Water's cool, but now, fire's hot in outdoor decor

Features that extend the outdoor season see a blaze of popularity

Scripps-Howard News ServiceJune 14, 2013 

Just as bubbling fountains became ubiquitous backyard accessories, outdoor fire features have become the newest must-have addition.

“Before, almost no one asked” for a fire feature, said Michael Glassman, a landscape designer in Sacramento, Calif. “Now, almost everybody asks for it. Fire adds another element to the yard. It adds ambience and the drama of the flames. It gives you another reason to go outside.”

Of Glassman’s last 50 customers, “45 wanted some sort of fire element,” he said.

An American Society of Landscape Architects’ survey reflects that demand. Among the outdoor design features expected to be most popular this year, nearly 96 percent of survey respondents rated fireplaces and fire pits highly. The only feature that ranked higher: backyard grills.

“It’s a social center,” said Buzz Homsy of California Backyard, which sold more than 500 high-end fire pits and other fire features last year. “People don’t want to spend all their time at the patio table or dining area. (But) people want to stay outside, especially in good weather. … Primarily, there’s more interest in early spring and late fall. They’re a way to extend your outdoor season.”

Like the backyard grill, fire pits have gone upscale, made to match any patio furniture with such features as automatic ignition and a propane tank hidden in a pullout drawer. In an outdoor setting, they create instant impact with the push of a button.

“You can use them any time,” Homsy said. “You can even cook on some of them.”

Fire pits have morphed into fire tables, fire bars and fire banquettes. The flame area is surrounded by porcelain tile, decorative metal or natural stone. Slate is popular, too.

“They’re not ‘pits’; they’re furniture,” said Don Massie, an outdoor living expert. “They can be chat height (such as a coffee table), taller like a dining table, or even bar height. Manufacturers of patio furniture almost all are coming out with fire tables, too.”

The Home Depot has seen a surge in fire pits, and Hampton Bay’s wood-burning Collette fire pit ($149) is among its best-sellers.

“It’s definitely a rising trend,” said Stacey Spillman, Home Depot’s national merchant for patio and pool. “We see customers buy simple basins in multiples for outdoor parties. But we’re seeing more interest in fire pit tables with room for drinks or fire pit chat sites with matching chairs. The other major trend is pits fueled by propane. You don’t have to actually build the fire, but you still have the great look of the flames.”

When shopping for fire features, first decide what you want – easy flame or heat? Wood-burning pits put out more warmth.

For wood-burning pits, “you’ve got to get one large enough to actually build a fire,” Spillman said. “You absolutely have to have a cover or spark screen and a poker to move wood around. Look for proper ventilation – holes to allow the fire to burn. A good pit is not just a chunk of metal. And you want a sturdy stand – it is fire. You don’t want it crashing down.”

Propane-burning fire pits and tables have less fuss, but produce less heat.

“Most customers ask: Do you feel the heat?” Massie said of the gas models. “Yes, but it’s not like a heater. You’re really getting it for the ambience. Most of the heat is going straight up.”

In these gas-powered fires, the flames burn through “logs” (much like a gas fireplace), lava rock or glass.

“The fake logs used to be the only option, but now you can get fire glass in all different colors,” Glassman said. “It really gets the drama going on. It takes the flames to a whole another realm.”

Fire features raged through the last International Builders Show in Las Vegas.

“At the show (designer) home, there were outdoor fire pits, fireplaces, fire pots,” said Leslie Wheeler of the Hearth, Patio and Barbecue Association. “There was something at the front door, the balcony off the master bedroom, by the pool. For our manufacturers, it’s probably the fastest-growing category.”

A portable metal fire pot – something to carry to the beach or use at a tailgate party – starts at under $50.

“There’s something for every pocketbook,” Wheeler said. “For under $100 or $200, you can get wood-burning fire pits that you can pick up and move anywhere. Or you can have a fire pit in a coffee table or barbecue island, or create something built-in with natural gas.”

Glassman sees interest in fire as a natural complement to water.

“It’s the whole idea of natural elements and materials – water, fire, earth,” he said. “People want a combination of fire and water.”

Glassman & Associates recently completed a “fire fountain” for a California home. Accented by sculpture, a center fire bowl is surrounded by cascading water. The effect: instant drama.

As part of this same fiery trend, outdoor fireplaces also are growing rapidly in popularity. People have outdoor kitchens; now, they want outdoor living rooms.

Fire pits aren’t for everyone, Glassman noted. A fireplace with a screen for protection may be a better option for some families.

“If you have little kids, stay away from fire pits,” Glassman said. “They have a tendency to put their hands in it. A fireplace is safer.”

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