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Building with stone

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Photo: Steve Smith, VisionFire

The timeless appeal of the classic fireplace

Susan MacDonald knew she achieved the look she wanted when her custom river-stone fireplace led a visitor to believe her newly built cottage was from a much earlier era. 

“He apologized. He didn’t understand my elation with his comment,” she says. “This was a bare piece of land we were building on and even though it was a new structure, because there wasn’t an old one here, I didn’t want it to look like a new build. A fireplace helps with making it look older.”

Open-flame fireplaces are a rarity these days, as homeowners opt for the heat-generating efficiency of wood stoves and wood-burning fireplace inserts, or the ease of gas and electric options.

While MacDonald knew of the drawbacks of going old school, she was willing to compromise to get the look she wanted at her now-18-year-old cottage near Rissers Beach in Petite Rivière on Nova Scotia’s South Shore.


Susan MacDonald’s custom riverstone fireplace at her cottage in Petite Rivière on Nova Scotia’s South Shore. Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

“They’re terrible for efficiency. It’s like having an open window. This is a big, massive chimney with a piece of metal that shuts down for the winter,” she says. “They don’t suit a tight, energy-efficient home, but they suit a summer house, that’s for sure.” 

She enlisted now-late mason Lender Bowles to build the living room fireplace and stone chimney, along with an outdoor fireplace in a corner on the wrap-around veranda. He arrived with a notebook tucked in his shirt pocket, which he’d take out to jot down calculations for the angles for his version of a Rumford fireplace, a 1795-design by American-born Loyalist Benjamin Thomson. With its taller and shallower opening, the style generates a stronger draw for smoke and radiates more heat than other fireplaces.

Bowles picked river rock from a quarry and the side of the highway.

“He liked to think he was a bit of an artist with his stonework,” says MacDonald. “He chose a header piece for along the top of the opening specifically because it had the pound marks from the machinery that they use at the quarry to hit the rock until it breaks. He thought that was kind of cool.”

The wooden mantel matches the Douglas fir timbers milled for the cottage floors that came from a warehouse demolition in New York. “They were brought up and originally were going to be used as a boat,” says MacDonald. “Something happened, they changed their mind, and we ended up getting them.”

Susan MacDonald (right) and her daughter Abby enjoy a fire in the outdoor stone fireplace at their cottage in Petite Rivière, N.S. Photo: Bruce Murray, VisionFire

The fireplace burns most days in spring and fall to take the chill off, she says. “We’re here for Christmas and it needs to be on at Christmas to warm us up.”

The outdoor fireplace is a summer-evening gathering spot. “I can’t imagine a cottage or beach house without a fireplace,” she says.

Cow Bay, N.S. mason Patrick Mullen built a custom four-foot-by-four-foot Rumford fireplace and chimney with granite river-rock veneer a few years ago for a customer from the United Kingdom, where the design took over from the large-walk in fireplaces that were common before 1795. 

“He knew what he wanted and specifically requested a Rumford design and he’s quite happy with it,” says Mullen, who owns Briar Masonry. “But I’m still certain from a tech perspective, he would have gotten a better heat value from a factory-built, zero-clearance fireplace. You really can’t beat the comparison to an insulated chimney. The warmer that pipe stays, the better it’s going to draw. Masonry takes quite a while to heat up.”

Mullen says the aesthetics of inserts and factory-built steel fireplaces are comparable to classic open-flame masonry ones. 

“With the new factory-built fireplaces, you can take the doors off and light a fire so it would look like you’re looking at stone. When we put those in, there’s very little steel showing. It’s mostly cladded in masonry.”

The modern choice

Mullen seldom gets requests for open-flame masonry fireplaces. When money is not an object, many homeowners opt for large, factory-built steel fireplaces with stone cladding, or wood-burning inserts with Selkirk flues to go in existing fireplaces, which can throw off heat like a wood stove. 

As storms like September’s hurricane-force Fiona become the norm rather than once-in-a-generation events, demand is heating up for fireplaces and woodstoves. 

“We’ve had a ton of calls from people. For the first time, it’s crossed their minds, ‘Hey, I wish I had an insert in my fireplace,’” Mullen says. “A lot of people inherited old fireplaces when they purchased a home, so there’s already the infrastructure there. Rather than set up a wood stove, a lot of people will choose to retrofit their fireplace. It’s usually a little cheaper if you already have a masonry chimney.”

Wood still strong

Wood is this country’s original heating fuel and continues to be an efficient and economical way to heat a home as a primary source, or to supplement another heating system such as an oil-fired furnace or heat pump. 

“It’s in our blood in Atlantic Canada. Anybody you meet here generally enjoys sitting around a campfire, and enjoys burning wood,” says Mullen. “I worked in Alberta, and it doesn’t cross their minds to burn wood as a source of heat. It’s part of how things have always been done here.” 

But natural gas, propane and electric are also gaining in popularity. Many homeowners appreciate the ease of flicking a switch and are glad not to have to lug firewood or deal with the mess of soot, ash and dust.

“It’s definitely a different type of heat,” says Mullen. “I’ve explained that to people. Wood is going to give you a nice, longer-lasting dry heat, but it’s going to take about an hour to warm that room up. If it’s a Saturday, and you like to light it first thing in the morning, you’re going to have a nice warm room all day. But if you’re coming in to watch TV and it’s freezing, you may just want to flick a switch and turn it on.”

Everyone wants a fireplace

Contractor Brett O’Halloran, who owns Shoreline Construction in Cornwall, P.E.I., says customer requests for fireplaces are the norm, whether it’s new construction or renovations to an existing home. 

