From time immemorial, humans have gathered around fire. Examples of Great Plains teepees to Mongolian yurts span the globe and share the commonality of fire as the absolute center of built space — a universal hub of heat, community and often food.
As the functional need for fire lessened with the advent of more convenient cooking and heating sources — early homes in Southwest Minneapolis, for example, were often equipped with “octopus” furnaces — the psychological and social aspect of gathering around fire continued.
Many architects, including Frank Lloyd Wright, subscribed to the doctrine that the hearth is the heart of a home. He went so far as to extend the physicality of the hearth beyond the confines of the fireplace into the living room — more traditionally with an inglenook, but later in his career with more modern variations.
Gathering around fire has shaped humanity for such a long time that even in the iPhone era it’s hard to imagine life without a campfire. But in more recent times, the thing that people have focused their attention around has shifted to increasingly isolating objects: trending from the radio to television to smartphones. The latter is a far cry from a gathering space and at best allows “parallel play,” with the occasional comment expressed to a neighbor.
Some homes buck this trend, however, and embrace hygge (the art of winter coziness) in all of its glowing glory. Locus Architecture’s first home was designed with a double-height living room “courtyard” grounded by a fireplace at the west wall. Incorporating a fireplace into the voluminous space has altered not only how people gather within the interior, but has also impacted the owners’ relationship to nature.
Architects often think of “bringing the outdoors in” by using large windows to extend views into the distant landscape, but the act of fire-making literally brings the outdoors into the home through multi-sensory experiences. The felling of a tree, the sawing of logs and the splitting of wood all take the family outside and expose them to the sounds and smells of the forest. A less motivated family might hire cords of wood to be delivered, but they still get out of the house to haul in the strong smell of oak on a crisp winter day.
The notion of burning wood might seem out of touch in terms of environmental responsibility. Making a mid-century fire used to mean sucking the heat out of the home and sending it right up the chimney. Such a huge loss of energy and comfort needn’t be the norm today. Wood-burning stoves have since come a long way, and there are many efficient options on the market for both standalone models and inserts, which essentially fill an open fireplace with a metal box with doors.
Wood-fired masonry heaters are particularly effective as they “pull” smoke through chambers surrounding the fire box to more thoroughly burn exhaust, thereby increasing efficiency. The heat of the fire absorbs into the surrounding mass of stone and, as the fire fades into the night, the mass radiates its retained warmth into the surroundings. Coupled with other ecologically savvy systems (such as high insulation and passive solar heating), a wood-fired masonry heater can be an effective solution to heating a home while eliminating dependence on fossil fuels.
While some may wish to limit their fire making to an occasional cabin retreat, the joys of a real wood fire can be found in the urban realm (without the efforts of making one at home). A handful of local restaurants use wood-fired ovens and some, such as Burch Steak, even cook over an open flame. Lynhall is one of the few Southwest restaurants offering a wood-burning fireplace to sit beside. If that’s not hot enough, you can get really close to a fire in the 612 Sauna Society’s sauna — heated by a made-in-Minnesota, wood-burning Kuuma stove.
Adam Jonas is an architect at Locus Architecture at 45th & Nicollet in Kingfield. Visit locusarchitecture.com to learn more.