Tall House: Fireplace Decisions

One of the renovation challenges we’re trying to figure out at the moment is how we should handle the fireplaces at the St. Martin house. There are currently two existing fireplaces with mantels — one is on the ground floor in the living room (pictured above), and one is on the second floor (in a room the previous owner used as a dining room). Neither of them are working fireplaces. Originally they worked, but there was a renovation — maybe in the 1970s? — when they became decorative only.

As we’ve pulled up flooring and explored a bit more, we’ve also found 3 other stone hearths from earlier fireplaces (one of them we actually knew about when we bought the house, the other two are newer discoveries). It makes sense. The house dates to the 1700s, and back then, essentially every room would have needed a fireplace as a heat source (or a cooking source in the case of the kitchen).

I’m personally not a fan of keeping fireplaces around that were once useable and are now decorative. I want a functioning fireplace or none-at-all. We have three previously-functioning fireplaces in the house we’re renting right now, and though I appreciate them as architectural accents, it feels silly to have to orient a whole room around a large, non-functioning decoration/piece of furniture.

The house we used to rent in France, La Cressonniere, had two big fireplaces, and we would make fires pretty much daily through the cold winter months. Using wood fires as a major heat source is a lot of work. Keeping wood ordered and delivered, stacking it and storing it, bringing it in each day, prepping kindling, lighting fires, cleaning out the ash… It’s a commitment for sure.

When we moved to the Treehouse in Oakland, there was also a functioning fireplace — though we never actually made a fire in it. Hah! Partly due to concerns about air quality, and partly because it just doesn’t get that cold in Oakland. But I was fine to treat the fireplace as decorative, because I knew it was functional and that we could build a fire if we wanted or needed to.

The only other house we’ve lived in that had a fireplace was our rental in Colorado. It had a gas fireplace — you just pushed a button and voila! beautiful flames and a cozy living room. I was pretty snooty about the idea of a gas fireplace when we first moved in, and was sort of embarrassed about it — I thought it was somehow inauthentic, or pretend. But in reality, I loved how easy it was to use. It gets cold and snowy in Colorado and it was wonderful to have an instant fire whenever we wanted one (especially when I was pregnant and had a newborn).

These days, I’ve realized I really want a wood stove or wood fireplace in the country cottage — where we have plenty of space to store wood and make messes. But in town, I think I’d actually prefer gas fireplaces. And I think I’d get way more use out of them too. So for the renovation, I’ve been looking into gas fireplace options.

Much of what’s out there is really modern — and I’m not going for modern in the St. Martin house. But I found a source for gorgeous cast iron fireplaces and I’m kind of obsessed now. The company is based in England. (I can’t seem to find anything similar in France — but they ship to France, or we could just drive over and pick one up.)

They have a big selection, elegant designs, and each fireplace can be ordered to work with gas, or with solid fuel (there are even a few that can be ordered as electric fireplaces). Some come in matte black, others come in polished silver/black, and on most models, you can choose either (the photo below shows the same model in both matte and polished so you can see the difference). There are also several options that come with space for tile accents.

The two main sections of the website that we’re been looking at are the cast-iron fireplace inserts, and the fireplace + mantel combos. We’re not sure if we can save the existing mantels. If we can save them, we like the insert options. If we can’t save the mantels and need to remove them, then we like the combo options.

So now, we’re talking with local fireplace installers and finding out if they’re up for handling one of these cast iron options. We have a million questions:
– What do we need to do to the chimney to get the current fireplaces working again?
– Can the current fireplace openings be refit to work with a gas insert? Or should we stick with solid fuel options (like wood or pellets)?
– Can/should we add fireplaces back to the three bedrooms that used to have them?
– Can the existing marble mantels be repaired and saved? Or do they need to be replaced?
– If the mantels are salvageable, would the cast-iron inserts work with the existing mantel and opening?
– Should we forget about functional fireplaces and wall in the two current fireplaces (like they’ve been walled-in in other locations in the house)? So that we can use all four walls in each room and not have to work around a decorative fireplace?

A related question we’ve been talking about with heating experts:
– The main heat source for the house is radiators that are heated by city gas. Is it time to transition away from gas radiators, and gas/wood fireplaces, and go with electric radiators instead?