“Without a fireplace, your room is kind of plain,” he says. “When you put in a fireplace and a mantle, all of a sudden the room comes alive. Whether it’s 16 inches or two feet out from the wall, it adds a new dimension to the room and becomes the focal point. Everybody wants to stare at that fireplace.”

Custom mantels are part of the appeal. “They vary from solid wood to faux wood to slabs of wood. They seem to all be wood,” says O’Halloran. “For my own personal fireplace, we have a solid piece of hemlock. Other fireplaces might look like a solid piece of wood, but they’re just hollowed out.” 

Photo: Steve Smith, VisionFire

On the island, a lot of people are going for electric heat, a cheaper alternative with an expensive look, he says. “It gives you that rich feel, but you’re not paying $8,000 to $10,000 for the unit. You’re paying $500 to $1,000 and getting the same effect. When you walk up to it, you wouldn’t even know the difference.”

Instead of faux wood in electric or propane fireplaces, customers are opting for river rock or crystals, he says.

And in many cases, old-school brick and stone is getting ditched for a sleeker look, with options such as see-through fireplaces that can be viewed from, say, both a kitchen and living room, he says. “It’s all so modern. Even in a rustic home, nobody wants the fake wood look.”

For the surrounds, when clearances from burning wood aren’t a concern, shiplap is all the rage, he says. “It’s very popular. You get that rustic, sort of cottage, boho kind of feel.”

He notes that hearths have fallen out of favour with his customers.

“I think it’s a thing of the past. If you go out into the country in New Brunswick, you’re probably going to get a stone fireplace with a hearth that looks amazing,” he says. “Everybody here says, ‘Clean lines, clean lines.’ You want to keep everything just flowing through the room.”

Antigonish mason Francis Arsenault says people are showing a definite preference for stone over brick. 

According to mason Francis Arsenault, stone is typically more popular than brick. Shown here is the outdoor fireplace at Arsenault’s home in Antigonish, N.S. Photo: Steve Smith, VisionFire

Back when his grandfather Wilford “Papa” Arsenault moved to the town from Tracadie, N.B. in 1934 to construct the stone buildings at St. Francis Xavier University, fireplaces were made of chunks of granite and other stone hand cut to four-to-six-inches thick. 

“We’re cutting our stone into thin veneer now,” says Arsenault, who started working in the family business as a young teenager more than four decades ago. “It’s roughly an inch in thickness. It’s a lot easier to lay the stone today because if you have to make a cut, you’re only cutting an inch. It’s a lot lighter so you don’t get as tired, and you can do more work.”

Arsenault, who now works with his son Matthew, a fourth-generation Red Seal bricklayer, says they’re busy, in part because there are fewer masons around.

He and his son construct outdoor fireplaces onsite at their business, South River Stone, that can be delivered, and also do indoor fireplaces and chimneys.

“Stone has always been in,” he says. “If someone moves back from Alberta, and they’re building the house of their dreams, they want to use local stone. We’re lucky that we have a couple of quarries that my grandfather had. It’s funny, the stones they didn’t use back then that were set aside, we’re using them now because all we need is an inch of them. 

“Even the farmers’ fields and the fences that they pile the rocks on, the fieldstone, we can cut that into a veneer and use that too,” he adds. 


Nothing says cozy like a fireplace

Options include:

The classic: wood-burning, open-flame fireplace

Efficient heat generators: factory-built zero-clearance fireplaces or inserts that burn wood, natural gas or propane

On a budget: electric fireplace

Get the look: a flickering flame on your flatscreen from a streamed YouTube video


Efficiency and extra costs

Wood-burning and gas fireplaces can add around 10 per cent to your insurance bill. Your insurer also might require an annual flue cleaning by a qualified chimney sweep if you’re burning wood. But, with an efficient unit, you can more than make up for the added expense by saving on your heat bill.

Traditional open-flame fireplaces almost lose more heat than they gain, with an efficiency rating of about
10 per cent. Factory-built options are effective heat generators. Newer models operate at as much as 80 per cent efficiency. Some pellet-burning models are as high as 98 per cent. Newer gas fireplaces have efficiencies that can go well into the 80 per cent range and produce fewer polluting emissions than wood-burning fireplaces. Newer wood-burning fireplaces are designed to increase combustion efficiency and reduce wood smoke emissions. 

Fireplace manufacturers provide efficiency estimates on their Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)-certified products.


Looking back at the fireplace over the years

The first fireplaces, developed in medieval homes and castles and essential for heat, light, cooking and baking, were more functional than decorative. 

Smoke from the fires flowed out through holes in the roof until chimneys were invented, an important stride that enabled the heating of multiple-storey homes, with fireplaces on each level.

In the 1600s and the early 1700s, fireplaces were deep, wide, open recesses, big enough to walk in.
In 1795, their efficiency took a leap forward when Count Rumford invented a firebox that was taller than it was wide and smaller and shallower than older styles with steeply angled sides. It was a design that threw more radiant heat. 

With the introduction of central heat in the 1900s, fireplaces shifted from a source of heat to a design focal point. 

U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who summered at his cottage estate on New Brunswick’s Campobello Island, popularized the notion of the fireplace as a relaxing gathering place for families with his Depression-era weekly evening radio addresses called “Fireside Chats.” With his back-to-nature movement that established national parks and forests after he became president in 1901, he’s also credited with helping spawn a shift toward fireplaces built with river rock or stone, a marked contrast to more ornate designs popular during colonial times. 

The fireplace’s long reign as a gathering place for families was usurped with the invention of the television in 1927. 

Now, with family members more likely to be watching their favourite shows on their gadgets or computers, fireplaces are making a comeback as focal points in homes.

Janet Whitman

East Coast Living