- The Washington Times - Friday, November 6, 2009

Fireplaces evoke nostalgic memories of families gathered around a glowing fire, listening to crackles and pops while watching orange and gold flames dance. Yet today’s fireplaces are not the utilitarian brick structures of the past. Homeowners interested in adding or upgrading a fireplace have an astounding variety of choices - from wood-pellet stoves to outdoor fire pits and even gas fireplaces with creative surrounds.

Mark Ramos, general manager of Offenbacher’s in Lanham, says customers were concerned last year about the rising costs of fuel, so wood-pellet stoves and wood-burning inserts for fireplaces were hot items. This year, the cost of fuel has dropped, so customers are clamoring for gas logs and inserts.

The gas inserts, which can be installed in an existing fireplace, provide a powerful heating source and don’t have the associated hassle, ash and smell associated with wood-burning fireplaces.

“They can include a remote control for the flame and the blower - it’s an all-in-one product,” says Mr. Ramos.

Customers often choose to frame the firebox with marble, granite or cast stone.

For those who prefer the traditional beauty of a wood-burning fireplace, Mr. Ramos recommends the “Heat Champion” by Stoll Fireplace Inc., a product that has recently hit the market. This innovative new unit uses wood but efficiently provides heat via heat-exchange tubes that surround the sides, backs and bottom of the firebox.

“For customers who can’t afford to redo their whole fireplace and get a complete wood-burning insert [that can cost up to $4,000], it’s a good midprice solution,” Mr. Ramos says.

Setting up an energy-efficient fireplace can help at tax time. As part of the economic stimulus legislation, homeowners who install qualifying biomass-burning stoves (that use wood or pellet fuel) or fireplace inserts are eligible to receive a federal tax credit of 30 percent of the cost - up to a maximum of $1,500. However, the items must be purchased between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2010, and have a thermal-efficiency rating of at least 75 percent. For more information, visit www.irs.gov or consult the Web site of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association at www.hpba.org.

While energy efficiency is important, homeowners also want their fireplaces to make a design statement - whether going for a serene minimalist look or a commanding hearth.

Rich Cartlidge, owner of Bromwell’s in Falls Church, says his clients are seeking fireplaces that are louverless, not encumbered by metal and other embellishments, for a clean look. In addition, they are transforming the fireplace by adding custom screens or glass doors.

“Putting a glass door on [a fireplace] can give old metal a whole new look,” Mr. Cartlidge says.

A fire in a gas unit may look different from a wood-burning fireplace because gas units can burn multitextured glass pebbles, river rocks, and other stones that refract and reflect the light, adding to the allure of the flames.

Interior designers say if a room has a fireplace, it is an important element that must be incorporated into the entire design scheme.

“It is a big architectural feature, and it has to work with the house and the furniture,” says Lisa Adams, principal designer with Adams Design Inc. in the District. She advocates including the fireplace as a design element by either modifying it to blend into the rest of the room or using it as a contrasting feature.

Ms. Adams says fireplaces are not just located on the floor in the living room any longer. She has worked with clients who place them in the kitchen (to use them for cooking) or position them high up on a wall underneath a plasma TV.

With so many customizing options available for fireplaces, Ms. Adams says she often gets imaginative and uses different materials. She recently designed a custom mosaic tile surround, comprised of different colors of cut glass.

“Fireplaces are evocative,” Ms. Adams says. “They lend themselves to an air of graciousness. Even if you put flowers or pinecones in them [instead of a fire], they make a statement.”

When it comes time to sell a home, area Realtors say a fireplace can act as either a deterrent or an attraction to buyers - depending on the price range. Bic DeCaro, Realtor with Westgate Realty Group Inc. in Fairfax and member of the Northern Virginia Association of Realtors, says first-time buyers looking for homes in the lower range (around $300,000) are focused on saving money and don’t believe they get the most bang for their buck with wood-burning fireplaces.

On the other end of the spectrum, her clients shopping for high-end, luxury homes consider fireplaces a necessity.

“For my high-end buyers, it is about the look, and they will pay more for it,” Ms. DeCaro says. “For them, it has become more like a work of art, a focal point.”

Rachel Valentino, a Realtor and managing director of the Atlantic Coast Connection with Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. in the District, agrees and says fireplaces show up on the list of preferences for about half of her clients shopping for a new home.

“For it to work, [the fireplace] has to fit in with the character of the home,” says Ms. Valentino.

She says if the sellers have installed an electric ventless fireplace, potential buyers will usually want it removed because they would rather have the extra square footage available. (She explains the electric units often stick out a few extra feet.)

Ted H. Tidmore, owner and president of Holloway Co. Inc., an integrated landscaping/hardscaping company, says most of his projects feature some type of heat source - a firepit or a conventional fireplace.

Although outdoor fireplaces have been in vogue for a few years, according to Mr. Tidmore, they’ve recently become “standard” in his designs since outdoor rooms have become the rage.

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