethanol comes micro-particles that pollute the air in your home. There are also concerns about the combustibility of these fireplaces.
5. Make the Most of Your Fireplace Space
If you're living in an older home, you may already have a real fireplace box that's either semi-functional or long out-of-commission. You can give it new life, create a welcoming hearth, and incorporate the non-working fireplace mantel into your decor. Whether it's the focal point in your living room, a great component of your dining room, or a place in the family room, there are plenty of modern fireplace ideas to brighten your living space—while also honoring the past.
If you just moved in (or if you’ve ceased using the fireplace for good), it’s important to have a professional look at the fireplace to ensure that it’s been correctly sealed off. From there, you have many options for the space that can complement the overall look of the room.
Design + Image: Studio McGee
Mantels have a classic, old-world appeal that still feels beautiful, even if you don't have a fire burning below. Decorate the now-empty firebox with a plant, baskets for storage, eye-catching decorative vases, or another deliberate touch. Above the mantel, you can hang a beautiful piece of artwork to draw the eye upward and make the space feel intentional.
Some of us adore the coziness and comfort of having a fireplace. Fire and warmth speak to something primal, inherent deep in our souls. If you can’t imagine a home without a fireplace, consider these healthy fireplace ideas to help you enjoy it as safely as possible. Like most things in life, an occasional fire is wonderful and comforting in moderation.
Are you a fan of the fireplace? Let me know in the comments!