Yearn to Burn

Luxury Living: Area experts offer tips on how to create the perfect fireplace.


Written By: Lisa Strandberg


Elemental and wild, fire attracts us with its warmth, glow and power. It’s no wonder so many of us want a little piece of it in our homes.

“Want” is the operative word when modern-day homeowners choose a fireplace type and surround style, according to Steve Boegh, owner of Fox Valley Stone and Brick Company, which has showrooms in Neenah and DePere.

“People don’t talk about affordability, they talk about want.” He says, adding that a typical customer’s perspective is, “This is one time around for me. This is my dream home.”

To ensure a homeowner will love the reality of a fireplace as much as his or her dream of it, Boegh advises to shop early. “It’s not just for Christmas anymore,” he says.

Homeowners should determine precisely what they want in a fireplace prior to the design process. The reason? As passionate as a homeowner may become about including a fireplace in a new or existing home, practical considerations come into play, including the ability of a structure to support the weight of a fireplace and its decorative elements.

“The builder needs to know from the homeowner up front if they’re going to add a stone fireplace surround,” says Wess Ripley, vice president of Carved Stone Creations in Kaukauna, which sells custom-carved products made of natural stone. “All stone is going to be heavy.”

A clever remodeling contractor can work around weighty issues like these when adding a fireplace to an existing home, especially if the addition is made above a vacant space in the basement where supportive structures can be installed. Alternatively, says Ripley, “We’ve designed fireplaces that look massive but are basically built out with studs and sheet rock, and we clad it with slabs to give it the illusion of a big fireplace.”

The necessary venting also factors into locating a fireplace. Running a chimney through, say, the middle of the master bedroom wouldn’t appeal to most homeowners.

Lifestyle matters, too, in selecting the core of the fireplace – a wood-, gas- or pellet-burning firebox. “When people come to us, we ask them some leading questions, “Boegh says, listing several- “How do you live? Are you just home on the weekends? Do you want your fireplace to be aesthetic, or do you want it to be functional?”

With fireplaces that burn wood or pellets, replenishing the fuel requires more time and effort than some homeowners can spare. For others, nothing but the crackle of a wood fire will do. For those often away from home, the convenience of a thermostat-controlled, gas-burning fireplace that will keep a home heated and prevent plumbing from freezing during a power outage trumps all.

With the size, shape and function of a fireplace determined, homeowners shift their attention to its appearance. Often, that process begins with selection of firebox design elements.

“People demand everything from pewter to copper,” says Boegh of the hardware enclosing the firebox. Interiors available for any type of fireplace range from metal to brick to natural stone, depending on customer preference.

But the place where most homeowners focus their decision-making energy is the same place they will later focus their eyes – on the fireplace surround. With the façade, “the only limit is your imagination,” says Ryan Schleihs, owner of Cast Stone Studios in Greenville. The company custom-molds fireplace surrounds and other products from concrete.

“You can inlay different types of metal or glass. It’s a really versatile product that you can customize to your home,” Schleihs says.

So, too, is stone, with which Ripley says homeowners can do “absolutely anything,” assuming they’ve planned ahead with their architects and builders.

“A lot of times, it helps if they just bring in a picture from a magazine,” Ripley says. That image can help narrow options like whether the hearth should be elevated or flush with floor and takes a homeowner a long way toward selecting a material.

Travertine, marble, granite and limestone have proven popular with stone-loving homeowners in recent years. Each has its own character, which an appropriate design will enhance.

As the stone used to create Rome’s Coliseum, for example, travertine lends a timeless, Old World look to a surround. Its naturally pitted texture works best with simple lines rather than highly detailed designs. Marble, on the other hand, has a fine grain that artisans can sculpt into virtually any shape without loss of detail.

Again, a homeowner’s wants – and his or her bank account – determine what’s possible in terms of a fireplace surround, which can span anywhere from a yard or two to 20 feet or more.

Ripley says his company’s projects range in cost from about $4,000 to upwards of $40,000, depending on material, design and shipping requirements.

“We could have a fireplace carved in China where the stone is quarried in Brazil,” he says.

The prices of Schleihs’ designs also vary according to complexity. An array of thin concrete panels with limited detail might cost several hundred dollars, while a tall surround with columns and curves requiring a custom mold could run $10,000 or more.

Homeowners also have the option of brick or stone surrounds, which have become more customized in recent years.

“The biggest trend that I have seen is more complicated looks in mixing of materials and definitely more stone as opposed to brick,” Boegh says.

Integrating space for a television in the fireplace surround also represents a growing trend. “A lot of people are doing it because the fireplace it the focal point, and what’s the point of putting a fireplace in the room and turning your back to it to watch TV?” Boegh says.

Whatever you want – to watch the fire and your favorite show at the same time, to bring flames to life with the flip of a switch or to gaze upon something ultra-modern (or utterly ageless) – a fireplace can offer exactly that.