We’ve had two different fireplace installers and a contractor come to the house, and in each case they’ve been somewhat open to the cast-iron options, but also very hesitant. It’s a product they haven’t installed before, so they can’t predict what the process or problems will be. And all 3 pushed wood over gas — gas fireplaces are not as common here as in the U.S., so over course they are more comfortable installing what they are used to installing. If the cast-iron fireplaces were available from a French vendor, I’m sure that would help immensely — having to figure out specifications using a non-French website is tricky. But alas, they are not.

I’m very tempted to order one of the cast-iron options, just so the installers here can see it person. I think they’d have a much better sense of what the job will entail if they could actually see and touch the fireplace.

What’s your take? Do you have strong opinions on wood or gas fireplaces? Is there a functioning or non-functioning fireplace in your house right now? Do you like it? What’s your main heat source? Forced air from a furnace? Old school radiators? Electric baseboard heaters? Under-floor heating? Fireplace or wood-burning stove? (We’ve lived with ALL of those heating options in different houses over the years.)

43 thoughts on “Tall House: Fireplace Decisions”

  1. We’ve had both wood burning and gas fireplaces In Illinois. We prefer the gas just for ease of use and low maintenance. No ash, soot, mess. Granted we do not use it that much but, as you said, it is so convenient when you need that quick warmth.

  2. Our main heat is electric forced air (hate it). In the winter months we keep our fireplace insert going over the weekend and the heat is lovely and heats the whole house. The living room gets too hot though and I’ll be in a tank top. Keeping up with the wood is a lot of work and since we have a lot of free wood from local trees, it also takes a lot of space on the property for curing. Seems like a pain to try to do wood in the city and since radiators are a nice heat source the ease of a gas fireplace makes more sense.

  3. Definitely prefer gas in the home, which is what we have currently (one fireplace). No mess, no air quality concerns, ease of use. We save the enjoyment of a wood fire outside using our firepit or on our camping trips. We have forced air heat, I’ve never lived with any other type of heat source.

    Thanks for sharing the journey of updating your homes. It is so enjoyable to see the process and not just the before and after. The fireplaces you shared are beautiful.

    Soooo many decisions and things to consider, good luck!

  4. Have you lived with electric baseboard heaters in the past? Are you referring to electric powered baseboard radiators that are oil/water heated with electric and then circulated through the radiators?

    re: straight electric baseboard heating (no water/oil that’s heated and circulated): We’re outside of Boston and can pay as much as $500/month in heating costs in the winter….and we live in 1,000 sq feet, turn heat off in the rooms that we aren’t in (and don’t have pipes that could freeze), and keep the heat at 60 at the highest when we are in rooms. It’s hugely inefficient and we are counting down the days until we replace it!

    1. We have had baseboard electric heaters before, but that’s not what I’m thinking of. They have electric radiators here in tons of models that go on the wall where a traditional radiator would be installed. Very modern looking, so not what I’m wanting right now, but apparently very efficient too.

  5. Our home has two fireplaces — one for burning wood, one that is gas. While I love a wood fire (so cozy), we use the gas one daily in the winter — just posh a button and it’s on – no mess, no fuss.

  6. We have a wood fireplace in our living room but don’t use it for our main source of heat. Still I’m a wood snob too and was going to vote for wood until you showed the cast iron options. Holy moly, they’re gorgeous! I think I would go for that in hopes you could find more info from the British manufacturer that your installers could use. Of course if you could reuse the original mantels that would be ideal but I could really see that cast iron one in a main room. Fingers crossed for you.

  7. We’ve lived in lots of houses with all different kinds of fireplaces. We lived in Europe for 16 years and four houses we lived in had traditional wood burning fireplaces. Because that’s what everyone has getting wood was easy and there was a place to store it. Wood fires are cozy, crackly and smell so good, but are definitely a mess. When we moved back to the states our house had gas fireplaces and I thought I wouldn’t be a fan, but we use them all the time with just a flick of a switch. I love them now. Also wood fires are banned where we live now due to bad air quality in the winter. One consideration for you is resale. If you plan on moving in the near future locals would probably prefer wood. It would be a shame to cover them up! They’re beautiful! Try and figure out a workable solution! Whatever you choose I know it will be right for your family!

  8. I have a gas fire place in my condo and I love it. I had a wood fire one in my last condo and used it once.

    Doing gas in town and wood out in the country appeals to me.

    I don’t think I would change from radiators to electric baseboards. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in a space with electric baseboards and found it comfortably warm without a secondary heat source (fire place at home and electric heater at work).

    Those cast iron fireplaces are gorgeous.

