Just because cooler weather's on the way doesn't mean the backyard parties have to come to a halt. Today's outdoor spaces are planned with three-season entertaining in mind. Built-in fire pits and outdoor fireplaces can extend the fresh air fun well into the winter.
Crisp days, a crackling blaze, friends gathered 'round toasting marshmallows. Sounds nice, doesn't it? Lots of people are thinking that way lately.
"The majority of all new patios we install -- I would say with 80 percent of them -- we're installing fire pits along with the patio," said Brendan Gallivan, president of Gallivan Corporation, a landscape design, construction and management firm based in Troy.
Although portable metal fire pits have been popular on home patios for years, built-in ones have been steadily replacing them. One reason is because of the artistic element built-in fire features add to the landscape.
Designs range from rustic, fieldstone-flanked rings to angular, raised structures made from cleanly cut, manufactured stone.
Built-in fire pits can contain larger fires than the average 2 1/2-foot-wide portable pit, and that's part of their appeal as well. More people can pull up chairs and comfortably enjoy the fire's warmth. "People want a bigger radius," confirmed Anthony Reo, designer and part owner of Pearl Landscaping, based in Halfmoon. His company commonly constructs fire pits with a diameter of four to five feet.
Reo has designed fire pits for homes throughout the Capital District in two different styles: sunken and raised. Sunken pits are dug about 1 1/2 feet into the ground and provide a more woodsy, natural look.
The elevated fire pits are typically 12 to 18 inches high. All immediately draw the eye, even when there's no fire going, and can be a showcase for interesting stonework.
"We usually do sitting walls around those, with lighting that goes around the back ends of them," Reo noted.
Fire pits can be wood burning, gas-fired or both. The wood burning type is less expensive to install.
A wood fire also offers the crackle of flames, that campfire smell, and fond memories of Scout camp. But, there are drawbacks: you have to hunt up firewood, and have a spot to keep extra wood dry. And if your Scouting skills are a little rusty, starting a wood fire -- and keeping it going -- can be a challenge.
Gas-burning fire pits are more convenient: there's no wood to haul, no fire-tending required, no smoke in your face, no ashes to clean up, and they're simple to light.
The downside: installation is more involved, the flames don't crackle and the natural gas or propane used to fuel the fire can get expensive.
Masonry fireplaces, both wood-burning and gas-fired, are also making an appearance in many local outdoor spaces. They're more elegant than fire pits, but pricier to have built. Complete with a chimney, hearth, and sometimes even a mantle, they're a major focal point, so it's important that the design complement the home's architecture and the existing landscaping.
"We can mix between manufactured stone and natural stone, depending on what is around the property currently and what the patio is going to be. We choose a complimenting stone," said Gallivan. Popular natural stone choices are bluestone, limestone, marble and granite.
Although they make a stunning addition to an outdoor space, fireplaces don't offer the same social appeal that fire pits do, said Reo.
"They're very, very popular, but if you and me are sitting here and you say, 'I don't know which one to do,' honestly, I am going to tell you to do a fire pit, because I think it's more for the entertaining purpose, for gatherings. You can sit around it, versus facing it, so the fire pit is really nice." Fire pits also provide more warmth than an enclosed fireplace, but the 360-degree access to open flames can be a hazard if young children are present.
Unlike plopping a portable fire pit onto your patio, adding a permanent fire feature to your outdoor space takes planning. Step one: check local zoning laws. "Everybody has a different rule as far as how big these things can be, and on positioning," said Reo. It's also important to check with your homeowners' insurance company to see if any policy changes will be needed.
Step two: decide on a safe spot for your fireplace or fire pit, which complies with local zoning regulations. Figure on leaving at least 12 to 15 feet between the fire feature and any structure, Reo estimated. The spot will need to be level and clear of trees or overhanging branches. If your fire feature will be a wood-burning one, it should be situated so the smoke won't annoy the neighbors.
Next, decide on a design. Your fire pit or fireplace should work in harmony with the rest of the outdoor space. Usually, it's incorporated into a stone patio, and will take up quite a bit of room, so plan for plenty of party space around it.
"Make sure you can have adequate space to put your tables and chairs," suggested Gallivan. "Knowing how many people you generally have on the patio is always a great idea too, so we can make sure we have enough space." It's also important to consider the positioning of patio umbrellas and other items that could catch fire if a wayward spark flies their way.
GO WITH A PRO
A design expert can address all of those issues and also help with plans for possible future upgrades. If you'd love a gourmet kitchen or a hot tub out on the patio with your fire pit, include it in your plan, even if it's something you won't be able to add for years, suggested Gallivan.
"We want to take that into account now so you're not going to have to rip any of the patios or any of the designs up and change them when you go ahead and execute that phase of the project. It's very important. It can save you a lot of money." Hiring a qualified professional to complete the project can also save you money in the long run, because if the fire feature and surrounding patio aren't built properly from the foundation on up, they won't last. "In the Northeast climate, any of the patios you put in really are only as good as the sub base that's underneath them," said Gallivan.
The contractor, he noted, should be "a qualified installer that has certifications and has a long history of installing any of the masonry products."
Drainage is another issue that is best tackled by a pro. "If it's not drained right, your project is basically a disaster," said Reo. "Water can cause heaving. We live in New York. We have frost. If water's not moved to the appropriate place, then that's what makes the work fall apart." An improperly drained outdoor space can also direct water into the home's foundation and basement.
Depending on the size of the project, there may still be time to have it designed and completed before the snow flies. And if not, fall is an excellent time to start the process.
"You can save yourself a lot of time by getting the design going right now, and if we can get a majority of the job completed before next year. If you start it in the spring, you get into wet season, where we're usually not able to get going on a project until late April," said Gallivan.
So don't let Old Man Winter chase you inside. Start planning that outdoor fire feature now, and before you know it, you'll be out there under the stars, warming yourself in front of a roaring blaze.