Built-in barbecues were all the rage in the 1950′s. No garden of that era was complete without a Brobdingnagian tower of bricks on the patio. Despite their age, in my experience, few show any evidence of being used more that a couple of times.
This is further proof that fashion recycles itself. Just as horn-rimmed eyeglasses are now trending–if ironically– outdoor fireplaces and fire pits are currently promoted by landscape designers everywhere. Similar to exercise machines, outdoor fireplaces are always conceived as something that will be used all the time!!! In reality, their use follows an exponential decay curve–and the exponent is a large, whole, negative number.
Much of their current popularity stems from the rise of fireplace kits. Technology has certainly made them simpler (i.e. requiring less skill) to build. Every interlocking concrete paver company has their own stable of these beasts, all shown with evident pride in their catalogs, such as this one, from Rockwood Retaining Walls:
Most of these gargantuan piles of simulated stone have hearths large enough for animal sacrifice.
These looming monoliths subjugate any living thing nearby: a puny oak or redwood cannot hope to match the grandeur of this shrine human dominance!
Of course, for those at the tail of the use graph, outdoor fireplaces can be a fantastic investment, paying dividends of pleasure for years to come. Sitting by a roaring fire is universally enjoyed, The real question is, how often? Before you build, consider:
How will it look ‘cold’ i.e. when there is no fire? Will it block an otherwise attractive view, or distract from natural features of the garden? Will it be a *shmoo?*
Will it be used only occasionally? By how many people? If you want to warm a bunch of guests, you may be better off with a bonfire. Seriously. Even a really large fireplace can only warm a handful of people at a time.
Are you going to use it to cook? Really? Who is going to clean it?
Does your dream hearth accommodate a sacrificial virgin? If so, you may wish to make it smaller.
Design considerations: while most prospective buyers consider fire safety, few want to trouble themselves with the design details. If you’re going to use wood fuel, you’ll need to build in a ‘smoke shelf’ in the chimney, so that slight breezes don’t result in back-drafts. Is the chimney tall enough to provide for good ‘draw?’ This is the most common reason those 1950s versions were abandoned–it was too hard to keep a fire going. Can it be cleaned easily? Will it be a hassle to lug firewood to the location?
Finally, Debbie Downer must pipe up:
(1) Any outdoor heating is, by definition, wasteful. After all, absent an enclosure, you are ultimately trying to heat space itself–indeed this is the ultimate space heater.
(2) Are you concerned about your carbon footprint? Fireplace = Bigfoot!
(3) Wood-burning firepits and fireplaces are dirty. In the San Francisco Bay area, you won’t be able to use during spare-the-air nights, and even during the summer will contribute to particulate smog. Anyone driving a hybrid car shouldn’t even consider an outdoor fireplace.
Think through the ‘cons’ before you decide, and be realistic about what you’ll actually use. Size it correctly for your space. Pay attention to design details. And finally, consider using custom materials and design…either natural, local stone, or brick, or block and stucco, but puh-leeeease…no ersatz Machu-Picchu edifices for a simple back yard!