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Outdoor fireplaces

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Phil Sarros | June 28, 2011

Let’s start with a word of caution. If you’ve never offered this service, then by all means start small. On one hand, a fire pit or fireplace is a fantastic add-on, loaded with opportunities for higher margins and profits. On the other hand, however, there’s potential for an inexperienced contractor to lose money if not designed correctly. A properly designed and installed fire feature should offer the client years of trouble-free function.

FIRE FEATURES. There are nearly limitless design possibilities, materials and sizes, so let’s begin by comparing the two main feature types: Fire pits versus fireplaces.

Fire pits are smaller fire features that generally cost less, take up less space, require less maintenance and can be constructed very easily. Fireplaces offer more elegant design options for what is often a much higher cost and can require an advanced set of skills to design and install. There are now a number of manufacturers offering kits that can, at the very least, allow you to build the foundation of your fire pit quickly and easily.

Your goal as a designer is to offer the feature that meets the need or desire of your client. In our market in Atlanta, there are more than 5,000 registered landscape companies and countless more coming into the industry, yet there are only a handful of companies that can truly provide elegant, full-sized, built-from-scratch fireplaces. And you can bet that they charge a premium in exchange for offering such beauty, as they should.

BUILDING BASICS. Many of us could argue that we’ve been building fire pits since we were Cub Scouts. But, believe it or not, making the leap from a circle of stones to a beautiful fire pit is not that hard once you’ve mastered a few basic masonry skills. Below is a list of the basic skills you need to build a great fire pit.

1. Common sense. You actually need this for everything you do, but if it looks ugly when you’re done, than it probably is ugly. So let your eye be the judge. You know what looks great and so does your client. This is a great excuse to build one for your family and get some practice.

2. Materials knowhow. Go to your local stone supply center and ask them to walk you around the yard and explain the different materials available for fire pits and fireplaces. Many stone centers also offer courses on how to construct these features.

3. Desire greatness. Remember, design options are only limited by your imagination. Get creative, offer something that no one has ever seen before. Everyone has stacked stone or precast designs. Try wrapping the exterior in colorful mosaic or glass tiles. Offering your client something unique will very quickly set you apart from your completion. Offer something plain-Jane and you might find yourself haggling over the price. Remember, people will pay more when they believe you can deliver something no one else can.

The same skill set is required to build beautiful fireplaces but with the caveat that fireplaces are not nearly as easy to jump into. On larger designs, you’ll often find a number of components such as flues and chimneys that require careful design. Improperly designed fireplaces can leave smoke billowing out of it rather than colorful fire and plenty of heat.

Don’t be shy about asking questions – lots of them. Ask your stone supplier, ask product manufacturers, take a class to learn proper construction and, by all means, take a bidding and estimating course so you know how to price them. Seek out a qualified stone mason, as this is key in delivering beautifully finished masonry work.

DETAILED DESIGNS. Don’t forget to thank your client when the job is complete. We have a local welding shop that can create rustic branding irons with the homeowner’s initials. We pay about $75 for these and small gestures of thanks like this one keep referrals coming through our door.

Again, starting slow is key and experimenting with friends and family is a great way to get some practice. Whether designing a fire pit or a fireplace, using fire brick and fire clay mortar is nearly guaranteed to create a problem free feature. Many experienced masons use custom mixes to create joints that stand up to the heat generated but regular fire clay mortar is a proven winner. We purchase this mortar through our local brick supplier, as many stone centers don’t carry this product.

Also, to answer the number one question I receive, it is not necessary to drain a fire pit. Sure, we’ve installed drains, but more often than not, we instruct the client to clean out the pit periodically and simply build fires above the water level. The first fire after a rain will evaporate the water to steam. We do install small holes for air flow, but we do not put weep holes at ground level because we don’t want dirty water to stain the surrounding patio. Most of our fire pit designs are built from a basic layout of a 5 foot outside diameter with a 3 foot inside diameter. The basic patio design is built on a minimum of a 16 feet diameter circle which will allow eight Adirondack style chairs to very comfortably be placed around the perimeter with room for people to walk around.

So if you’re ready to add fire features to your service offerings, than approach the challenge as a student of the industry. There are many resources available through the Internet as well as local installers and suppliers, so gaining the proper knowledge is easier than ever.

I recommend starting with kits and moving up to your own unique custom designs. Take proper time to bid the job correctly and don’t get in over your head by taking on a project you might not be ready to handle. It’s OK to subcontract a large, complex job and work alongside the subcontractor to learn the skills and knowledge necessary to take these projects on yourself. L&L

The author is president of Sarros Landscaping in Cummin, Ga. He can be reached at psarros@giemedia.com.
 

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