  9. I too have lived with all the heat options. My favorite type of heat remains water radiators- they produce such a nice warm heat and remove the need for adding humidity.

    In our current home, we have have forced air, but we use it only as a back-up, and instead primarily heat our house through a wood burning insert in our traditional fireplace. We bought our house excited about having a fireplace, but found out that the chimney (which runs the middle of our house) would have to be completely rebuilt to be usable. Installing the insert meant that a self-contained stove pipe could run the length of the chimney and only the part of the chimney above the roof top would need to be replaced.

    At first, we were so sad to lose the effect of a large roaring fire in the mantel for a smaller, contained roaring fire, but four winters in, we love our insert! It does an amazing job heating our house. Yes, it’s a lot of work gathering, splitting, stacking, and moving wood, but it’s something we enjoying doing together. We’ve been fortunate to not have to buy any wood, and instead spend the spring gathering (we live in an older neighborhood, so trees are constantly be removing and neighbors are always looking to give wood away as it saves on the cost of removal for them). Also, we’ve found that the wood burning insert uses significantly less wood than a traditional fireplace. My only complaint is that wood can be messy when it’s inside. But, it’s worth it because we have saved a lot on our heating bills.

    1. How great that you didn’t have to rebuild the whole chimney! And I hear you on radiators. Ours our water (though powered by gas), and they are so quiet and so effective.

  10. I grew up with a wood-burning fireplace, and I loved it. Of course, I didn’t have to do any of the wood ordering, chopping, storing, etc., just throw a log on an already-burning fire once in a while. I’ve had gas fireplaces at my last two places, and I initially felt like you did – a little embarrassed. But in the end, we have used them every single day from November through March, and it’s so nice. The one we have now warms our entire first floor, so we keep our central heat temp set to pretty low. It also creates more coziness than I would have given it credit for in the beginning – it sets the tone of the room.

    1. Same. I grew up with a big wood-burning stove in the basement. Oh how I dreaded having to go outside to get wood! And I’m sure it was much more of a burden for my older siblings.

  11. Pamela Balabuszko-Reay

    Well first, I’M DROOLING over those fireplaces. I’d kill for one. Stunning.

    We live in Minnesota. So very, very cold winters. Chilly Autumns.

    Our first house was 100 years old and had a wood burning fireplace. I loved making fires. Everything about it. Stacked wood. Kindling. Making the fire and tending it. The scent and the crackling sound. We didn’t have kids at the time. We mainly made fires on the weekends because you can’t just make a fire for an hour after work and have it roaring and leave it to go to bed at a descent time. My husband did have asthma and allergies and he did react to the smoke.

    Our second house is older than the first one. It had a very old fireplace that would have been in need of a chimney rebuild. We lived without a fire for a couple of years and I really missed it. By that time we had two kids. It would have cost a lot to rebuild a chimney. We thought long and hard about a gas fire for a bunch of reasons. It would be an investment of about $4,000 to put one in and I was snotty about them. Then I started to think about how much I missed a fire. Getting a gas one would mean I could turn it on and off all day, every day. It would be safer with the kids. Plus it would be better for air quality for my husband and asthmatic son. We got one. It has a remote control. We use it constantly. It kicks out the heat too. We warm up our winter coats by it when it is below zero out. All it took was a simple tube up the old chimney. Easy.

    I personally would put a gas fireplace in every room if we could.

    It would be great if it had a crackling noise. :)

    Can’t wait to see what you do. What fun.

    1. Right? I feel like if I can get over my snottiness, the gas fireplaces would get the most use by far. And some of the cast iron ones I linked to are quite small — which is great, because the rooms in our house are also small (there’s a lot of rooms, but they are petite).

  12. Another thing to consider might be the energy efficiency aspects and pollutants released. Most of the heat in wood burning fireplaces is sucked right out the chimney and they tend to emit more CO2. Plus, wood burning releases a lot more toxic substances.

  13. We have whole-house forced air from a gas furnace. I’m happy with it. We also have a huge two-sided wood-burning fireplace, with one side facing our living room and the other side our kitchen/dining area. It is great for ambiance and works well but doesn’t actually produce much heat beyond the immediate area around it so we only make fires occasionally throughout the winter months. Seems like the gas insert would make sense for living in the middle of town, although I don’t full understand how the heat would be better/the same than the radiators that currently heat the house for you.

