Fire features in America’s backyards are hot. In fact, fire pits and fireplaces are now the third most popular amenity among all outdoor living features, behind only general lighting and outdoor dining areas. And the fourth most popular item? Grills, another fire feature.
That’s all according to the 2014 Survey of Residential Landscape Architecture Trends conducted by the American Society of Landscape Architects.
Fueling the trend are more choices among modular products on the market and movement toward more outdoor living in general. An increase in municipal regulations that restrict or prohibit the use of wood is also driving demand for cleaner fire features powered by propane and natural gas. But at its most basic level, designers say, the primal draw of an open flame can extend and enhance homeowner’s use of their outdoor rooms.
“Fire features allow you to prolong the use of your backyard into the evening hours, especially as fall and winter approach,” says HGTV personality Scott Cohen, owner of Scott Cohen’s Green Scene Landscaping & Pools in Los Angeles. “My clients are seeking a go-to spot, a special space to get together with friends and family, share stories, and perhaps have a cocktail.”
As the popularity of fire features grows, the creativity customers want from these features is also expanding, with mixed mediums becoming increasingly prevalent. Using fire and water together has long been in vogue but has now evolved to more and more sophisticated applications. “People are really taking mixing fire and water to the next level,” says Lee Marbet, owner of the Rock Place in Nashville, Tennessee. “One of my favorites is when customers ask us to drill a hole in a boulder, and then pipe in both water and fire to go through it together.”
Combined with a basin underneath the boulder, the combination leads to a “lake on fire” effect that accentuates both the dancing of the flame and the burbling of the water. “Shooting that water and fire together creates a really spectacular look,” Marbet says.
Along with outdoor fire places and fire pits — elements Marbet refers to as the two “pillars” of outdoor fire design — other fixtures remain popular as well. Fire “ribbons” and linear burners allow homeowners to stretch the space in which they and their guests can gather in the backyard, especially since these features offer sight lines on both sides. Other standalones, such as the Cube, from Bethel, Connecticut–based Spark Modern Fires, allow for both accessibility and portability to multiple areas in the yard.
“That’s really one of the big advantages of propane,” says Spark co-founder Tom Healy. “Because it comes in a bottle, it’s flexible and you can move it around.” And as the technology advances to create more innovative designs, propane and natural gas are becoming more desirable for their adaptability.
“Because you’re able to control the flame appearance and heat output with gas fire features, people want designs that are beautiful and unique.”
“People aren’t looking at these fire features as an alternative or compromise from wood anymore, they’re seeking them out in their own right,” Healy says. “Because you’re able to control the flame appearance and heat output with gas fire features, people want designs that are beautiful and unique. They’re really focusing on the aesthetic of it.”
Throwing another element into the fire — glass — is a popular way to enhance that aesthetic, and create a fire and ice effect. “We’ve been using a lot of glass gravel, which allows the fire to reflect back off those pieces,” Marbet says. “When you run several propane flames through the glass, which can also be in different colors, you get a really stunning look.”
Cohen says combining different elements is a natural choice, since each element accentuates and draws attention to the other. Customers increasingly want a company who can work in a number of mediums, without having to contract out the job to someone else. “Clients like being able to use one contractor to build their pool and fire features,” Cohen says. “Combining skills, and reducing the need for your clients to talk to competitors, helps you one-up the other guy and differentiate your services.”
Using propane in those features can also help set you apart to your clients, while saving them money. “When you build a propane fire feature, the cost of construction is lower because you’re not doing as much plumbing,” Marbet says. “You also don’t have to engineer it to draw air like you do with wood. Basically, with propane for the fire feature, it’s cleaner, there’s no hassle, and you can turn it on and run with it.”