Fire it up

Features - Firepits

Turn your client’s firepit vision into a safe, appealing feature that fits into the overall landscape design.

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October 4, 2019

© oneillbro | iStockphoto

Whether you’re in Tucson or Chicago, there’s one definitive smell that marks the start of fall when the first cool evening hits. “The entire town smells like a fire,” says Geno Neri, owner of Neri Landscape and Maintenance outside of Chicago.

With its familiar and primal allure, fire can extend the enjoyment of a patio or landscape as the seasons start to shift. Although it may not be a central focus during the day, a fire feature steals the show as soon as the sun goes down – providing heat and light that can keep the party roaring and set the mood for a memorable outdoor experience.

“The firepit is sort of the dream that people want when they come home. They want to hang out with friends and cook hot dogs and S’mores over the flames,” says Neri, estimating that at least 75 percent of the patios he designs and builds include a fire feature. “Fire makes a nice central gathering point, and it makes the patio go longer when we get cold nights.”

As the centerpiece of a successful landscape, firepits must be done right to be safe and functional, while also beautiful and unique enough to meet each customer’s needs. Here are the steps recommended by landscape contractors to design firepits that stand apart.

Ask the right questions.

Most of Bill Krause’s landscape clients come to Terra Design through referrals. “They’ll say, ‘I saw what you did over at Joe’s house, and I want that,’” says Krause, past president of the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association, who received the ALCA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. “But we have to design it to fit their needs, their personality, and their project.”

Likewise, before Neri starts any patio, he asks his clients plenty of questions to discover what they have in mind. “The biggest thing is the communication; really talking to them and finding out what they’re looking for and what they’re going to use it for,” Neri says. “The key is taking the time to ask the additional questions to get to the root of what kind of experience they’re looking for from their firepit.”

For example, if a customer plans to cook out over their fire, Neri wants to know how often and for how many people. These kinds of questions will determine the size and placement of a firepit, and even the type of fuel it uses.

“If they’re going to use it more often, like every couple of days, then I’m going to recommend a gas starter for convenience,” Neri says. “If someone wants a wood-burning fire, then (I ask) where they’re going to be in a few years. Are they still going to get the kindling and the wood to start the fire, or are they going to want something a little easier, where they can just turn the key and light the fire?”

Neri installs just as many wood-burning features as natural gas firepits. Generally, he says, “it seems like the men more likely want to build the big wood fire, whereas lots of times, women are just looking to turn it on and get it going.” If he has to mediate the two, he’ll suggest a compromise of a gas starter to ignite regular wood.

© alabn | iStockphoto

Follow safety rules.

Your client may have a dream of their ideal fire feature, but as the contractor, you’re the expert on what’s realistic and appropriate, according to local safety standards.

As much as customers love the idea of burning wood, it might not be the best choice – especially in dry climates. “Everybody loves the smell of mesquite wood burning, but in the desert, we have to protect from the sparks,” says Krause, who’s based in Tucson. “We have to put screens on the chimney as well as the opening of the fireplace, because we don’t want wood popping and starting the desert on fire.”

That’s why Krause tries to steer clients toward natural gas firepits with on/off valves and safety locks for more control. About 75 percent of the fire features he installs are fueled by natural gas – and since all gas pipes in Arizona require permits, he must follow city and county laws that dictate the size of gas pipe he can run to each feature.

While certain rules may limit the possibilities for firepits, consider how the stipulations might fuel your creativity.

“In our area, a firepit with a three-foot opening needs to be 25 feet away from the house,” Neri says. “That’s one of the things that we’re always educating our customers about. In yards with bigger patios, that’s not a problem, but if we’re on a small lot, that 25-foot rule can limit where you’re putting that firepit.”

Since the local code does allow a 30-inch temporary firepit structure, Neri often integrates that into small patio designs instead. “We might build a platform for that (portable firepit) to be on,” he says, “and we still design everything around that.”

Geno Neri estimates 75% of the patios he designs and builds include firepits.

Design with the flow.

The key to building a firepit with “wow” appeal is making it a cohesive part of the whole landscape.

For example, if fire codes prohibit a firepit on the patio near the house, Neri might move the fire feature to a remote corner of the yard, and then design a path leading to it. “We don’t want it to be an eyesore like a wishing well sticking out in the middle of the yard,” he says. “Sometimes we have to landscape around it differently to make sure it’s incorporated.”

Whether you’re adding a fire feature to an existing landscape or starting a whole design from scratch, the firepit needs to fit in.

“Form and function are key,” Krause says. “A lot of projects I’ve been to (look like someone said), ‘Oh, let’s just throw in a firepit,’ as an afterthought. The fire feature needs to fit the function of the landscape, as well as the look, the feel and the flow. So, when we do a project, we design the overall landscape as a whole package that all flows together.”

Selecting materials that match the surrounding landscape is the secret to creating firepits that fit. “You can’t just use some random material that’s not found anywhere else in the yard,” Krause says. “It needs to look like it belongs there.”

Awesome anywhere: Featuring natural materials allows you to spruce up firepits to match any surroundings.

Go natural.

Speaking of materials, Neri says firepits have been trending toward more natural products, like natural stone and boulders, instead of concrete blocks. By finding creative ways to feature natural materials, contractors can spruce up firepits to match any surroundings.

“We still do a lot of the concrete firepits, but we’ve been doing more of the flagstone masonry and other natural products,” Neri says. “If you’re trying to stand out and do something a little bit different, come up with a different combination of materials.”

For instance, Neri might cap a traditional cement block firepit with natural stone to match the accents in the surrounding seat walls and patio pillars, to create a contrast with a brick patio.

Krause prefers to stick to similar materials. Since rock gardens are popular in the Southwest, he says boulder firepits fit right into the natural stone surroundings. But he advises clients to stay consistent in the overall theme of their landscape.

“A lot of homeowners look on the internet and they’ll come up with a nice natural rock garden, and then they want a standard concrete fireplace. But that doesn’t quite fit with what we’re doing here,” he says. “If we’re doing a nice formal garden, then we won’t put in a natural boulder firewall that doesn’t go with the setting.”

© Iriana Shiyan | Adobe Stock

Create an experience.

Neri’s firepit business has been fairly stable, and he expects it to remain steady. Krause, who estimates that about half of his company’s projects include a fire feature, thinks this service will grow as homeowners continue to realize the value of creating their own resort experience at home.

“People are staying home more and not going out and blowing money like they were before the recession hit,” Krause says. “We’re spending a lot of time at home, so let’s have our own little resort in our backyard, versus going to a resort and spending hundreds of dollars over the weekend.”

As this trend continues, he sees more opportunities for contractors who can effectively translate a client’s backyard dream into a cohesive landscape centered around a firepit that fits the form and function of the space.

The author is a freelance writer based in Ohio.