Factory-made fireplaces are popular because they are energy efficient and easy to install. Unlike site-built masonry fireplaces, they don’t need stout foundations under them, and they are less expensive. However, I often see them finished with scant attention given to creating a style that matches the homes they’re in. It’s not unusual to see the same “throw down” decorating answer in an urban town house as in a suburban builder-traditional: cheap tile and stock wood moldings pasted onto the wall, with little regard for pleasing proportions and handsome design. That’s not necessary, though. An affordable fireplace doesn’t have to look cheap.Basic pointers for any style
I’ve chosen four popular interior styles to illustrate how to dress a prefab fireplace appropriately for a particular room. First, I’ll discuss a few basic ideas that are independent of room style.
The best-looking prefabs fall into two categories. They either have attractive doors and facades (made of heavy-gauge steel or cast iron with long-lasting finishes) that are meant to be exposed to the room, or they have metal surrounds that are intended to be hidden by noncombustible finish materials.
When done well, those in the latter group can appear nearly indistinguishable from masonry fireplaces.
On the whole, hiding as much of the factory sheet-metal front as possible is a good start for a prefab fireplace. Read the installation manual for your particular model first to find out exactly what you can and can’t do. For factory-made units, manufacturers specify safe clearances to combustible finish materials in their product literature. These clearances are often less stringent than those listed in the building codes for masonry fireplaces.Consider proportions and finishes
Regardless of a room’s style, the size of a firebox opening (the “viewing area” in industry lingo) should be proportionate to the room’s size. Generally, the larger the room, the wider and taller the fireplace you’ll want, especially if it will be the focal point. A small fireplace centered in a big room will look insignificant, especially if the firebox opening is low and the ceiling is high. Some prefabs have low viewing areas, with heights ranging from 20 in. to 24 in. If you put one of these units level with the floor in a room with a tall ceiling, it will seem dwarfed, particularly if its width is double the firebox height or thereabouts. Place such a fireplace on a raised hearth, or elevate it up the wall to get the flames closer to eye level. Alternatively, pick a model with a taller opening, perhaps 28 in. or higher.
When I first noticed prefab zero-clearance fireplaces back in the 1980s, I saw a lot of shiny brass plating on metal doors, vents, and facades. I doubt that this thin-plated finish ever fooled anyone into thinking luxury. I find the polished metal distracting; the flames are what should shine. Although shiny brass and gold finishes are still available today, matte black and other dark tones work well with most decors. Lighter metal finishes such as brushed nickel and pewter softly pick up other colors in the room without being superreflective.
Regardless of the finish, a flimsy, ill-fitting set of fireplace doors will exude an “I don’t really care” vibe. Let door quality be a measuring stick when you’re shopping for a quality fireplace.