    As an aside, this made me think about how some cities in California are now mandating that NEW construction homes not have any gas appliances at all since natural gas accounts for almost 1/3 of U.S. carbon emissions (Berkeley was the first city to do this for all appliances) and electric is much more environmentally-friendly because the electricity source can be solar, wind, etc.

    1. Oh I think I wasn’t clear. We’ll be using the radiators as the main source of heat. The fireplace would really be more for ambience, but I suppose also a secondary source of heat — though that wouldn’t be the priority.

  14. What about having an installer come to you from the manufacturer in England, to assess whether it would be a good fit/option for you?

    We have a gas fireplace, and while I too was bummed it wasnt wood-burning when we moved in, it’s seriously so simple to use and we run it so much in the winter, especially over the Christmas season. In the end, it’s definitely the more practical option.

  15. Do the sellers/manufacturers in England have videos demonstrating installation of their products that you can share with the French installers? It might give them some useful information to help decide if it’s possible or not.

  16. Definitely try to keep the existing mantel and find inserts that work (aesthetically and functionally). Inserts rather than the whole unit would reduce the load bearing on the floor of your old house. You need to figure out the venting situation because of the CO2 issue with gas but a proper gas fitting contractor should be all over that. Re the gas versus electricity radiator question. I would be finding out how your electricity is generated, if with renewables then that’s better than gas but if it’s via coal that is much worse than gas for environmental impact.

    1. Skimming though the comments it doesn’t seem that any wett inspectors have chimed in. As an installer and inspector in Canada, I have lots of thoughts on this situation. Unfortunately I don’t have time to add them at the moment. I will say, if your chimney is wood heat ready it can be gas ready. Also it can have a stainless liner and you can add a hearth mount stove or an insert in most masonry fireplaces. Contact me through Border Home Inspections if I can help you more.

  17. we adore our pellet stove! it burns real wood (pellets.) Burns warm and clean.
    Saves us a ton of oil. Very cozy. Ours is freestanding but you can get them as fireplace inserts too. As long as you can access the hopper into which you pour the pellets. Pellets (in Massachusetts) are cheap and easy to find (they come from Canada mostly.) We installed our stove over ten years ago and get yearly maintenance and it performs brilliantly Fall/Winter/Spring ever year!

  18. I live in Queensland Australia so absolutely no need for fireplaces or any kind of heating here. I guess some people use their AC for heating in Winter but it is really not necessary. It rarely gets below 21°C (69.8°F) during a winters day. A couple older houses have fireplaces but I doubt they are in use. If I could I would live somewhere a fireplace was needed in a heartbeat. I think they are beautiful and hope you don’t cover them up :)

  19. Frances Eleanor

    Please don’t make the mistake of buying any stove or insert that your installer is not familiar with. I have moved a lot and when things need maintenance , and they will, it is best to have a product your local workers are comfortable with. It will also be easier to get parts. I have lived in France and have seen gas fireplaces in homes and hotels. See if they can recommend some brands to you.

    1. Yes, there are gas inserts available in France. I have several catalogs of them. But they certainly don’t look like these cast iron options. (If there’s a source I’m missing, I would sincerely love to know!)

  20. I have lived with both woodburning and gas fireplaces. The gas fireplace was convenient, but after we ran it every evening during a cold month, our gas bill was through the roof! I’d recommend checking on the price of gas in your area and how much gas the inserts you’re considering use.

  21. I highly recommend looking into a high efficiency wood burner. We put one into our fireplace in Colorado and loved it. It was an insert with a flue that went up our existing chimney. It pumped out heat and because it got so hot it really burned things to ash. We still had some clean up, but it wasn’t as messy as a regular fire burning fire place. Just a thought to consider.

  22. I’m looking into the same thing actually.. I bought a cast iron fireplace off of craigslist and looking to build/install for an electric insert. Its a great piece and should add a lot of “original victorian” character into the newer part of the house. Good luck!

  23. We haven’t had much luck with our pellet stove. We’ve lived in this house for 2 years. I think our pellet stove was installed in 08 but the fan (blower?) was loud and the stove needed constant tending. Then the motherboard died and we haven’t gotten it up and working this year. Pellet stoves to me are odd because it is wood burning but you also have to run electricity to use it. It seems like it would be useless if the power went out (at least the one that came with our house). However, there are cool pellet pizza cookers I should get to use up all my leftover pellets! Great topic! I can’t wait to see what you decide!

