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Matters of the Hearth

Stoke the flames of your imagination with these fireplace ideas.

These unusual hearths are sure to warm up your design and decorating creativity.

Small and Solid A small firebox adds understated dignity in a neo-Craftsman setting. The surround is sandblasted precast concrete, while the hearth itself is limestone. An inlaid marble edge abuts a cast-copper frieze.

Southwestern Flair This curvaceous take on Southwestern style is both trendy and timeless. The smooth stucco walls, lighted from above, call attention to the fire without distracting from it.

Rock Around River rock, concrete block, and granite combine to form a dramatic hearth, which acts as a partial wall to divide a sitting room from a living room. The traditional shapes and forms still allow for modern furnishings.

See-Through Serenity Windows counterpoint a double-sided gas fireplace installed between two rooms, letting daylight and firelight through the walls yet controlling noise between the living spaces. The raised brick hearth provides balance for the white woodwork surround.

Clear Statement With sunlight streaming into the living room, a modern surround brings a wall of windows down to earth. At night, moonlight casts its glow on the room while the fire burns bright.

New Heights To create stature in a tall great-room, molding extends vertically from the mantelpiece to the ceiling. Custom cabinetry provides storage along the wall.

Enlarge Image A small bath takes on a luxurious air when warmed by a double-sided gas fire.

Tile, marble, brick, wood, stone, and concrete are all good candidates for fireplace materials, and mixing them can add to your options. A stone hearth with a wooden mantelpiece is comforting and familiar, for example, while a masonry fireplace with a marble surround is formal and rich.

Besides traditional fireboxes, wood-burning options include metal stoves, useful in smaller indoor and patio areas, and Rumford-style fireboxes. The latter are shallower than traditional fireboxes and are more efficient at radiating heat into a room.

An option popular in the West and Northwest is the pellet stove, which burns vitamin-size pellets made from compressed sawdust and waste woods. The pellets come in 40- or 50-pound bags, enough for several days' operation. An internal feeder dispenses the pellets as needed to maintain a set room temperature.

Gas-burning options include direct-vent and vent-free fireplaces. Direct-vent installations require no chimney or flue -- a wall vent exhausts fumes while drawing in outdoor air for combustion. Vent-free units are highly energy-efficient and meet stringent air-safety standards. (Still, California, Massachusetts, and Montana codes prohibit them.)

These two definitions will help you measure the heat of a new gas hearth appliance:

AFUE (annual fuel utilization efficiency). The AFUE rating is carried by any appliance that can be used as a heat source. It explains how much of the gas used by the appliance is actually converted to heat. The higher the number, the more efficient the appliance. The most efficient hearth appliances carry an AFUE of about 70 percent.

Btu (British thermal unit). This is the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. One Btu is comparable to the heat generated by burning a kitchen match.