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To the Hearth of the Matter
Builders Discuss Outdoor Fireplaces


Todd Kroger of Design Resource Group, a Portland, Ore., based landscape contracting firm, oversaw the design and construction of an outdoor fireplace in Oregon. "Here in the Northwest we are faced with many challenges, the biggest being weather," said Kroger. "For the clients to feel comfortable moving forward with this large investment, we needed to find a design that would accommodate all four seasons."


Natural Surroundings, a landscape contracting firm out of Mayer, Minn., built a fireplace and rear patio for a residence near the Twin Cites. As other landscape contractors have recommended in this article, the builder excavated below the frost line to prepare the foundation for the footing. Repeated freezing and thawing will cause structures not designed for cold weather to crack, lean and eventually fall over.

When it comes to outdoor living, fireplaces deliver a one-two punch; easily knocking out the need for heat while creating a welcoming outdoor living environment. After speaking with some landscape contractors who build these amenities, we learned there are a few things to look out for.

Blame It On The Rain
Todd Kroger of Design Resource Group (DRG), a Portland, Ore., landscape contracting firm, oversaw the design and installation of a custom outdoor fireplace for a home in the rain prone climate of the Pacific Northwest. Kroger stressed the differences between indoor and outdoor fireplaces lay in their composition. Outdoor fireplaces have to contend with weather all year long and need to be built using stronger materials.

"An outdoor fireplace is going to be exposed to things like rain full time so you have to be careful what product you chose," said Kroger. "You have to seal it up to keep the weather from putting your fire out and water from leaking in."

Over time, the weather can have costly effects on structures. If drainage for an outdoor fireplace is not planned, damage to the installation is likely to occur.

Nathan Boliek, of Maryland-based TDH Landscaping, managed the installation of a precast wood-burning fireplace. The topography of the build site necessitated the implementation of drainage through the front of the seat wall. "When you have the terrain leaning up against a structure, water will build up," said Boliek. "If you don't drain it away, the hydrostatic pressure will damage your work."


TDH Landscaping, A Monkton, Md., based landscape contracting firm, installed a precast wood-burning outdoor fireplace, firewood boxes and seatwall for a home in Baltimore County, Md. According to Nathan Boliek who oversaw the design and installation, it is critical to set the footing for the fireplace below the frost line. "In our area we have a freeze-thaw that reaches at least 36" deep," said Boliek. "With any kind of heavy structure, we have to have the footings below that to prevent the structure from heaving or sinking." The seatwall was covered in stucco and capped with tread stock. The fireplace and adjoining firewood boxes were covered in stone veneer and Foggy Bottom thinly cut stone. The hearth was capped with cut thermal bluestone.


All projects encounter obstacles. This project in particular necessitated the excavation and removal of a considerable amount of soil: 250 yards of it. "There was no back yard, there was nowhere to build," said Kroger. "We had to excavate and remove the soil mostly by hand because access to the yard was limited. This had to be done before work on the fireplace foundation could begin.

Putting It Together
TDH Landscaping built a precast wood-burning fireplace, hearth and chimney measuring approximately 6' wide, 4.5' deep and 10' tall for a residence in Baltimore County, Md. The unit was installed on a frost-free footer poured one inch wider than the fireplace. The entire unit, including the seatwall flanking both sides of the firewood boxes, was constructed using concrete masonry units.

"Although the fireplace itself came from a kit," said Boliek. "We custom designed and built the wood storage boxes that flank both sides of the fireplace."

Design Resource Group's Todd Kroger chose to freeform and custom build a wood-burning fireplace. The unit measures 15' tall, 8' wide and 3' deep with a 42" firebox. It was built using concrete masonry units finished with stone veneer.

The contractor installed a gas log lighter, which assists in starting wood fires. The mantle for the fireplace was made from reclaimed lumber, which was originally part of a dairy dating back to 1916.

"Custom fireplaces are a little better because you can meet the clients needs and wants," said Kroger. "They are not so ordinary like the things you can buy off the shelf at the store. There is more personality to them."

Weighing The Costs
The professionals we spoke with agreed that gas burning units are more convenient to operate and maintain. However this convenience comes at a cost and added complications.

"The installation of gas lines is a highly specialized trade." said Kroger. "Most contractors have to subcontract this work to someone experienced working with gas lines. This adds to the overall cost." Selecting fuel type is only the first step. If budgeting is a concern, Kroger and Boliek advised to check out prefabricated modular fireplaces, which are a less expensive option. "The kits come in pieces and form the shell of the fireplace," said Boliek.

"They are generally less expensive and easier to assemble when compared to custom units."

All Said and Done
Throughout this discussion with experienced builders of outdoor fireplaces, attention was called to a key factor in delivering a knockout punch - planning, which is crucial in all areas of the process. Any mistakes found after construction is completed can severely impact the success of the project and reputation of the builder.

"You have to research and plan to get it right," said Kroger. "Once it is built, it isn't going anywhere."



An Unorthodox Option

Modular ready, to finish (RTF) outdoor fireplaces have become an increasingly popular alternative to precast and custom-built outdoor fireplaces. These units are significantly easier to install and less expensive to build than the traditional free-form or precast units discussed in this article. These units can feature:

•Fully welded galvanized steel frames
•High temperature ceramic cement board cladding
•Modular construction
•Wood or gas configurations
•Ready to finish in as little as one hour

A version of this type of outdoor fireplace can be found at

As seen in LC/DBM magazine, June 2017.

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May 23, 2019, 3:06 am PDT

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