  24. Wow, those cast iron fireplaces are gorgeous. I didn’t know that was a thing (by the way, I just googled “cast iron fireplaces” and found a ton of antique refurbs that are truly amazing). We live in the PNW with two wood burning fireplaces which we’ve never used. We also have electric heat with a heat pump. Heat pumps can be pretty pricey but they are energy efficient and cut the monthly heating costs down quite a bit (from around $500 to $85-100) (plus they produce A/C in the summer). It was a great selling point when we bought our house three years ago. Can’t wait to see what you do (and I vote for bringing back the other fireplaces, too – even if you don’t end up using them).

  25. I am definitely pro Gas. Not sure about the fires you displayed, they looks like coal fires rather then wood fires at the most they may become gasfire. Furthermore I would say that they are not the right style for a French house. Nowadays a fireplace has to be something nice to look at in any season despite the fact that is switch on or not. A fireplace is a focal point in the house some thing needed to gather people around it or make you feel cozy and related. Central eating will do the rest.

  26. Go with gas! Love mine and it actually gets used. Those are great style options. Can’t go wrong. I love the Gothic one :)

  27. I would unearth (unwall?) ALL the fireplaces, in every room. Fireplaces forever, everywhere. I am Team Wood, all the way (smell, crackle and pop!), but gas has come a long way and there is something satisfying about an instant fire right when you walk through the door, or quickly prepare for last-minute guests. It’s about the same amount of cozy (mesmerizing flames) and probably just as good for ambiance. We are in the habit of wood fires — I think this is a pretty good kid chore (wood retrieval, fire starting, cleaning), so I have not recently given too much thought to the general inconvenience of wood. Something to think about! If you end up not going with the cast iron, I’ll bet you can visit some flea markets or the French version of garage sales/salvage yards and pick up some nice mantels here and there for any of the “new” fireplaces you may discover.

  28. We retrofitted a gas insert into the existing mantle, etc. The new insert fit the old space, but couldn’t be fitted around the existing outer tiles. So we had them removed and we redid the tiling ourselves- but kept the rest of the mantle. It looks great! I didn’t actually like the old mantle but once we found tiles that complimented it, we were glad we kept it. I LOVE the new gas insert- we spent a bit more to get one that stays at a set temperature (many just turn on/off all the time- like a traditional stove burner), and it has no fan- so it just radiates heat and does heat up the room very well. The existing chimney had duel gas/wood stove inserts and there didn’t seem to be a problem venting the new insert in there (although they suggested venting it through the back of the insert straight to the outside, which is more energy efficient ). Also, If I was renovating now, I would put in a heat pump which keeps the house warm (or cool) all the time, but only uses radiators/furnaces if it gets too cold. My friend has a multilevel house and said it’s made a world of a difference, keeping each floor equally comfortable, for less money. P.s. thank you for your blog- you are an articulate and thoughtful person.

  29. I’m in Australia, so heating isn’t a huge deal; when (and if it ever does again) it gets cold, we feel it, but it’s not life-threatening like European winters. In a family of asthmatics, we chose gas – our rentals had wood-burning fireplaces and made myself and my mother utterly miserable. Plus long hot summers and woodpiles generally mean spider infestation.

    We have a gas fireplace that looks real (I’ve been waiting for the same log to burn through for 10 years) and it is wonderful. Gas was more environmentally sound and emitted fewer toxins. And since we had – and have – pets, it was also a lot safe. If I moved into a place with existing fireplaces, I’d definitely change them over to gas vs restore the wood burning aspect. (Saying that we had an old iron wood-burning stove in my childhood home, and it was awesome. Best nights were eating pizza or pancakes off of it.)

  30. Hi there! Our house had a funky old mantel but the chimney was not safe for woodburning. We got a small insert that fit within opening, kept the mantel, and the sheet of metal that frames the insert and meets up with the fireplace opening had to be custom cut. We love it! Our insert turns on/off with a remote and has a thermostat and a fan that can pump heat further into the main room if we choose. We use it all the time in winter mainly for ambiance and love the convenience and coziness and that we were able to preserve the original mantel. Best of luck finding what works best for you!

  31. If the local guys are nervous about what you want to install, they may not know how to maintain it, either. Think about maintenance later– if you need to get the fireplace cleaned or something breaks, will the local guys help you? Or will everyone continue to scratch their heads as they stand in your home, staring at the beautiful thing you paid good money to install?

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